One of the core struggles of the Christian life is the tension between living in the world and being profoundly different from it. According to the Bible, we are in the world, but not of the world. We were once proud of and defined by worldly things and accomplishments, but now we count them all as loss in exchange for Christ. We understand that we are citizens of heaven, merely pilgrims passing through this present world. We know we need to lay aside what lies behind and press on to the goal—Jesus Christ. But in practice Christians usually fall short.
The sinful flesh naturally tends to focus more on present wants than eternal goals, more on immediate needs than future joy, more on earthly fame than heavenly fortune, more on man’s praise than God’s glory. Humans are wired to pay more attention to things that are seen than on things out of sight, let alone things that cannot be seen. Christian resistance to worldliness requires continuous vigil. Modern Christians in America at least find watching and praying difficult.
Probably because of how easily and often we fail in our efforts to focus on eternity, we become content being preoccupied with something earthly—entertainment, friends, fame, wealth, politics, career, etc. We often rationalize our distraction with its importance. People are important. Providing for yourself and your family is important. Recreation is important. National politics are important. But in this rationalization we often forget that fighting earthly distraction is also important. The stakes are actually quite high.
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!
Many readers will be familiar with this portion of the sermon on the Mount and its lesson that what comes out of man—the sin within him—is more important than the externals of what he takes in. I doubt however many of these same people remember what part of Jesus’ most famous sermon it comes from. You will probably be shocked to realize that verses 19-21 come immediately before verses 22-23, and just as shocked to discover that verse 24 comes immediately after. These neighboring passages give the context and meaning to Jesus’ analogy in verses 22-23.
In verses 19-21 Jesus lays out a choice: focus on getting earthly wealth for yourself, or focus on getting heavenly wealth for yourself. Focusing on the earthly is futile, as all earthly wealth eventually decays or is destroyed, losing its value. Only that which is heavenly will endure forever. This reflects our initial statement that Christians should live for eternity, not the present.
In verse 24 Jesus offers His listeners another choice: choose to serve God, or choose to serve wealth. You can’t pick both. This again reflects the Christian’s eternal mindset.
The verses in between seem unconnected. We can tell Jesus is using an analogy about the importance of the eye to say something about the soul. While the language is unscientific, Jesus’ first statement is clear: it is with the eye that the body interacts with light, and without the eye we could only perceive darkness. What then is the “light that is in you” or that “darkness” in the second part of the analogy? We know the difference between the words “lamp” and “light” indicate a distinction between the first statement and the second. Given what we’ve seen in the sermon on the Mount so far, it would seem that this is some spiritual reality of the heart. So far Jesus has explained how the law must be obeyed in the heart and not just in external action (Mt 5), and that true religion requires whole hearted devotion, not just showy externality (Mt 6:1-18). Therefore, as we go through this section, we should look for some statement about the heart. “If then the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” is that statement. Jesus is making a statement about darkened hearts, and how without an inward light this goes unchecked. Were this statement a few verses earlier, it may make more intuitive sense to us. Of course Jesus would say this about the superficial, self-aggrandizing religion of the pharisees! Of course their hearts are dark!
But that’s not actually the point of the analogy. Given the verses immediately before, the verse immediately after, and the discussion on trusting God instead of worrying about earthly things that then follows, we know that this darkness of heart Jesus is talking about isn’t necessarily pharisaical religion, but preoccupation with earthly things. This darkness of heart is serving the master of money instead of the master of God. This darkness is loving and treasuring earthly wealth instead of heavenly wealth.
Contrary to what Simon and Garfunkel told us, darkness is not our friend. Darkness in Matthew is associated with “the outer darkness” (Mt 22:13) and obscuring the truth (Mt 5:14-16). Either way, darkness is not a good thing. It is a rather serious thing to be avoided, and always has some association with sin.
We could paraphrase the flow of thought between these three passages in this way:
Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. If your treasure is earthly, your heart will be dark. You can’t devote your heart both to God and to money.
What we’ve learned then is that Jesus takes the sin of loving money, or more generally the sin of preoccupation with temporal things, very seriously. This sin causes a darkness of heart that dulls the soul to heavenly truths and prevents it from turning to God. When unchecked it evidences a lack of salvation. Certainly we cannot be comfortable with out own worldliness and our own preoccupation with wealth and other worldly things. If we are to serve God, we must do so wholeheartedly, with no competition for supremacy in our affections.
I don’t want to go into giving specific application of this point; I fail so often and so much in it that I should focus on this point for my own life before dwelling on how others can do so. Instead I want to just leave you with this meditation: Jesus cares a lot about the devotion of our hearts. If we think too much about this world, we’re not devoting out hearts to God, and in doing so we darken our hearts to the joy we find in Him.