When we read the Bible, our modern world perspective can mislead and leave us in the dark. For example, take Jesus’ teaching about financial generosity. The Messiah said, “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is “healthy” ἁπλοῦς (aplus) your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is “bad” πονηρὸς (poneros) your whole body will be full of darkness.” (Matt. 6:22-23a ESV) If you did well in your science classes these metaphors might lead you to believe that Jesus is making some general statements about the spiritual condition of our souls. However, if we look at these words in their first-century Jewish context, the meaning changes.
First, let’s consider “the eye is the lamp of the body” phrase. Modern people, like you and I, think of the eye as a “window” that allows light into the body. Ancient Jews, however, thought that the eye was the “origin of light” similar to a flashlight. In other words, it’s the eye that reveals and illuminates the condition of everything else in our lives.
The second part of Yeshua’s teaching mentions the “healthy” eye versus “evil” or “bad” eye. Proverbs 22:9 states that טוֹב־עַיִן (tov ayin) “a generous person” or literally “good eye” will be blessed because “he gives some of his food to the poor.” In contrast, “a greedy person” or literally אִישׁ רַע עָיִן (ish ra ayin) “man with an evil eye” does not know that poverty will overtake him (Prov. 28:22).
In Jewish culture “a good eye” refers to a generous person, while an “evil eye” refers to a greedy or jealous person. Thus a better translation of these metaphors in Matthew would be “a generous eye” versus “a greedy eye”. No, Jesus did not make general statements about the spiritual health of our souls in this passage. Instead, he taught about financial generosity. Our concern for the poor among us reveals whether or not our life is filled with light or shrouded in darkness.