The Lamp of the Body

Romans 5:1-10; Matthew 6:22-33

Glory to God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today’s Gospel begins with the curious words:

The lamp of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness! (Matthew 6:22-23).

Here the Lord offers us three images.

First, the Lord speaks about the eyes – about how important it is for them to see all that is full of light, so that whole body will be full of light. If the eyes only look for good, then the whole person will be good and whole and illuminated. But if the eyes are darkened, then the whole person will be full of darkness.

The second image compares the eye with a lamp. A lamp dispels the darkness around it and gives light to every corner– and the eye should do likewise for you.

And the Lord implicitly offers us a third image – of the mind. If our thoughts are full of light, then all the powers of the soul will likewise be full of light. On the contrary, if our mind is darkened, then our entire soul will become dark and lost.

He goes on to say:

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Mammon. (Matthew 6:24).

Saint Matthew keeps the Aramaic word Mammon as he’s writing his Gospel in Greek, but we know the word means wealth or profit; it’s still the word for money in Modern Hebrew. But it was also the name of a Syrian god of wealth. The Lord isn’t just saying it’s a bad idea to devote yourself to getting rich; he’s saying that the pursuit of wealth is another religion competing with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And he lays out the choice; you can only worship one or the other.

The rest of today’s Gospel is encouraging advice not to fear poverty:

Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’  For the nations seek after all these things. And your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. (Matthew 6:31-34).

I’ll add here that the Lord does not condemn comfort or possessions. But you can’t read the New Testament without seeing a consistent teaching that money, possessions, profit and wealth are not safe. They bring serious temptations. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25).

For most of my time in the Philippines I lived, traveled, and funded the work of the mission on a budget of about $800 a month. That’s not remotely a living wage here, but over there it made me rather well-off. I almost always had fresh food, and I usually had something to share when anyone needed a prescription or help with tuition or whatever. Since I found myself in the role of a wealthy man, I had to make sure most of that money flowed through my hands, and didn’t stick.

Now I’m back in the US, where nearly everyone has indoor hot running water, public schools, and we eat two meals a day, even three. It’s important for people like you and me to realize that in global terms, compared to most of humankind, we are the rich.

And our Lord is warning us that our life of comfort and freedom may pose a hazard to our spiritual health. If defending our standard of living, or upgrading to the next income bracket, becomes the reason we get out of bed – then we’ve traded away Christ to worship Mammon.

But consider how the lilies of the field grow: they do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?

Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the nations run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you as well (Matthew 6:28-33).

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It’s curious that the beginning of this passage, in the King James, reads: “The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.”

Most translations render that as “If your eye is healthy.” Or good. Or clear. The Apostle actually uses an interesting word here that refers to fabric that is not braided, folded, or complicated. It’s simple. Think of the Lord’s tunic, that the soldiers gambled over: “they took his clothes, dividing them into four shares, one for each of them, with the undergarment remaining. This garment was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom” (John 19:23).

“Simple” is kind of an odd word in English. If someone asked about you and I said, “He’s kind of… simple,” it would not be a great reference.

But here the Lord is saying that the healthy eye is single, straightforward, unmixed, not complicated.* And with that kind of eye, you’ll be able to see.

In Romans 12, Saint Paul says, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what is the good, pleasing and perfect will of God” (Romans 12:1,2).  For the “renewing of your mind,” Paul uses the Greek word nous. We haven’t really got a good English equivalent, so it gets translated mind or intellect. Or a lot of Orthodox texts just leave in in Greek and make nous a new English word.

The nous is the combination of our heart and our rational mind. Those are meant to be united to one another and to God. Our thinking, our will, our emotions, our body, and our firsthand experience of union with God are meant to be all together in one place, so that we know the Lord, we know what’s right, and we are fulfilled by doing it. “I delight to do thy will, O my God; thy Law is within my heart” (Hebrews 10:7, quoting Psalm 39:11lxx).

The nous is the inner faculty that perceives spiritual realities. When Apostles were with Christ on the Mount of Transfiguration, they were overwhelmed when the brightness and glory of Christ were revealed. But Jesus didn’t change: their spiritual eyes were opened; and for a moment their nous, the eye of their soul, was able to perceive the light of Christ that illumines all.

In you and me, here and now, the nous is darkened by shame, compulsions and delusions; with the result that people are broken and isolated from seeing one another and Christ.

And it’s not only our spiritual senses: our ability to think, to choose, and to act is damaged. Like a broken mirror, our attention is shattered and fragmented. You know this from experience, every time you try to pay real attention to someone’s words and your thoughts are everywhere except on this person in front of you. Or you try to pray, and you can’t keep your attention on the words of even the shortest prayer. But a wrong committed against you ten years ago can still hold your attention all day long.

In place of the fulfillment and purpose of knowing and doing the will of God, we are subject to compulsions, things that grab our attention and take our will captive. All these infirmities of the inner man are what we call the passions.

So Saint Paul cries out, “I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law, at war with the law of my mind, and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:22-24).

But even as we start to realize our need of a Savior, the nous that is supposed to be our clear vision of God is alienated, darkened, and out of commission.

So in the absence of experiential union with God, people struggle to create a conception of God using their brain and their feelings. That’s why most religion amounts to speculation, rationalization, emotion, and moralism. Even worse, the forebrain hasn’t got an off-switch; it generates a constant stream of images and memories and words – as if a web page were scrolling 24/7 in our heads. We read “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 45:10lxx) but that’s a task we’re not very good at.

But remember Saint Paul said to “be transformed by the renewing of your nous. Then you will be able to test and approve what is the good, pleasing and perfect will of God” (Romans 12:1,2). 

When the nous is renewed, made whole, and filled with light, then it sees and knows God firsthand. Then our attention isn’t fractured or occupied by images, rationalizations, and memories.

We read in James that “a double-minded man [is] unstable in all his ways” (James 1:8). But King David prays, “Unite my heart to fear thy name” (Psalm 86:11kjv), and if the eye of your soul is single, your whole body will be full of light. “I will give them an undivided heart,” says the Lord, “and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 11:19).

That’s why we practice the Jesus Prayer. The saints have shown us a practice of stillness, where we intentionally keep watch over the thoughts we permit to live in us. We use the Prayer to cut off uninvited thoughts, images, memories, by intentionally turning our attention to the Person of Christ. Lord. Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.

There’s no magic in the words; it’s not a mantra. Like everything God does, it’s personal. The way a child with a hurt knee runs to her mama, when we are attacked we seek the face of God. Not running away from thoughts or temptations but turning toward the Lord.

And that’s all repentance is. Repentance is not defined by weeping and prostrations and long prayer rules; the Greek word means “turning the nous.” Turning the heart toward Christ.

Have you ever walked across a beach or a snowy field, then turned and looked at your footprints? It felt like you were walking in a straight line, but footprints don’t lie; you were all over the place! You looked at the tree or fencepost or whatever you were walking toward, and you walked straight toward it. You looked down, looked up, enjoyed the beauty around you, and then back at that tree, and now you were walking straight toward it again. You effortlessly aimed at the thing you were looking at; whatever direction you were walking, your steps became straight as you kept turning toward your goal.

With practice, turning toward the face of God using the name of Jesus becomes the ground state of our thoughts. So that instead of a constant self-talk of speculation, thoughts, memories and fantasies, we naturally fall back to practicing the presence of Christ.

Do those thoughts, images, and memories stop popping up? Nope. But you know, when there’s a knock at your door, and it’s a salesman or a religious zealot or whatever, you know you aren’t obligated to invite them in. And even if you did let them come in for a moment, if they turn out to be obnoxious, you have every right to say, “No thank you, I’d like you to leave now,” and kick them out the door.

It’s the same any time you practice watchfulness – you’re keeping an eye on the thoughts you permit to live in you, and when you recognize envy, or entitlement, or lust, or resentment. “You! Not welcome here.” And you show that thought the door by turning toward Christ: Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.

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Saint Theophan the Recluse taught us:

The principal thing is to stand before God with the mind in the heart and to go on standing before him unceasingly day and night until the end of life…

One must descend with the mind into the heart, and there stand before the face of the Lord, ever present, all seeing within you. The prayer takes a firm and steadfast hold, when a small fire begins to burn in the heart. Try not to quench this fire, and it will become established in such a way that the prayer repeats itself: and then you will have within you a small murmuring stream.

What does it mean to bring the mind into the heart?

When we meet Adam in Genesis 2, he lives in Paradise. That’s our word for the place where God is; the place where Adam and Eve walk together with the Lord in the cool of the day.

When you are united to the Lord in baptism and chrismation, then by the Holy Spirit he begins to dwell not only alongside you but in you.

Now when Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them and said, “The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’ For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:20-21).

And so Saint Ephraim the Syrian writes:

Insofar as the Son of God dwells in you, the kingdom of heaven lies within you also. Here within are the riches of heaven, if you desire them. O sinner, here is the kingdom of God within you. Enter into yourself, seek more eagerly and you will find it without great travail. Outside you is death, and the door to death is sin. Enter within yourself and remain in your heart, for there is God  (quoted in The Art of Prayer).

Enter into your heart – and remain there.

When Saint Paul instructs us to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17), he does not just say pray morning and evening, or three times a day, but pray without ceasing. 

You’ve probably heard the verse from Ecclesiastes, “To every thing there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die… a time to keep silence and a time to speak.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-7). The monk Antiochus of Saint Sabbas monastery adds: “There is a proper time for everything. Except prayer: as for prayer, its proper time is always.”

In the book The Way of a Pilgrim, the pilgrim sets out to discover what it means to pray without ceasing, and he doesn’t find an answer – until he is taught the Jesus Prayer.

St. Gregory the Theologian said, “Remember God more often than you breathe.” Sometimes people talk about having a prayer life, but Bishop Kallistos says that nobody talks of having a breathing life distinct from the rest of what we do. Prayer is meant to be not merely one activity among others but the activity of our life – present in everything we do. 

To learn the simple five word Prayer and put it into practice is the work of a lifetime, and we’re not going to learn it here on one Sunday morning. But I want to leave you with this practical counsel from Saint Diadochos, one of the writers of the Philokalia:

Those who are engaged in spiritual warfare must always keep their hearts tranquil. Only then can the mind sift the impulses it receives and store in the treasure house of the memory those that are good and come from God, while rejecting altogether those that are perverse and devilish.

When the sea is calm, the spearfisher’s eyes can see the movements of the fish deep down, so that hardly any of them can escape. But when the sea is ruffled by the wind, the turmoil of the waves hides from sight the creatures that would easily have been seen if the sea wore the smile of calm. The skill of the fisherman is of little use in rough weather…

At the beginning of a storm, oil is poured on the waters to calm them, and in fact the oil defeats their commotion. In this way, when the soul receives the anointing of the Holy Spirit, it gladly gives in to this inexpressible and untroubled sweetness. And even if it is continually attacked by temptation it maintains its peace and joy (Spiritual Works, 23).

In very practical terms, this means watchfulness. Our thoughts are not a TV playing ads and celebrities all day while you and I sit passively drooling in our comfy chairs. Our thoughts arise one by one out of our brains and our passions and our memories. Sometimes they race so quickly we feel like we’re being carried away by them, but we still have time to examine them. To judge our thoughts.

I learned a long time ago not to come to confession and say “Sometimes I get mad at people.” Or “I got envious, resentful, aroused.” Instead, I was taught to own my choices and confess: I made room in my thoughts for envy. I welcomed thoughts of pride, lust, judgment, and I didn’t cut them off.”

Like the spearfisher in Saint Diadochos’s teaching, we watch our thought life, and when something alien, hateful, hurtful, or compulsive shows its face, then we cut it off by turning toward the Lord.

When with intention and discipline we keep our thoughts and our heart united, we begin to live in the illumination of the Holy Spirit. Our whole body and soul is filled with light and so we can see the movements of our thoughts. And because the heart of the Christian is where the Lord is, he grants us to cast the moneychangers out of the temple of our heart.

Then in singleness of heart we’ll be able to seek first the kingdom of God, and everything else will be added unto us.

To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.