Jesus’ Strange Teaching About a ‘Single Eye’

by Lois Tverberg

The Bible is an ancient book, and the honest reader will admit that many passages are hard to understand. Sometimes Jesus’ words can be the most difficult, and prone to speculation and even misinterpretation. A case in point is Jesus’ saying from the Sermon on the Mount:

The 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. (Matt 6:22-23, KJV)

Every Bible translation attempts to explain this obscure saying by clarifying the phrases about one’s “eye.” Various translations use terms like clear eye/bad eye (NASB), healthy eye/unhealthy eye (NRSV), eyes are good/eyes are bad (NIV). None of these adequately explain Jesus’ idea to modern readers.

This opens the door for all sorts of interpretations. John Wesley, who lived in the 1700’s, interpreted the “single eye” as being utterly devoted to pleasing God, and the “evil eye” as having our interests devoted anywhere else, to distract us from God.1 While his interpretation is well within traditional understanding, others come to different conclusions.

eyeOne author sees Jesus as saying that we should deeply appreciate our physical senses and ability to see.2 In contrast, a well-known New Age teacher believes that Jesus was speaking of the “third eye chakra” or inner eye of enlightenment. When humans were first created perfect, she says, they were enlightened by this third eye, but after the fall, it is now only reached through meditation.3

While Wesley’s interpretation agrees more with the Scriptures as a whole, we still have to admit that he was guessing at the meaning of the strange phrase, without knowing its cultural context. Christians have the frustrating task of defending one interpretation over another, when are all based in subjective interpretation.

A Cultural Perspective — A Good Eye

A better way to discern what Jesus was saying is to look at his words in the context of his first century culture. All languages have idioms — figures of speech that don’t make sense literally, like “raining cats and dogs,” “beating around the bush” or “pulling someone’s leg.” We should expect that Jesus’ sayings may contain cultural idioms that we don’t understand.

Indeed, in the Greek gospels we find many idiomatic phrases that sound awkward or don’t make sense in Greek, even though they make perfect sense in Hebrew.4 By looking at the Semitic idioms in the Old Testament and in Jewish literature of Jesus’ day, we can get a much clearer understanding of Jesus’ teaching, and have more confidence about Jesus’ message.

One interesting hypothesis is that Jesus may have been using a Hebraic idiom that contrasts a “good eye,” ayin tovah, and a “bad eye” or “evil eye” ayin rah. The Hebraic understanding of “seeing” goes beyond taking in visual information in the eyes — it refers to one’s outlook on life and attitude toward others. It can even mean to respond according to a need that is seen. For example, the phrase Jehovah Jireh is often translated to “God will provide,” but it means, literally, “God will see,” meaning that when God sees our need, he will respond.

An idiom that emerged out of this idea is that a person with a “good eye” is generous — he sees the needs of others and wants to help them. In contrast, one with an “bad eye” or “evil eye” is blind to the needs of others and is greedy and focused on his own self-gain. We find these idioms in Proverbs:

Prov. 22:9 He who is generous (literally, has a good eye) will be blessed, for he gives some of his food to the poor.

Prov. 23:6 Do not eat the food of a stingy man (literally, an evil eye), do not crave his delicacies; for he is the kind of man who is always thinking about the cost.

Prov. 28:22 A man with a bad eye hastens after wealth and does not know that want will come upon him.

In fact, Jesus uses the idiom of “evil eye” for greed elsewhere in the gospels. At the end of the parable of the landowner who pays all the laborers the same, the landowner says to the workers, ‘Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye evil because I am generous?’ (Matt. 20:15). The Greek phrase there, opthalmous sou ponerous is identical to that in Matt 6:23, the passage that we are examining.

Interestingly, if this is our interpretation of the passage in Matthew 6, Jesus’ saying suddenly fits into the larger context of this passage. Here is the longer context of that saying:

But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. The eye is the lamp of the body; so then if your eye is clear, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light that is in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. (Matt 6:21-24, NASB)

Right before the “eye” analogy, Jesus tells his listeners to “store up treasures in heaven,” which is an idiom for giving money to the poor.5 Afterward he says, “No one can serve two masters … you cannot serve God and wealth.” (Matt 6:24). If Jesus is using the idioms “good eye” and “evil eye” to mean generosity and greed with money, the teaching about ones “eye” now fits perfectly into a longer saying about how to use money in a way that honors God.

Having a Single Eye

Any hypothesis needs to be re-evaluated in light of new evidence, and one scholar points out that the Greek wording of the passage does not say “good,” kalos, but “single, simple,” haplous. The idea of “singleness of eye” as a virtue is also found in other Greek documents from Jesus’ time, and “singleness,” haplotes, as a virtue is used several other places in the New Testament.6 This can also give us insight on Jesus’ meaning in this passage. One document reads:

“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…7

Here the idea of “singleness of eye” means sincerity, simplicity, and a freedom from envy for money. It is the opposite of having a “double heart” as in Psalm 12:2: “They speak falsehood to one another; with flattering lips and with a double heart they speak.” A person with a “single eye” is one of integrity who does not have a secret agenda of self-advancement. Along with sincerity of spirit, he also has an integrity toward money that keeps him from covetousness and greed. Another passage from about the same time also gives insight:

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.8

Interestingly this passage talks about 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 is between pretending to care about others with an inward attitude of self-advancement, compared to having a genuine concern for others, without hidden motives.9

Reading Jesus’ Words Again

In light of these idioms, here is my dynamic translation of Matthew 6:21-24, incorporating the idiomatic language he appears to be using:

So give generously to the poor and invest your energy and resources in eternal things, because when you do, your priorities and outlook will change. Your outlook toward others shows your true inner self. If you have a sincere, un-envious heart that wants to help others, your whole personality will shine because of it. But if you are blind to the needs of others and are self-centered and greedy, your soul will be dark indeed. You cannot be a slave to your own greed and try to serve God — you have to choose.

Evil eye - greedIn this entire passage, Jesus seems to be equating how we use our money with our basic attitude on life, and says that our generosity is the true measure of us as persons. When you get right down to it, if money rules us, God doesn’t. It is one of Jesus’ many teachings on money and what our attitude should be about it. In our materialistic culture, his words hit home.

This cultural study of the phrase “single eye” and “bad eye” can shed a lot of light on Jesus’ teachings. It should make us eager to learn more when we see that the strange phrases that we sometimes find in the Bible had parallels in other ancient texts that can help explain them.

Our interpretation of Jesus’ words can be much more solid, so that we have confidence that we are hearing Jesus’ ideas and not just our own. Otherwise, our interpretations are based on speculation from personal experience that can lead us down all sorts of strange paths, as some have gone on in understanding Jesus’ words about “the single eye.”

As important as it is to read the Bible accurately, it is even more important that once we understand Jesus’ teaching, we take it to heart and change our lives because of it. Are we people of sincerity and integrity? Do we use our money to help others, and find ways to meet their needs? Or, in our hearts, is our own comfort and wealth our number one priority? Jesus is saying that we can’t be his followers if we are greedy and self-centered. We need to choose who we will serve — God or ourselves.

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1 John Wesley, On A Single Eye – Sermon available at this link.

2 Herbert Lockyer, All the Parables of the Bible (Zondervan, 1988), 149-50.

3 Elizabeth Clare Prophet, The Lost Teachings of Jesus (Summit University Press, 1986), 281.

4 This is the subject of the book Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus: New Insights from a Hebraic Perspective by Bivin & Blizzard, 1994, Destiny Image Publishers.

5 See Matthew 19:2, Mark 10:21, Luke 18:22 and “The Best Long-Term Investment: Making Loans to God” at www.jerusalemperspective.com

6 See “If Your Eye Be Single” by Steven Notley at www.jerusalemperspective.com.

7 Testament of Issachar, 3:4, 4:1-2, 5-6; 5:1 (quoted in the article Notley article above). The Testament of Issachar is of the body of literature called the “pseudepigrapha” – Jewish writings from 200 B.C. to 200 A.D. that are not canonical, but show the cultural expressions and religious understandings of that time.

8 Testament of Benjamin 4:2-3 (quoted in the article Notley article above). Also of the pseudepigrapha.

9 James speaks about the wrongness of having a “double mind” in vs. 1:8 and 4:8 and the importance of sincerity of the tongue in 3:9-12. He uses a very similar phrase as in this passage in 3:9 — having a tongue of “blessing and cursing” — which should not be the case. A related word to haplous used in the gospels, haplotes, meaning “singleness,” is used often in the New Testament for sincerity, especially in exhortations to have a “single heart” (See 2 Cor. 1:12, 11:3, Eph. 6:5, Col. 3:22).

It should be noted that Hebrew does not use “single eye” as an idiom for sincerity. More likely, since Matthew’s Greek readers wouldn’t have understood “good eye” any more than we do, he translated this phrase by using haplous, since Greeks used it to mean generosity. Matthew would have been using a Greek idiom to translate a Hebrew idiom. This may also be true for the Testament of Issachar, which is preserved in Greek, even though it was originally written in Hebrew.

 

Photos: Normann Copenhagen; Vladimer ShioshviliInternet Archive Book Images [No restrictions]

Jesus’ Most Radical Teaching

by Lois Tverberg

When Christians begin to learn more about Jesus’ Jewishness, it comes as a surprise that many of his teachings have parallels in those of other rabbis of his time. For instance, his command to forgive others so that one’s sins will be forgiven (Mt 18:21-35) is found in earlier Jewish writings.1 Even when Jesus disagreed with others, he was not casting aside all of Judaism, but was usually affirming one rabbinic position over another in an area of debate. For example, when asked about divorce, he disagreed with the teachings Hillel, but agreed with those of Shammai.2 Rather than being entirely at odds with his countrymen, his ministry built on the teachings of his day and brought them to a new level.

Learning that Jesus was not the first person to teach some ideas seems to undermine his uniqueness. What about his teaching drew such enormous numbers of passionate followers? What about Jesus’ teachings was unique?

Jesus’ Radical Teaching

According to one scholar, there was one major theme of Jesus’ ministry that went beyond anything any other rabbi taught and was entirely unique to him.3 Not only was it radical, it also was central to his lifestyle, his teaching about the Kingdom of God, and his mission as the Messiah. It is the following:

You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Mt 5:43-45)

This is probably the most difficult command Jesus ever gave, and even for us today it might seem impossible.4 But understanding them in their context is critical for grasping the implications of Jesus’ ministry and our calling as members of his Kingdom.

“Hate Your Enemy” in the First Century

Scholars used to wonder who Jesus was quoting as saying, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” It is not in the Scriptures, and the rabbis of Jesus’ time did not teach this. The Dead Sea Scrolls finally gave an answer by revealing that one group of Jesus’ contemporaries, the Essenes, took an oath twice each day to “to hate forever the unjust and to fight together with the just.” They referred to themselves as the “Sons of Light” who shared an “eternal but concealed hatred of the men of the Pit,” as they awaited the Day of Vengeance — the great war when they would destroy the “Sons of Darkness.”5

Like others of the time, their understanding from the Scriptures was that God would establish his Kingdom on earth by destroying his enemies. To them it was a good thing to hate their enemies, who were the enemies of God. God’s “enemies” were not just the national enemies of Israel, but all sinners. Many passages in the Old Testament equate sinfulness with being God’s enemies, like “For surely your enemies, O LORD, surely your enemies will perish; all evildoers will be scattered.” Psa. 92:9. Obviously they felt that if they should hate God’s enemies, the sinners of the world, they were among the righteous themselves.

In contrast, among the rabbis there were some who, like Jesus, pointed out that God shows mercy toward sinners. It was said, “The day of rain is greater than the resurrection of the dead, because the resurrection of the dead benefits only the righteous, but rain benefits both the righteous and the unrighteous.6 Like Jesus, they pointed out that God cares for even those who hate him by providing for their needs. Someday judgment would come to everyone, but before then, God shows his kindness to everyone in the world. Jesus went beyond this, however, to challenge his listeners to share God’s unlimited love to even their worst enemies.

The Son of Man – Judge of God’s Enemies

Jesus pacifies two warriorsJesus’ understanding of God’s mercy toward his enemies was central to his teaching about the Kingdom, and part of his radical challenge to the common belief about the Messiah. Most believed that the Messiah would be a warrior king who would liberate God’s people from his enemies.7 In ancient times, kings acted as the supreme judge of their land, and the Messianic King would do so as well. He would be the judge that would bring the Kingdom of God to earth by destroying the evil of the world.

One of the titles of the Messiah that was most strongly linked to the role of judge was the “Son of Man,” because in Daniel 7, it speaks of the Messiah being led into the heavenly courtroom where the book of judgment was open, and being given authority by God to reign over and judge humanity:

The court was seated, and the books were opened…

In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. (Dan 7:10, 13-14)

Several New Testament passages speak about the Son of Man as judge, including, “[God] has given him authority to judge because he is the Son of Man” (Jn 5:27), and Rev. 14:14, in which the Son of Man carries a sickle for the final harvest of judgment. Often Jesus referred to himself as the “Son of Man,” and he also used the term to speak about the coming judgment: “For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done” (Mt 16:27). However, he consistently spoke of this as in the future, and stressed that now was the time of God’s mercy.

Fascinatingly, Jesus uses the title, “Son of Man” to show his authority to forgive sins as well. When the paralyzed man was lowered into the room by his friends, Jesus said, “But, so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,” He said to the paralytic, “I say to you, get up, and pick up your stretcher and go home” (Lk 5:24). Jesus is the Messianic Judge with the capacity to forgive or condemn, and he used his power to forgive.

Another powerful example is in the story of Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector who repented of his corruption. Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19:9-10). Jewish tax collectors were considered traitors because they had “sold out” to their Roman oppressors and profited from their own people’s misery. Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector who had become very rich at others’ expense, and certainly he was considered a great sinner and God’s “enemy.” But yet when he repented, Jesus used his authority as the Son of Man to proclaim salvation to him from his sins. Jesus, as the King and Judge, was expanding his Kingdom through mercy, as he forgave God’s enemies instead of condemning them.8

Expanding the Kingdom by Forgiving Enemies

The scandal of the Gospel was that everyone thought that the Messiah was going to establish God’s Kingdom by destroying God’s enemies, but Jesus was bringing God’s Kingdom by showing God’s love for his enemies instead. As their King, he personally would suffer for their sins and purchase their forgiveness. Paul says this very thing:

But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us…. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. (Rom 5:8, 10)

Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation. (Col 1:21-22)

For many in the early Jewish church, the most shocking and scandalous application of this truth was that God’s love extended even to Gentiles. Many laws were in place to keep Jews from being defiled by contact with “Gentile sinners” (Gal 2:15), who as a group were thought to be characterized by the three most terrible crimes in Jewish law: idolatry, sexual immorality and murder. With this dim view of the Gentiles as “enemies of God,” we can imagine the surprise when God poured out his Spirit on them! It took a special vision from God to convince Peter that he could even enter a Gentile home (Acts 10:28). Paul was a perfect apostle to them, as a former enemy to all God was doing through the early church. Such was God’s amazing love.

Being a Part of the Kingdom of Mercy

It is only when we see ourselves as God’s former enemies that we realize that our admittance into his Kingdom was because God’s love for his enemies extends even to us. Perhaps the reason that the Gospel was so difficult for many to accept was that Jesus’ listeners saw themselves as already “on God’s side,” as righteous victims of suffering at the hands of the Romans, and felt justified in wanting God to destroy them. They were happy to read about God’s coming judgment in the Scriptures. It was the prostitutes and tax collectors who could see themselves as “enemies” that wanted to take up this offer of forgiveness. Only when we see that we are saved by God’s amazing love do we realize our obligation to show the same kind of love to others as well.

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1 Joshua Ben Sirach said in approximately 180 BC, “Forgive your neighbor’s injustice; then, when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven. Should a person nourish anger against another, and expect healing from the Lord? Should a person refuse mercy to a man like himself, yet seek pardon for his own sins? (Sirach 28:2-4) Jesus built on this teaching in a powerful way in the parable of the Good Samaritan — see the article, Loving Your Neighbor, Who is Like You.

2 See “‘And’ or ‘In Order to’ Remarry” by David Bivin, available at www.jerusalemperspective.com.*

3 From a lecture entitled, “Do this and Live: The Ethics of Jesus,” available as part of an audio seminar from En-Gedi called, “The Gospel of Jesus and John the Baptist,” by Dr. Steven Notley.

4 It sounds as if Jesus is advocating complete pacifism, which was most likely not true. See “Do Not Resist Evil: Jesus’ View of Pacifism” at www.jerusalemperspective.com.*

5 See the Manual of Discipline 9.21–23 and The Jewish War 2:139, by Josephus. Quotes are from “Us and Them: Loving Both,” available at www.jerusalemperspective.com.*

6 Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 7a

7 For more about the common misunderstanding of the Messiah and Jesus’ teachings to challenge it, see “Jesus’ Messianic Surprise: A Kingdom of Mercy,” and “The Kingdom of Heaven is Good News!

8 See “Why Did Jesus call himself the ‘Son of Man’?” for a fascinating theory of why Jesus spoke of the “Son of Man” as both innocent victim and final judge.

* The three articles cited above by David Bivin are available in his book published by En-Gedi, New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus: Insights from His Jewish Context.

Photos: Rufus Sarsaparilla, “Brindle Boxer and house cat.” “Jesus pacifies two warriors,” originally painted by Anton von Werner [Public domain].

Searching Shepherd

by Lois Tverberg

Which of you, if he has a hundred sheep and loses one of them, would not leave the ninety-nine in open pasture and go and look for the one that was lost until he finds it? Then when he has found it, he places it on his shoulders, rejoicing….Luke 15:4-7

Interestingly, Jesus wasn’t the only rabbi to tell parables about shepherds looking for sheep. Another person said,

When a sheep strays from the pasture, who seeks whom? Does the sheep seek the shepherd, or the shepherd seek the sheep? Obviously, the shepherd seeks the sheep. In the same way, the Holy One, blessed be He, looks for the lost.(1)

Searching Shepherd2Both Jesus’ words in Luke 15 (above) and this parable are about repentance. Jesus talks about God having joy at repentance, and this other rabbinic parable says even that when a person repents, ultimately it was God who caused it to happen. It is interesting that even other rabbis had the understanding that God has mercy on the lost, and pursues them to bring them back to himself.

How did the idea of repentance become linked together with the image of a shepherd finding his sheep? It likely came from a very important passage very early in the Scriptures, at the culmination of Deuteronomy, right after God had given his covenant. God gave grave warnings of all the terrible curses that will happen to Israel if they forsake him, the worst of which that they will be scattered as a people – the dissolving of the nation itself. But then, after all of that, he promises:

When all these blessings and curses I have set before you come upon you and you take them to heart wherever the LORD your God disperses you among the nations, and when you and your children return to the LORD your God and obey him with all your heart and with all your soul according to everything I command you today, then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you. Even if you have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens, from there the LORD your God will gather you and bring you back. He will bring you to the land that belonged to your fathers, and you will take possession of it. He will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers. The LORD your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live. Deut. 30:1-6

People understood this promise was not just one of being brought back together physically, but more importantly that God would bring them back to himself spiritually – that he would give them a new heart to love himself. If they just started to repent, God would do the rest in terms of restoring their relationship.

Jeremiah reiterates this promise in chapter 31, when he speaks of the future hope for Israel:

“Hear the word of the LORD, O nations; proclaim it in distant coastlands: `He who scattered Israel will gather them and will watch over his flock like a shepherd.’ … “The time is coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD. “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, `Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” Jer. 31:10, 31-34

Both of these passages would have been central to the messianic hope of the people in Jesus’ day. They knew that their nation was in desperate need of redemption, both physically from the Romans, and spiritually from their sins. They longed for God to send the “shepherd” messiah who would give them all a new heart to obey God, making a new covenant with his people for an intimate relationship together.

Now we see why Jesus so frequently uses imagery of a shepherd to describe himself, and why at the Last Supper he speaks about a “new covenant for the forgiveness of sins.” He is saying that he himself is the fulfillment of God’s promise from the very beginning to forgive his people of their sins, and to give them his Spirit and new hearts to follow him.


(1) B. Young, The Parables: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation, p 192. © 1998, Hendrickson. ISBN 1-56563-244-2. Also, see B. Young, Jesus the Jewish Theologian, © 1995, Hendrickson. ISBN: 0-80280-423-3. Both books are available at En-Gedi’s bookstore.

Photo: http://pixdaus.com/the-shepherd-and-his-sheep-in-a-beautiful-path-through-the-t/items/view/568897/