One unfortunate result of the West’s Christian heritage is that those passages of Scripture that the entire culture can claim as part of its intellectual and moral heritage, often blind the reader from understanding them and the verses surrounding them in their original context. I have found this to be the case during my study and memorization of the Sermon on the Mount recorded in the Gospel according to St. Matthew. Christ’s first discourse contains many pithy sayings such as, “You are the salt of the earth,” “Love your enemies,” and “Do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself.” Certainly, each of these statements can be taken at face value and understood as they stand, yet our emphasis and common understanding of these statements has the practical result of making the surrounding verses difficult to understand, disjointed, or easily glossed over. So it was this morning as I read Matthew 6:19—23.
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. The eye is the lamp of the body; so then if your eye is clear your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light that is in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (emphasis mine)
That little phrase “for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” jumped to the forefront of mind, being such a common phrase, that I could hardly make sense of what followed. What does the wise teaching about values and priorities found in verses 19—21 have to do with eyesight, light, and darkness? It is easy enough to preach about (if not to practice) the importance of valuing that which is spiritual over that which is material—and most of us stop there or jump over the next couple verses to the next pithy saying regarding the love of God and the love of money. Today I have decided to consciously fight this impulse and to figure out how the discussion of the eye relates to the preceding proverb.
The lesson is this: Perception determines value. While my mind or eye may be able to grasp hold of and see that which really is, that object is always subject to my perception of it. If I see a pile of gold coins, it is my perception of them as money that makes them valuable to me. If I see a man bending over me with a drill and a knife, it is my perception of him as a dentist that makes me willing to accept the present pain since I value healthy teeth. If my mind sees transcendent Being revealed, it is my perception of Him as merciful and just that makes me value Him and those things which He desires of me.
So the man who perceives the true nature of the kingdom of God values those things that lead to its advancement. It is only when our perceptions are correct, only when our eyes are clear so that light might be shed on our souls, that we will willingly seek and ably find those heavenly treasures of which Jesus speaks. Matthew Henry puts it this way:
Christ counsels [us] to make our best things the joys and glories of the other world, those things not seen which are eternal, and to place our happiness in them. There are treasures in heaven. It is our wisdom to give all diligence to make our title to eternal life sure through Jesus Christ, and to look on all things here below, as not worthy to be compared with it, and to be content with nothing short of it.”
Once the mind’s eye correctly perceives, it is simply a matter of discipline to make the body, will, and appetites conform themselves to the requirements of the thing perceived.
Along with this admonition comes a warning. If your eye is bad, if your perceptions are mistaken, your body will be full of darkness. Your appetites and desires will be misguided and that which is truly valuable will be discarded for those things destroyed by moths and rust. The obvious implication is that we should all want to have clear eyes that let the light into our souls. But Jesus goes on to say, “If the light that is in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” How great a warning and condemnation is found in this statement. A warning against complacent satisfaction with one’s untested perceptions. Condemnation of willful acceptance of darkness as light.
We usually do not doubt our perception of the world. Rather, we assume our perception to be more or less the correct perception and walk as though the light it gives is true. Yet Jesus points out that it is very likely that although we think we have the light, we are, in fact, wandering about in the pitch black darkness of night. It is one thing to know that one’s perception is wrong and to go about looking for light; it is quite another thing thing to be convinced that the darkness is light.
It is certainly true that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” But the phrase takes on greater import when it is tied into the lesson that follows. There is something to be learned not only about one’s values, but also one’s perceptions, through an examination of treasures of the heart; and since perception determines value, we must re-evaluate perceptions before preaching against misplaced values.
Perhaps that’s why our Savior is the Light of the world rather than a simple moralist.