Why Jesus Cares So Much About Our “Eyes”

Have you ever read a passage and thought to yourself, “I have no idea what this means!” Within Jesus’s famous Sermon on the Mount, there are a few ancient idioms that may be glossed over if we don’t dig a little deeper than a surface-level reading. Matthew 6:22-23 is one of those.

22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light.23 But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness! (Matthew 6:22-23, NIV)

Where the NIV says: “if your eyes are unhealthy” literally reads: “if your eye is evil” (translating the Greek adjective ponēros as “evil”). Here lies an elusive metaphor, at least for many modern readers. The illustration of the eye follows an ancient understanding, not a modern one. The ancient audience believed the eye was a source of light, like a lamp or fire that radiated outward. By contrast, today we understand the eye as gathering information from external light around us, using our sense of sight to see what is there. So, why would Jesus use a patently incorrect metaphor? We have to remember that Jesus was speaking to an ancient audience. Perhaps he thought it was better to communicate with them on their level to make the point he was trying to make instead of trying to correct their scientific understanding of things.

This stark metaphor is meant to classify the spiritual condition of a person. If someone’s eye was “evil” (as was a common idiom), it meant their outlook on the world would be darkened too.

Even within the Gospel of Matthew, there is an instance when the “evil eye” is deployed in a derogatory way toward those who are stingy or greedy. The latter part of Jesus’s parable about God’s grace in Matthew 20:15 can be translated: “Or is your eye evil because I am generous?” The negative Greek adjective, ponēros, describes the eye literally as “evil” but more descriptively as envious. The Greek language of the New Testament draws on the even more primitive Hebrew. The Hebrew phrase, raʿ ʿayin (“evil eye”) has been rendered numerous ways in the Old Testament, including “stringy” and “miserly.” Matthew 6:22–23 contrasts the “evil eye” with the haplous eye, or what the NIV (above) translates as “healthy.” But there is one problem… the Greek adjective haplous simply does not mean “healthy.”

Ready to learn a little bit about the fun yet important task of translation? Let’s dig deeper!

Translators struggle to unravel haplous in a way that does justice to the word, especially in how it dynamically functions in Matthew 6:22. The majority of popular English translations render the word as “healthy” (NIV, NLT, ESV, CSB, NET). However, translating the Greek adjective haplous as “healthy” does not quite capture the meaning of the word, especially in context to what Jesus is saying. Haplous is the opposite of diplous, meaning single (haplous) rather than double (diplous).[1] (The Greek word diplous is where we get the English word duplicity, which refers to a contradictory doubleness of thought or action. Or in more lay terms, being two-faced.)

So, in its most literal sense, haplous means “single,” especially in regards to singleness of purpose.[2] But the context continues to mold the meaning.

Of course, simply rendering haplous as “single” (as the KJV does) might confuse the modern reader, who is likely to miss the metaphor. Contrasting the haplous eye with the evil eye suggests an ethical comparison. Here, the opposite of “evil” is not “good,” as one might expect. We need to broaden our understanding of this rich adjective.

Haplous conveys more than a single word can say. That’s because it reflects an entire spirituality that is blessed by God.

As opposed to duplicitous people [diplous], those with divided hearts, those who are simple [haplous] have no other concern than to do the will of God, to observe his precepts; their whole existence is an expression of this disposition of heart, this rectitude: “Let us all die in our simplicity” (1 Macc 2:37)… [It] is considered the supreme virtue of the patriarchs.[4]

So, haplous, when placed in its first-century Jewish context, most often describes a singularly focused simplicity.

Yet, the close relative of haplous (haplotēs) clearly communicates the idea of generosity in certain contexts. Observe these passages. I’ll bold the English word where the Greek word haplotēs is.

… if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully. (Romans 12:8, NIV)

In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. (2 Corinthians 8:2)

You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God. (2 Corinthians 9:11)

Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, others will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else. (2 Corinthians 9:13)

With a range of potential meanings, the issue remains of how to best render the term haplous. Three options that best suit Matthew 6:22’s usage: 1) translate haplous with the idea of generosity (emphasizing activity); 2) translate the adjective with the idea of whole-hearted devotion (emphasizing a posture of the heart), or 3) translate haplous with a phrase that brings out the double-meaning.

The third translation option is most appealing. Why? Because the context (what comes before and after) helps demonstrate that both meanings are equally at play.

Verses 19–21 are about two kinds of treasure, which speaks to the contrast between being selfish versus generous with our stewardship. Then, verse 24, following after the contrast of the two eyes, contrasts the two masters, where total devotion is the focus. Matthew shows us three contrasts (two treasures, two eyes, two masters), putting the two eyes at the center like a door hinge allowing for double-meaning.

Therefore, Matthew 6:22-23 is meant to show us that a kingdom-minded disciple is holistically devoted and deliberately generous. Both parts of that are equally important! 

Considering the context of where the contrast between the evil eye and the haplous eye comes in Matthew, there is no doubt that the call to wholeheartedness fits like a piece of an intricate puzzle.

The point of the three contrasts (two treasures, two eyes, two masters) found in Matt 6:19–24 provokes the reader to identify where they stand in their loyalty to God and His kingdom. One of the primary themes of the sermon on the mount is being “perfect” (Matt 5:48), which is actually closer to our English concept of “wholeness.” Therefore, it would be consistent with Matthew’s record of Jesus’s message to have another adjective fueling the discussion of wholeness, leaning into the idiom of the eye. In light of this discussion, we can translate Matthew 6:22b, conveying the double-meaning this way:

“Therefore, if your eye is wholly devoted and generous, your body will be full of light.”

The condition of one’s eye reveals one’s ambition. Just as the eye affects the whole body, so ambition affects the rest of life. Think about the depth of the contrast between the two eyes. The person who has an “evil eye” sees the world through the lens of scarcity and self-preservation. The goal is to hoard as much as he can because you can’t trust what life circumstances will come your way tomorrow. Contrast this with the “wholly devoted and generous eye” (inspired by our study of haplous). This person sees the world through the lens of abundance and self-giving. The goal is to be content with what is needed, being generous with any excess, because life is not about an abundance of possessions (Luke 12:15).

The contrast between the “evil eye” and the haplous eye comes down to seeing the world through scarcity or generosity; through the lens of a spiritual orphan who has to look out for themselves or through the lens of a child of God who knows God is their Provider.

The argument of the whole passage (Matthew 6:19–24) goes like this: Desiring the wrong treasure leads to devotion to treasure that is fleeting. Devotion to wealth produces blindness of heart. The blindness of heart leads to serving the wrong master. Serving the wrong master, as verses 25–34 flesh out, leads to a life of worry. Michael Green illuminates the point:

“The pursuit of wealth is like sea-water. The more you drink of it the thirstier you get. Whereas the pursuit of God makes one more-and-more satisfied.”[5]

It is no mistake how this whole passage builds toward a climactic statement: “seek first His kingdom” (Matthew 6:33). Jesus encourages us to be totally kingdom-minded with no parallel priorities! And the issue of what kind of “eye” you have is all part of one’s personal assessment.

But this deeper study of Greek words and translation is purely an academic exercise if it does not translate into how we live.

That is why we, at Newbreak, are Kingdom Builders. We believe in being faithful with our tithe and we also strive to go above and beyond in how we give to Kingdom Builders, which is how we fuel and fund people and projects locally and globally to make a tangible difference in the world. We want to invite you to prayerfully consider how God would lead you to be “wholly devoted and generous” as we seek His kingdom first (Matt 6:33). And as you do, consider partnering with us and be a Kingdom Builder.


[1] Ceslas Spicq and James D. Ernest, “ἁπλότης, ἁπλοῦς,” TLNT 1:169.

[2] William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker, et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 104.

[3] Otto Bauernfeind, “Ἀπλοῦς,,” TDNT 1:386.

[4] Spicq and Ernest, 1:170.

[5] Michael Green, The Message of Matthew: The Kingdom of Heaven, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 103.


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