“The light 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!”
These two verses in Matthew (6:22-23), echoed and expanded in Luke (11:33-36), have caused constant consternation to commentators, with the chief problem being how to understand the phrase “if thine eye be single” (as translated in the King James Version). The interpretations are many and varied, depending on the commentators’ scholarship, persuasion and convictions. As Paramhansa Yogananda puts it: “Jesus Christ was crucified once; but his teachings are crucified daily at the hands of superstition, dogmatism and pedantic theological interpretations.”
It is worth remembering that our knowledge of Jesus’ words comes to us through oral transmission and translation, with all the concomitant possibilities for inaccuracies and mistranslation that this entails. Jesus, as we know, spoke Aramaic, probably Hebrew, possibly some Latin (in what language did he speak to Pontius Pilate or to the Roman centurion whose servant he healed?). We have to remember, too, that his words were heard and interpreted by his disciples (each in keeping with the level of his own understanding) and seemingly only recorded by them years later from memory or related by them to their disciples, who translated Jesus’ words and wrote these recollections in Koine Greek (the lingua franca of the time). The possibilities for error and inaccuracies are innumerable, even allowing for the agency of the Holy Spirit.
But let’s look at the Greek text that we have. The first observation concerns the translation of the Greek word “haploús” as “single” (in the King James translation). The word only appears in the New Testament in these two instances in Matthew and Luke. “Haploús” means single, as opposed to diploús (double) and triploús (treble), etc. It literally means “unfolded” and, by extension, “simple”. In fact, in modern Greek, “simple” is the usual translation of the word. But the King James Version is not the only translation. In an attempt to make sense of the verse, other English Bibles translate “haploús” as sound, clear, good, whole, healthy, etc.
It may help to look at the word with which Jesus contrasts “haploús”. He says “but if thine eye be evil…”. The word in the Greek text for “evil” is “ponerós”, the same word used in the Lord’s Prayer in the phrase “deliver us from evil”. Jesus is obviously making a contrast, but in what sense, we might ask, is “single” a contrast with “evil”? It would be difficult to make a case for translating “ponerós” using some other word. And yet, again in an attempt to make sense of these verses, Bible translators have translated this word as unhealthy, bad, diseased, not sound, etc.
A further problem is with the words translated as “light”. The Greek word used for “the light of the body” is “lúchnos”, which actually means “lamp”, or “candle” as it is translated in the verses in Luke. In “full of light”, however, the Greek word is “photeinón”, the adjective from “phos”, meaning “light”. This makes more sense when we look at the corresponding and expanded verses in Luke. Here Jesus is comparing the light in the body to the light of a lamp or candle:
“No man, when he hath lighted a candle, putteth it in a secret place, neither under a bushel, but on a candlestick, that they which come in may see the light. The light [candle] of the body is the eye: therefore when thine eye is single, thy whole body also is full of light; but when thine eye is evil, thy body also is full of darkness. Take heed therefore that the light which is in thee be not darkness. If thy whole body therefore be full of light, having no part dark, the whole shall be full of light, as when the bright shining of a candle doth give thee light.”
Jesus here refers to an actual candle and then goes on to talk of where the metaphorical candle is in the human body. Note that the same Greek word “lúchnos” is translated as “candle” in the first instance and “light” in the second instance in the King James translation of Luke’s verses.
I have referred to just three key words in these verses, the various translations of which can lead to quite different interpretations of Jesus’ meaning. It should at least make us a little more cautious when offering an interpretation of his words based on often problematic translations.
There is, however, another way to interpret Jesus’ words other than by the use of scholarship and intellect. In Paramhansa Yogananda’s commentaries on Jesus’ teachings (published as: The Second Coming of Christ: The Resurrection of the Christ Within You), he explains his method: “What I have tried to convey are the thoughts and consciousness of Jesus that were behind his words when he uttered them, I commune with Christ and ask him: ‘I don’t want to interpret the Bible from my own views, will you interpret it?’ Then he comes to me.” Yogananda’s commentaries are not a product of scholarly study or comparison of existing Biblical commentaries, but, as he explains, the meaning of Jesus’ words came to him directly through prayer and attunement with Christ consciousness. In other words, a true understanding of Jesus’ teachings comes not through intellectual rationalization, but through communion with the consciousness of Christ: the goal and essence of yogic meditation.
In several of his books and writings, Yogananda gives us his understanding of these Biblical verses based on his attunement with Christ consciousness. In Inner Culture (January-March 1942), he writes: “The God-revealing light in the body is the spiritual eye in the middle of the forehead, as seen by devotees when their eyes are closed in meditation. When the devotee with half-closed eyes focuses his vision at the point between the eyebrows, the two lights of the two eyes become one and single, visible as the single spiritual eye, the divine telescope with which the kingdom of God can be visioned. When the devotee can perceive through this spiritual eye, his whole body as well as his cosmic body becomes filled with the light emanating from cosmic vibration. But when a man’s gaze and mind become concentrated on evil motives and actions, his life is filled with the darkness of ignorance and misery-making habits.”
Yoga is not a dogma, but is open to experimentation. So we have only to practice yogic meditation to test for ourselves the validity of Yogananda’s words. Dr. Lewis, one of Yogananda’s first disciples in the USA, was even more fortunate. When he met Yogananda, one of his first questions to the master concerned this very passage from the Bible (See: Treasures Against time. Paramahansa Yogananda with Doctor and Mrs. Lewis, p. 3). He asked Yogananda whether he could tell him anything about it, explaining that he had asked many people, but no one had been able to enlighten him. Yogananda, referring to Luke 6:39, simply commented: “Can the blind lead the blind? They both fall into the same ditch.” Yogananda, on the contrary, didn’t enter into a theological diatribe in order to answer Dr. Lewis’ question, but simply sat the doctor down cross-legged on a tiger skin and showed him the light of the spiritual eye. We should be so lucky!