In today’s lesson from St. Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus makes an interesting, yet confusing, statement when He says: “’But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness!’” (v. 23) What exactly is He referring to, and why is the condition of having a “bad eye” so detrimental to our spiritual wellbeing? It is important that we understand what the Lord means by “bad eye” in order to grasp to full meaning of today’s Gospel lesson.
A casual reading of verse 23 may cause the reader to think that Jesus is simply talking about physical blindness, where a person cannot see due to some type of physiological problem with their vision. This interpretation can make some sense, considering the fact that if your eyes are not working properly—if you cannot see—then it could be said that you are living in perpetual darkness. But Jesus sets up His remark with the previous verse, stating, that the “lamp of the body is the eye.” But the human eye is incapable of producing any light on its own; the eye only transmits what is seen. It is only a portal that collects images and sends them to the brain for interpretation. Without our body’s complex networks of nerves and neurons, we would be unable to distinguish—in other words, to see—the images before us. Without the intricate support system that translates light into recognizable images, the eyes themselves are useless for visually encountering the world around us.
Throughout history we find that the human eye has played an important part in the interpretation of a person’s soul. In the first century B.C., the Greek philosopher Cicero was quoted as saying, “The face is the picture of the mind as the eyes are its interpreter.” We have also heard the similar quote that the eyes are the mirror or the window of the soul. In these proverbs, we see that the eyes are reflecting or in some manner displaying the true person that may be hidden behind the face, providing an insight into someone’s personality, or soul. But Jesus’ teaching has little to do with what is perceived on the outside; instead, He is focusing on what is taking place on the inside. It is what the eyes are filtering that is the issue. It is what these portals to our soul are allowing into the body and what they are holding back.
Considering the part that our eyes play in filtering the input of our soul, the Lord’s comment about the good and bad eye makes sense in the context in which it is presented. In the proceeding verses (vv. 19-21), we see Christ’s familiar teaching about laying up treasure in heaven rather than on earth. He makes the point that our real treasures are those which cannot be destroyed or stolen, because they will be stored in heaven. This teaching is concluded with the statement: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (v. 21). But how do we know what our treasures are? How are we able to place a value on the things in our life and thus determine what belongs in heaven and what needs to stay on earth? A physically healthy eye is able to see the shine of precious metals and the sparkle of precious stores, but is good vision enough to discern which treasures we need to be saving in the eternalstorehouse? Christ and the Church Fathers taught us that it takes more than 20/20 vision to discern what is truly valuable and worth saving.
St. Gregory Thaumaturgus (c. 213-270; Feast Day: Nov. 17) –or the easier to pronounce, “St. Gregory The Wonderworker”—was a third century bishop of Neo-caesarea in Asia Minor. He is a saint recognized in both the Eastern and the Western Churches, although we do not hear much about him. One of his teachings that has survived is his commentary on our Gospel lesson this morning. St. Gregory wrote that the “good eye” Jesus is talking about is “unfeigned love”: “… for when the body is enlightened by it, it sets forth through the medium of the outer members only things which are perfectly correspondent with the inner thoughts.” In other words, when our inner being is filled with things that are seen through the filterof “unfeigned love,” then all of our actions will be filled with love as well. We can then draw the conclusion that when our eye is “bad” then it is not seeing the world through the perspective of “unfeigned love” but just the opposite: We see the world through a dark and evil lens.
We all know those people who, for whatever reason, can never see the beauty in anything of God or His people. For them, every silver lining has a dark cloud in front of it, every happy story has a sad ending, and no good deed goes unpunished. We can blame it on the circumstance of their life, or just life in general, but everything they see in God’s wonderful creation is somehow distorted when viewed through a tainted, dirty, negative lens. This perspective is often self-serving, where each bad account of the world and humanity simply helps to prove their already established negative impressions. When seen through this “bad eye,” the world does indeed appear very bleak and unsalvageable.
Our perception of the world when viewed through a “bad eye” directly affects our relationship with God. The Lord tells us in today’s Gospel lesson that we cannot serve two masters, that is, both God and the riches of this world. One master will be loved while the will be despised. The focus of our life must be solely on God, seeking first His kingdom and all its righteousness. Yet, when our view of what is good is clouded, priorities will be reversed. Our focus will no longer be on our loving Father in Heaven, but rather on the temporary and spiritually unprofitable things of the world. Gradually, as the eyes of our souls become dimmer by the thickening of the cataracts of sinful negativity, the light that was once inside us fades. Like an untended campfire that slowly burns itself out, so too will our inner peace, until nothing but cold ashes remain.
So how do we develop this inner darkness that Jesus warns us against, and more importantly, how can it be prevented? The old saying in the computer world is “Garbage in, garbage out.” The result of the output is directly related to the reliability and the value of the data that is being processed. The same can be said for our soul: A steady diet of negativity will produce negative results. Seeing everything with the bad and unloving eye will cause our whole attituded toward God, our fellow human beings and the entire world to be seen in the same light. And then, as St. Gregory states, our outward actions will reflect the darkness that we harbor inside. If we ever question the state of the world today, so full of spiritual decay and ungodliness, we only have to take a look at what people are consumingthrough the “lamp” of their soul to understand why. Modern technology—especially social media—has not made humans more sociable, it has just made us able to hate each other more efficiently!
The good news that we can take comfort in is knowing that the “Bad Eye Syndrome” is necessarily a terminal condition. Just because we may be constantly surrounded by all forms of ugliness and depredation, that does not mean that we must allow it to affect our soul. We, not the outside world, control whether our eyes are good or bad. First and foremost, we need to keep our eyes on God, for when we live our lives looking up, we will not be looking down, especially on our fellow human beings.
Secondly, and nearly as important as the first, we must see Christ in everyone, especially those who we may not consider very Christ-like. Whether that person is the one who angers you at work or even the homeless man on the street, when we train our eyes to see Christ in each of them, we will begin to filter out the hate that can easily permeate our soul.
Finally, I highly recommend that we all spend less time staring at all the poison that is on display on the so-called “news” feeds and social media sites. Start out by substituting just 30 minutes a day that you would normally spend on Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube, with reading the Holy Scriptures. Or even better yet, spend that 30 minutes in prayer, speaking and listeningto God.
To change the world, we must be willing to first change our selves, and a good place to start is by filtering out those things that will darken our souls. As Christians, we have the knowledge and tools needed to keep our souls pure and free from the pollution of the world, but we must be willing to do the hard work needed to apply those filters, and to see life through the lens of “unfeigned love.”