By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Matthew 6:19-24
This morning – as we continue this sermon series entitled “Response Ability” – we look at responsibility in relation to our physical assets. We live in a nation with lots of stuff. Most of us are trying to get more stuff hence the popularity of the bumper sticker: “the one who dies with the most toys wins.” But all that stuff and how we think about it impacts how we respond to one another. It impacts our response ability; the responsibility we embrace or defy toward others who may be lacking in stuff.
Matthew 6:22-23: The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is generous, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is envious, your whole body will be full of darkness…[i]
Perhaps you’ve heard of the “fairness study” by Frans de Waal with two Capuchin monkeys. You can check it out on a TED talk.[ii] It’s pretty entertaining.
The monkeys know one another. They are in two cages – adjacent and able to see one another – and the research scientist has each monkey perform the same simple task in exchange for a reward: a piece of cucumber. But the experiment gets interesting when one monkey receives a grape instead. Now, grapes have a lot more flavor than a cucumber. I think so; apparently so do the monkeys. And the monkey who continues to receive the cucumber while observing the other monkey receiving a grape for the same task becomes angry. So angry in fact that he rattles his cage, throws his cucumber at the scientist (primate food fight), and starts to make a lot of noise and gestures (the monkey finger, I suppose). He is a super mad monkey.
As are many of us when we perceive that someone has something we want; something we feel worthy of; something we believe we deserve.
Now I need to begin my sermon this morning by acknowledging that the way that envy was understood in the context of ancient Palestine is different from our 21st century American understanding. But the way things played out socially have a lot of similarities, especially the way in which it impacted relationships.
So, if you’ve heard me preach very often, you’ve heard some of this before; but it’s important to repeat because we can make a lot of false assumptions and draw a lot of faulty conclusions about the bible if we ignore its original social-cultural context.
So, very briefly… in Jesus’ culture, people believed in something sociologists call the concept of limited good; that there was only so much good stuff to go around. Now, we don’t tend to think that way today. If I run out of something good, I go to the store and buy more good stuff. If we don’t have enough money to buy more, that’s what credit is for. That’s how we tend to think as Americans. But, in the ancient world, there was only so much good stuff. And if you took too much of it, I wouldn’t have enough. In our culture today, people are encouraged to be ambitious. We believe in upward mobility and our economy is dependent upon acquiring more stuff. But, in the ancient world, people were encouraged to remain in their proper social place. Ambition was dishonorable; it meant I was trying to get ahead at your expense; to take too much and if I took too much, you were left with too little. To want what was not rightfully mine was envy.
In the ancient world, people also believed strongly in something called the evil eye. They believed that the eye and the heart – specifically the desires of the heart and the power of the eye – were connected. They didn’t know how vision works. Today we know we can see because light enters into the eye. In the ancient world, they believed the source of light was internal, it emanated from the heart. So Jesus says to his audience, “The eye is the lamp of the body.”[iii] And people who were blind – they believed – had dark hearts; evil hearts and evil eyes; envious hearts and envious eyes that desired what rightfully belonged to another. People in the ancient world believed a dark or evil eye with its power of envy could damage or destroy the good that another had in their possession.
Now if I’ve lost you in all this ancient social-cultural stuff, let me summarize: in Jesus’ culture, envy was bad because it meant you were trying to take from someone else something that was rightfully theirs; to have it for yourself; and to take it in ways that were destructive.
Today, in 21st century American culture, envy is still bad. Now, we don’t believe in limited good. But, envy is still destructive. It’s destructive because – as the teaching of Jesus makes clear – envy is the opposite of generosity; thus envy is about taking and generosity is about giving. And, envy or generosity determine where we fix our interest and they determine what we invest ourselves in… remember my sermon title: “Fixed interest and hidden fees.”
Let me say again: attitudes of envy or of generosity will determine where we fix our interest and they will determine what we invest ourselves in. They will determine what we give ourselves over to. Everything we invest in comes with a fee, right? If I want to be physically fit, it comes with a “cost” so to speak. I’m going to need to give up eating certain foods whether I like them or not. Being physically fit is going to cost me time and energy, as well. If I want to be physically fit, I’m going to need to make time to exercise when I might prefer to just sit in the recliner and eat chips… which I do like to do. But if I want to invest in good health I will reign in my junk food appetites and I will push myself to go on that walk even when I want to just be lazy because I’ve fixed my interest on good health. So, attitudes of envy or generosity will determine where we fix our interest and they will determine what we invest ourselves in.
So where do we fix our interest if we have an envious eye? Well, we fix our interest on ourselves and we fix our interest on any stuff that we think will bring us pleasure or provide us with security. We stockpile stuff; not because we really need it or are going to use it but because we’re greedy and want to have it all. In fact, an evil eye – or envy – creates such an inward focus that we become blind to the needs and vulnerabilities of others; we lose the ability to respond with gratitude or compassion. The book of Sirach says, “Do not consult with an evil eyed person about gratitude or with the merciless about kindness.”[iv] And friends, that kind of perspective – that way of seeing – comes with a high fee. It costs us our humanity. It isolates us. It costs us the ability to ever connect with others in meaningful, empathetic ways. It costs us the ability to feel deeply. That’s a pretty high fee to pay. Envy, ancient scriptures tell us, destroys people, destroys relationships; even destroys the social fabric of community.
Conversely, one who has a generous eye fixes their interest on others. In the book of Proverbs we read that those who have a generous eye are blessed for they share their bread with the poor.[v] Ancient texts state that one with a good or generous eye shows mercy to all, even if they are sinners. That sounds like the words of Jesus spoken just a few verses before what I recited this morning when Jesus says that his heavenly Father sends rain and sun on the evil and the good, the righteous and the unrighteous.[vi] A person with a generous eye shows generosity and mercy toward others not because the other deserves it, but because it is simply in their nature to show mercy… that is where their interest is fixed. Unlike the envious one who is never satisfied (because they never believe they have enough), the one who is generous fixes their attention on the best-interest of others. One with a generous eye particularly fixes their interest on the poor and the vulnerable.
Now friends, there is a reason why this morning’s message is so germane and so important for us to hear. While I realize that the issue of immigration and how to solve our immigration crisis is complex, I am concerned – in fact worried for us as a nation – that it is less about disagreement of policy and more about envy. I am concerned that we have succumbed to envy; the fear that we must keep acquiring more stuff and that others in need of stuff will interfere with our ability to get more stuff. Our eyes are envious and destructive, perhaps even willing to destroy life in order to protect stuff. We have lost a sense of mercy and gratitude and generosity. How we respond to the poorest and most vulnerable has a great deal to do with how we see: do we see with eyes of envy that are never satisfied or do we see with eyes of mercy and generosity and gratitude? I fear that if we see with eyes of envy, it will exact a heavy fee as it destroys people and relationships; even destroys our social fabric.
Now I want to call our attention for just a moment back to that Capuchin monkey test. It’s called the “Fairness Test” because the monkey who gets the cucumber really isn’t getting his fair share. And some of us even in the sanctuary this morning aren’t getting our fair share. But when we are not getting our fair share and respond to others out of envy, it doesn’t fix anything; it only perpetuates cycles of greed and anger and even violence. But if – even when we have been shortchanged – we can see the way to show generosity toward others, we will discover that – together – we can change things and begin to set in motion cycles of generosity and gratitude and compassion.
Now, I don’t have the legislative answer to our nation’s immigration crisis and I do not mean to imply that any form of boundary or restriction is selfish or sinful. But I do mean to invite us all this morning to consider: in this and in so many other social, political and economic issues, to begin with an eye exam, a heart exam. Let’s not be afraid to look within our hearts to consider if our concerns or fears are being fueled by envy which carries with it the hidden fees of resentment and destruction. Rather, may our eyes and hearts strive to discern an answer that sheds the light of generosity and mercy and fixes our interests on others, particularly the poor as our bible teaches.
Friends: when we respond toward others – whether a family member, a neighbor, a co-worker, or an immigrant – with attitudes of envy we have chosen to respond in ways that fix our interests only on ourselves, in ways that result in isolation and perpetuate poverty of body, mind and spirit. But when we choose to respond to others – again, whether a family member, a neighbor, a co-worker or an immigrant – with a heart of generosity it means we have fixed our interests beyond ourselves in ways that will result in abundance, compassion and gratitude; and really, isn’t that what we’re all interested in?
I close this morning with words from ancient texts that didn’t make it into the bible, but nevertheless contain great wisdom. Many of you, no doubt, recall the story of Joseph and his brothers in the Book of Genesis. Joseph received lots of attention and a “Technicolor dream coat” from his adoring father… which fueled envy on the part of his brothers who sold him into slavery in Egypt. One of the brothers was Simeon and the youngest was Benjamin. What I’m about to read comes from ancient writings called the Testament of Simeon and the Testament of Benjamin as they (late in years) impart wisdom to their own children. Their testaments read:
Listen to me, my children, and beware of the spirit of deceit and envy for envy dominates the whole of man's mind and does not permit him to eat or drink or do anything good. Rather it keeps prodding him to destroy the one whom he envies. Liberation from envy occurs by honoring the Lord... From then on one has compassion on the one whom he envied and has sympathy and thus his envy ceases. . . Guard yourselves, my children, from all envy and live with a generous heart so that God might give you grace and glory and blessing... For this [spirit of envy] makes the soul savage and corrupts the body… the one with a good or generous eye shows mercy to the impoverished and compassion to the weak; to God he sings praises . . . he does not look with longing upon corruptible things, nor accumulate wealth out of love for pleasure, for the Lord is his portion.[vii]
[i] Many English Bibles inaccurately translate the adjectives modifying the eye in these two verses. The Greek adjectives can be translated two ways. One way refers to the anatomical structure of the eye (healthy, unhealthy); the other refers to the eye as the metaphorical window to the heart (generous, envious). Significant research of the use of these Greek modifiers in ancient texts reveals that the better translation in this passage is generous and envious.
[iii] Matthew 6:22
[iv] Sirach 37:11b
[v] Proverbs 22:9.
[vi] See Matthew 5:43-48
[vii] The excerpts from these two testaments, as well as much research and references within this sermon is owed to the article “The Evil Eye and the Sermon on the Mount: Contours of a Pervasive Belief in Social Scientific Perspective” by John Hall Elliott printed in Biblical Interpretation: 2, no. 1; March 1994; pp. 51-84.
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