Sick-eyed people hoarding their loot: Matt. 6.19-23

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July 10, 2013 by jmar198013

Another section from my master’s thesis, Interpreting the Sermon on the Mount for Social Embodiment (Freed Hardeman University, 2007). Glen Stassen’s now-classic article, “The Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-7:12).” Journal of Biblical Literature 122.2 (2003): 267-306, determined my structural analysis of the text. My exegesis of each section of the Sermon assumes his triadic reading proposal, whereby Jesus quotes or alludes to traditional piety (“You have heard that it was said . . . “); describes a vicious cycle that leads to disobedience (“but I say to you . . . “); and concludes with a transforming initiative that graciously guides us to break the vicious cycle (“Therefore, if . . . “). My reasons for adopting Stassen’s structural proposal over and against others were laid out in an earlier section of the thesis. A brief breakdown of Stassen’s triads may be found here.

What inspired the direction of this portion of my thesis was a notion that the concept of “treasures in heaven” is severely underdeveloped, and indeed distorted, in popular Christianity. This is evidenced in spirituals like “Mansion Over the Hilltop” and “Mansion, Robe, and Crown.” We suppose that “treasures in heaven” are a reward we receive for being “good” in this life. This is not how Jesus used the phrase (cf. Luke 12.33). Jesus connected “treasures in heaven” with helping the needy. This is confirmed by his further illustrating his point with a parable about healthy eyes versus sick ones. The healthy eye is generous, the sick eye is stingy. In his “Fourteen Triads” article, Stassen explains, “The contrast [treasures on earth vs. treasures in heaven] is not this life and the life after, but this life where there is injustice and God’s reign characterized by peace, justice, and joy in the Spirit.”

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The traditional piety is presented in Matt. 6.19a: “Don’t collect treasures for yourselves on earth.” The main verb is the present active imperative θησαυρίζετε, negated with μή;. This is followed directly by the vicious cycle: “where moth and rot destroy, and where thieves break in and steal,” with its verbs in the present active indicative. The transforming initiative is found in 6.20: “but collect treasures in heaven for yourselves, where neither moth nor rot destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.” The imperative verb in 6.20 recapitulates that of the traditional piety.

The illustrations of this teaching are found in 6.21-23. Matt. 6.21 underscores the point of v. 20: “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Frankly, the material in 6.19‑21 seems, at least at first reading, a tad abstruse. It seems difficult to comprehend how not amassing treasures on earth equals collecting treasures in heaven, and also what treasures in heaven would exactly entail. Guelich answers these questions by pointing to Tob. 4.7 (“Distribute alms from what you possess and never give with a grudging eye. Do not turn your face away from any poor man, and God will not turn his face away from you,” NEB); and Luke 12.33 (“Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys”). Thus, he concludes that collecting treasure in heaven means, “to forego amassing treasures or wealth here in lieu of helping the poor and gaining a more secure ‘wealth’ in the life to come.” [1]

Jesus’ second illustration comes in the form of a rather enigmatic proverb. “The lamp for the body is the eye: if your eye is sound, your whole body will be shining brightly; but if your eye is evil, your whole body will be in darkness. Now, if the light in you is darkness—how great a darkness it is!” The references to eyes as lamps and evil eyes can be confusing to readers today. The eye as the lamp for the body reflects the extramissionary theory of vision prevalent in antiquity, which viewed the eye as the source of—rather than the organ for gathering—light. [2] “Light in some way shines out of the eyes (from the heart) to enable one to see.” [3] Once we have grasped this concept, we find that Jesus’ words here offer a sort of parallel to 5.13-16. What Jesus meant in 6.22a is, “Make sure you have God’s inner light which will then shine out of you onto others.” [4]

Matt. 6.22b-23a contrasts the “sound” (ἁπλοῦς) eye with the “evil” (πονηρὸς) eye. This contrast certainly invites some further expansion. Determining precise meaning of ἁπλοῦς in this context is rather tricky. The overall nuance of the word is “single, simple, sincere,” and used here of the eye, carries a connotation of sound or generous. [5] The evil (πονηρὸς) with which the sound eye is contrasted in 6.23 can carry the connotation of sickly or diseased. [6] There is probably a double-connotation here, though, because the notion of the “evil eye”—a malicious glare from an envious person which had the power to curse the person looked at—was also prevalent in antiquity. [7] Hence, Jesus’ use of the evil eye may have been conditioned by Deut. 15.9: “Take heed lest there be a base thought in your heart . . . and your eye be hostile to your poor brother, and you give him nothing, and he cry to the LORD against you, and it be sin in you.” The idea of Matt. 6.22-23 is that, “whenever someone looks greedily at earthly possessions, the whole person goes bad, and conversely, whoever is generous with his possessions, to him belongs the light.” [8] With this understanding of Matt. 6.22‑23, we may see it as a sort of commentary on the Beatitude, “Blessed are those who hearts are unadulterated, because they shall see God” (Matt. 5.8). Those whose vision is not obscured by a febrile quest for accumulation will be able to experience God’s transforming presence in their own spontaneous generosity. They are blessed with a clarity which someone whose eye is evil—stingy or hostile—cannot attain, because they are actively pursuing God’s reign and restorative justice (cf. Matt. 6.33).

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[1] Robert Guelich, The Sermon on the Mount: a Foundation for Understanding (Waco: Word, 1982), 365.

[2] W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, Jr, Matthew, International Critical Commentary. Vol. 1 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1988, 1991), 635-36.

[3] Bruce J. Malina, “Eyes-Heart,” in Biblical Social Values and Their Meaning; A Handbook, 71, John J. Pilch and Bruce J. Malina, eds. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1993).

[4] Carl B. Bridges and Ronald E Wheeler, “The Evil Eye in the Sermon on the Mount.” Stone-Campbell Journal 4 (2001): 70.

[5] Walter Bauer, F. W. Danker, William F. Arndt, and F. Wilbur Gingrich (BDAG) A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2000), 86; Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, 2nd ed. (New York: UBS, 1989), §§ 23.132; 57.107.

[6] Louw and Nida § 23.149.

[7] Bridges and Wheeler, 72-74.

[8] Georg Strecker, The Sermon on the Mount: An Exegetical Commentary.  O. C. Dean, Jr., trans. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1988), 134.

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