You may have heard the term “evil eye.”
Perhaps you think of a mom giving her disobedient child “the look.” Or the great fiery eye of Sauron from Lord of the Rings. Or maybe you even know about the evil eye charms many in the Middle East wear with their jewelry to ward off bad luck or bad spirits.
But did you know the evil eye is in the Bible?
Throughout the Old Testament, the Hebrew “evil eye” is often translated into English as “stingy.” It’s a good translation: ancient people of the Middle East associated the evil eye with stinginess of finances and stinginess of heart. (Think of someone looking at you with narrowed eyes as if calculating or defensive.) It’s easiest to find this “eye” imagery in Proverbs, where contrasts such as wise/foolish, righteous/evil, and diligent/lazy are paralleled by generous/stingy (“good eye”/ “evil eye”). Proverbs 23:6 reads, “Do not eat the bread of a stingy man … for he is like one who is inwardly calculating.” And Proverbs 28:22 reads, “A stingy man hastens after wealth and does not know that poverty will come upon him.”
In both verses, the Hebrew behind “stingy” is ra ayin, “evil-eyed.” The Hebrew tov ayin (“good eye”) lies behind “generous” in Proverbs 22:9: “He who is generous will be blessed, for he gives some of his food to the poor.”
Even in the New Testament we see this cultural thought pattern. For example, in Matthew 20, Jesus concludes the parable of the unfair wages with the question, “Are you envious because I am generous?” Although the words were penned in Greek, Hebrew thought lies behind them. A transliteration of the Greek reads, “Is your eye evil because I am good?” Most translations also accurately list the Greek “evil eye” in Mark 7:22 as “envy.”
As westerners, we often misunderstand elements of the Bible, like this one, that are deeply embedded in cultural symbolism. So we have misunderstood Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 6:22, Jesus says, “If your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness.” Some English translations read, “If your eye is clear.” The famous commentator Matthew Henry suggests Jesus is teaching about focus – focusing on Christ above all else – and other writers follow that same pattern, explaining how clarity, singleness of focus, and purity should inform our lives as followers of Jesus.
These translations and interpretations are not wrong. In a western cultural context obsessed with health and an Anglo-American Christian subculture historically fixated on purity and attacked by competing priorities, these can be meaningful attempts to interpret and contextualize Jesus’ words. And they bring important elements of the verse and passage to light. But they don’t make sense of everything.
In the preceding verses (19-21), Jesus instructs us not to store up treasure on earth, and in the following verses (24-34) Jesus declares it impossible to serve both God and money, encouraging us not to worry about what we will eat, drink, or wear. Why would Jesus, in the middle of a teaching about financial provisions, change the subject to purity or health? Answer: he didn’t.
He was actually teaching about generosity – the Greek here is another instance of “good eye.”
Although “clear” (pure, single) and “healthy” (whole) are two legitimate ways to translate the Greek haplous, the main definition of haplous when it describes an eye is “good, fulfilling its office, sound” (Strong’s Concordance, G573). Somehow the translators missed their opportunity to accurately render this verse: “If you are generous, your whole body will be full of light, but if you are stingy, your whole body will be full of darkness.”
But that’s crazy! Can generosity truly be that central to following Jesus?
Can our light in the world really be darkened by stinginess – by selfishness or anxiety of heart that causes us to be tight-fisted with our finances? On the other hand, what if our generosity is what causes us to shine in the darkness and pain of the world?
It’s easy to spiritualize this into an issue of the heart only. But the content of our hearts naturally overflows into our actions, and so it is with money. A stingy heart, inwardly calculating and anxious, will manifest in stingy finances – hoarding, fearful or selfish refusal to give, giving from obligation and without joy, pervasive financial anxiety. A generous heart, on the other hand, results in a generous hand, giving freely out of true concern for others and the trust that there is enough. God is generous even to those who don’t deserve it (Mt 5:45), and Jesus confronts us all: “Is your eye evil because I am good?”
For those of us (and I count myself among them) who too easily close our hearts and narrow our eyes at the needs of others, who are too quickly envious at God’s generosity to others, there is good news!
We can grow into generous people!
The Fun of Generosity, by Dr. Jim Wilder, is a great resource on the subject.