Matthew 6:22-23

THE DISTORTED VISION

Matt. 6:22-23

The light of the body is the eye. So then, if your eye is generous, the whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is grudging, your whole body will be in the dark. If, then, the light which is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

The idea behind this passage is one of childlike simplicity. The eye is regarded as the window by which the light gets into the whole body. The state of a window decides what light gets into a room. If the window is clear, clean. and undistorted, the light will come flooding into the room, and will illuminate every corner of it. If the glass of the window is coloured or frosted, distorted, dirty, or obscure, the light will be hindered, and the room will not be lit up.

The amount of light which gets into any room depends on the state of the window through which it has to pass. So, then, says Jesus, the light which gets into any man’s heart and soul and being depends on the spiritual state of the eye through which it has to pass, for the eye is the window of the whole body.

The view we take of people depends on the kind of eye we have. There are certain obvious things which can blind our eyes and distort our vision.

(i) Prejudice can distort our vision. There is nothing which so destroys a man’s judgment as prejudice does. It prevents him from forming the clear, reasonable and logical judgment which it is the duty of any man to form. It blinds him alike to the facts and to the significance of the facts.

Almost all new discoveries have had to fight their way against unreasonable prejudice. When Sir James Simpson discovered the virtues of chloroform he had to fight against the prejudice of the medical and religious world of his day. One of his biographers writes: “Prejudice, the crippling determination to walk only in time-worn paths, and to eschew new ways, rose up against it, and did their best to smother the new-found blessing.” “Many of the clergy held that to try to remove the primal curse on women was to fight against divine law:

One of the most necessary things in life is the fearless self-examination which will enable us to see when we are acting on principle and when we are the victims of our own unreasonable and unreasoning prejudices. In any man who is swayed by prejudice the eye is darkened and the vision distorted.

(ii) Jealousy can distort our vision. Shakespeare gave us the classic example of that in the tragedy of Othello. Othello, the Moor, won fame by his heroic exploits and married Desdemona, who loved him with utter devotion and complete fidelity. As general of the army of Venice, Othello promoted Cassio and passed over Iago. Iago was consumed with jealousy. By careful plotting and the manipulation of facts Iago sowed in Othello’s mind the suspicion that Cassio and Desdemona were carrying on an intrigue. He manufactured evidence to prove it, and moved Othello to such a passion of jealousy that he finally murdered Desdemona by smothering her with a pillow. A. C. Bradley writes, “Such jealousy as Othello’s converts human nature into chaos, and liberates the beast in man.”

Many a marriage and many a friendship have been wrecked on the rock of a jealousy which distorted perfectly innocent incidents into guilty actions, and which blinded the eye to truth and fact.

(iii) Self-conceit can distort our vision. In her biography of Mark Rutherford, Catherine Macdonald Maclean has a curiously caustic sentence about John Chapman, the bookseller and publisher, who was at one time Mark Rutherford’s employer: “Handsome in the Byronic fashion and pleasant-mannered, he was exceedingly attractive to women, and he thought himself even more attractive to them than he actually was.”

Self-conceit doubly affects a man’s vision, for it renders him incapable of seeing himself as he really is, and incapable of seeing others as they really are. If a man is convinced of his own surpassing wisdom, he will never be able to realise his own foolishness; and if he is blind to everything except his own virtues, he will never be aware of his own faults. Whenever he compares himself with others, he will do so to his own advantage, and to their disadvantage. He will be for ever incapable of self-criticism, and therefore for ever incapable of self-improvement. The light in which he should see himself and see others will be darkness.

THE NECESSITY OF THE GENEROUS EYE

Matt. 6:22-23 (continued)

But here Jesus speaks of one special virtue which fills the eye with light, and one special fault which fills the eye with darkness. The King James Version speaks here about the eye being single and the eye being evil Certainly that is the literal meaning of the Greek, but the words single and evil are here used in a special way which is common enough in the Greek in which scripture is written.

The word for single is haplous (GSN0573), and its corresponding noun is haplotes (GSN0572). Regularly in the Greek of the Bible these words mean generous and generosity. James speaks of God who gives generously (Jas.1:5), and the adverb he uses is haplos (GSN0574). Similarly in Rom.12:8, Paul urges his friends to give in liberality (haplos, GSN0574). Paul reminds the Corinthian Church of the liberality (haplotes, GSN0574) of the Churches in Macedonia, and talks about their own generosity to all men (2Cor.9:11). It is the generous eye which Jesus is commending.

The word which is in the King James Version translated evil is poneros (GSN4190). Certainly that is the normal meaning of the word; but both in the New Testament and in the Septuagint poneros (GSN4190) regularly means niggardly or grudging. Deuteronomy speaks of the duty of lending to a brother who is in need. But the matter was complicated by the fact that every seventh year was a year of release when debts were cancelled. It might, therefore, very well happen that, if the seventh year was near, a cautious man might refuse to help, lest the person helped might take advantage of the seventh year never to repay his debt. So the law lays it down: “Take heed lest there be a base thought in your heart, and you say, `The seventh year, the year of release is near,’ and your eye be hostile to your poor brother, and you give him nothing” (Deut.15:9). Clearly poneros (GSN4190) there means niggardly, grudging and ungenerous. It is the advice of the proverb: “Do not eat the bread of a man who is stingy” (Prov.23:6). That is to say, “Don’t be a guest in the house of a man who grudges you every bite you eat.” Another proverb has it: “A miserly man hastens after wealth” (Prov.28:22).

So Jesus is saying, “There is nothing like generosity for giving you a clear and undistorted view of life and of people; and there is nothing like the grudging and ungenerous spirit for distorting your view of life and of people.”

(i) We must be generous in our judgments of others. It is characteristic of human nature to think the worst, and to find a malignant delight in repeating the worst. Every day in life the reputations of perfectly innocent people are murdered over the tea-cups by gossiping groups whose judgments are dipped in poison. The world would be saved a great deal of heartbreak, if we would put the best, and not the worst, construction on the actions of other people.

(ii) We must be generous in our actions. In her biography of Mark Rutherford, Catherine Macdonald Maclean speaks of the days when Mark Rutherford came to work in London: “It was about this time that there can be noted in him the beginning of that `cherishing pity for the souls of men’ which was to become habitual with him…. The burning question with him, haunted as he was at times by the fate of many in the district in which he lived, was, `What can I do? Wherein can I help them?’ It seemed to him then, as always, that any kind of action was of more value than the most vehement indignation that spent itself in talk.” When Mark Rutherford was with Chapman the publisher, George Eliot, or Marian Evans as her real name was, lived and worked in the same place. One thing impressed him about her: “She was poor. She had only a small income of her own; and, although she hoped to earn a livelihood as a woman of letters, her future was very uncertain. But she was fantastically generous. She was always helping lame dogs over stiles, and the poverty of others pressed on her more than her own. She wept more bitterly because she could not adequately relieve a sister’s poverty than because of any of her own privations.”

It is when we begin to feel like that that we begin to see people and things clearly. It is then that our eye becomes full of light.

There are three great evils of the ungenerous spirit, of the eye that is grudging.

(i) It makes it impossible to live with ourselves. If a man is for ever envying another his success, grudging another his happiness, shutting his heart against another’s need, he becomes that most pitiable of creatures–a man with a grudge. There grows within him a bitterness and a resentment which robs him of his happiness, steals away his peace, and destroys his content.

(ii) It makes it impossible to live with other people. The mean man is the man abhorred by all; the man whom all men despise is the man with the miser’s heart. Charity covers a multitude of sins, but the grudging spirit makes useless a multitude of virtues. However bad the generous man may be, there are those who will love him; and however good the mean man may be, all men will detest him.

(iii) It makes it impossible to live with God. There is no one so generous as God, and, in the last analysis, there can be no fellowship between two people who guide their lives by diametrically opposite principles. There can be no fellowship between the God whose heart is afire with love, and the man whose heart is frozen with meanness.

The grudging eye distorts our vision; the generous eye alone sees clearly, for it alone sees as God sees.

Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW

Back to: Barclay’s Commentary

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