Having a Single Eye

by Lois Tverberg

Have a Single Eye 1The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. Matthew 6:22-23 KJV

What does Jesus mean in the strange passage above when he refers to having “a single eye”? Figures of speech in other documents from that time help illuminate Jesus’ puzzling words. Several idioms that mentioned the “eye” were about a person’s attitude toward others. A person who possessed a “good eye” was generous toward others, and a person with a “bad eye” was stingy and self-centered.

It has been suggested that Jesus was referring to having a “good eye,” but the Greek in the passage actually does not say “good” (kalos), rather it says “single” (haplous).

In fact, being “single” is not an uncommon idiom in that time, however, not in the precise sense we understand it today. Throughout the New Testament the idea of “singleness” (haplotes) is used to mean “sincere” or “undivided,” often in exhortations to have a “single heart” (See 2 Cor. 1:12, 11:3, Eph. 6:5, Col. 3:22). Sincerity and lack of duplicity seems to be the idea of the following passage:

The good man has not an eye of darkness that cannot see; for he shows mercy to all men, sinners though they may be, and though they may plot his ruin.…His good mind will not let him speak with two tongues, one of blessing and one of cursing, one of insult and one of compliment, one of sorrow and one of joy, one of hypocrisy and one of truth, one of poverty and one of wealth; but it has a single disposition only, simple and pure, that says the same thing to everyone. (1)

This passage describes a man’s “eye” in terms of his caring for the needs of others, and contrasts an “eye of darkness” to a disposition of “singleness”. The contrast seems to be between pretending to care about others with an inward attitude of self-advancement and of having a genuine concern for others, without hidden motives.

And, we do actually find the idiom of having a “single eye” in Jesus’ time too:

I never slandered anyone, nor did I censure the life of any man, walking as I did in singleness of eye (3:4)… And now hearken to me, my children, and walk in singleness of heart….The single [minded] man covets not gold.…There is no envy in his thoughts, nor [does he] worry with insatiable desire in his mind. For he walks in singleness, and beholds all things in uprightness of heart….Keep, therefore, my children, the law of God, and attain singleness…(2)

Here, the idea of “singleness” was associated with a freedom from envy of money. “Singleness” in this passage refers to a person of sincerity who does not have a secret agenda of self-advancement. This translates into a lack of covetousness and greed.

Now Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:22-23 gain more clarity in their context. Jesus seems to be talking about our attitude towards others. Do we have a simple desire to serve God by caring for the needs of others? Or are we insincere people who are self-centered and serving our own agenda? If all we recognize is our own needs, we are blind indeed.

To explore this topic more, see chapter 5, “Gaining a Good Eye” in Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus, Zondervan, 2012, p 69-80.

(1) Testament of Benjamin 4:2-3 The Testament of Benjamin is of the body of literature called the “pseudepigrapha” — Jewish writings from 200 B.C. to 200 A.D. that are not canonical, but are helpful for showing the cultural expressions and religious understandings of that time.

(2) Testament of Issachar, 3:4, 4:1-2, 5-6; 5:1 Also from the pseudepigrapha.

For more this, see the article, “If Your Eye Be Single” by Steven Notley at www.jerusalemperspective.com.

Photo: Vladimer Shioshvili and Marc Baronnet

Tov Ayin – A Good Eye

by Lois Tverberg

The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness! (Matthew 6:22-23 NIV)

Often things Jesus says in the gospels make little sense until we understand that they are Hebraic idioms and even lead to wrong interpretations. For instance, in the passage above, it isn’t clear why Jesus is talking about our eyes. The descriptive word for eye is translated “single,” “sound,” “healthy” or “good.” Some New Age teachers have said that Jesus was talking about the third “inner eye,” developed through meditation. An opthamologist has written a book to say that Jesus was describing a neurological condition!

Jesus’ saying appears, however, to be a Hebraic idiom that was used to describe a person’s outlook towards others. A person with a “good eye” (tov-ayin or ayin-tovah) was a person who looked at others with compassion and had a generous spirit, and gave to others as needed. The person with the evil eye (ayin ra’ah) is one who is stingy toward others and greedy with money.

This expression is still used in Hebrew today. When people go through Jerusalem raising money, they say, “Please give with a good eye!” The same idiom is also found in Proverbs: “A generous man (Literally, “A good eye”) will be blessed, for he shares his food with the poor.” (Proverbs 22:9) Jesus also uses it at the end of the parable of the landowner who pays the workers all the same, no matter how long they work. The landowner says to the complainers, literally, “Is your eye evil (greedy) because I am good?” (Matthew 20:15).

Understanding this idiom helps us understand the whole passage in Matthew 6 that begins with “Do not lay your treasures up on earth,” then talks about the good/evil eye, and then ends with “One cannot serve two masters – both God and money.” All three of these sayings are part of a greater teaching on having the right attitude toward money.

Now we know what Jesus means in terms how we can be filled with light and darkness. If we love others and help them by sharing our money and time, our life will be full of light. If we think only of ourselves and our bank accounts, turning a blind eye to the needs of others, we will be blind indeed.


Further reading:

See Listening to the Language of the Bible, by Lois Tverberg and Bruce Okkema, En-Gedi Resource Center, 2004. This is a collection of devotional essays that mediate on the meaning of biblical words and phrases in their original setting.

For a friendly, bite-sized Bible study of five flavorful Hebrew words, see 5 Hebrew Words that Every Christian Should Know, by Lois Tverberg, OurRabbiJesus.com, 2014 (ebook).