Sermon on the Mount: The Eye Is the Lamp of the Body
Where is your focus? I think that’s the question Jesus poses in Matt. 6:22-23: “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!”
It’s hard to overstate the importance of where your focus is. For example, the Pharisees were focused on getting praise from people (Matt. 6:1-18). This brought them status. And, in a shame-and-honor society, status could have serious economic implications. The Pharisees loved that whole game. That’s where their focus was. As a result, they were blind (Matt. 23:26). Their focus was so skewed that they couldn’t see anything.
Your focus shapes how you see the world. Could we possibly have a better example of that than our current media echo chambers? Especially with social media, it is easy to construct an environment where you are getting one narrative and only that narrative. That narrative becomes your reality. But since we have different echo chambers, we get people standing right next to each other who are living in different realities.
Now in the grand scheme, there are lots of things you could focus on. But for Jesus, the choice is binary: you are either focused on the light or you are focused on the darkness. What you focus on is what your life will be filled with. That’s the idea of the eye being the lamp of the body. A lamp gives light to a room (Matt. 5:15). Well, what other light source would your body have? Either light comes in through your eyes or things go dark.
“The choice is binary: you are either focused on the light or you are focused on the darkness. What you focus on is what your life will be filled with.”
And as Jesus says, that darkness is devastating.
First of all, perception can have a nasty way of becoming reality. Working retail, if I think most people are needlessly grumpy and argumentative, I’m going to have more unpleasant encounters with people than I need to. I treat people like they’re grumpy, and guess what? They get grumpy. It’s called a “self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Second, perception can be self-reinforcing. If my perspective is dark, then I’m tuned to notice darkness easier. Which means I’ll see it more. Which will tune me to notice it even more. The darkness inside me feeds itself. You see this with chronic complainers. On the sunniest day, they can’t do anything but look for clouds. They are tuned to notice the negative.
“If my perspective is dark, then I’m tuned to notice darkness easier.”
That all sounds kind of hopeless. “Okay, Jesus, I want a healthy eye, not an unhealthy one. But how do I do that?” If an unhealthy eye is self-reinforcing, how can I make it healthy? How do I break out of that cycle to get a healthier perspective?
There’s actually not a lot you can directly choose. You can’t directly choose your beliefs. They form more-or-less automatically based on the evidence at hand. You can’t directly choose your feelings. They form more-or-less automatically based on your experience.
But you can directly choose where you point your eyeballs right now. You can choose where you direct your immediate attention. You can choose to look at what’s good in a situation more than what’s bad. You can choose to give your attention to what’s healthy and not what’s unhealthy. In the moment, you can choose to focus on the light, not on the darkness.
“You can directly choose where you point your eyeballs right now.”
And you can make habits of these choices. Studies in neuroplasticity are showing that you can direct your attention in ways that will intentionally reorganize the way your brain works. Your immediate attention is the foundation for developing your overall focus. Your focus is the foundation for your life approach. And your life approach is the foundation for your well-being. Therefore, your attention is the most valuable resource you have.
Here’s the bad news (pun slightly intended): we now live in the “attention economy.” Businesses have learned how to monetize attention—your attention. This business model started online and has now infected our entire culture. It gives businesses the incentive to harvest as much of your attention as possible. For instance, at one point, the CEO of Netflix said that their chief competitor was sleep. You can’t harvest attention from people who are unconscious. So keep ’em awake and keep them watching.
This means that there are teams of people far smarter than you or I studying psychology and neuroscience with the explicit goal of hacking our brains so that they can siphon away our most valuable resource—our attention. We live in the age of white noise. Everyone clamors for our attention. But they don’t want to do anything with it. They don’t want to ask anything of us or inspire us to anything. They just want our attention to have it, to sell it. They want us numb.
“There are teams of people far smarter than you or I studying psychology and neuroscience with the explicit goal of hacking our brains so that they can siphon away our most valuable resource—our attention.”
The most basic method to do this is to turn our electronic devices into dopamine “slot machines.” Dopamine is the “feel good” chemical in our brains. People who sit for hours at the “one-armed bandit” aren’t really there for a pile of nickels. They’re there for the dopamine rush they get when the bells and whistles go off and the coins drop. You never know when it’s coming, so you just have to keep trying.
This is how all video games work. Play long enough and you’ll get that next achievement or item. This is why all video streaming platforms automatically play the next recommendation. Maybe you’ll like it as much as the last one. You’ll just have to watch to find out. This is why your news feed is literally endless. Keep scrolling long enough, and something interesting is bound to pop up. Your brain is anticipating this reward and it is physically painful to walk away from it.
All this is in service of keeping your attention, your most precious resource, right where they want it—on their platform. For you, this becomes an especially sad form of “storing up treasures on earth.” It doesn’t really store up anything. Your focus is simply on chasing the next dopamine hit.
“Your focus is simply on chasing the next dopamine hit.”
A slightly more sophisticated method for harvesting your attention is to trigger “activating emotions.” These are emotions that make your “survival brain” think it needs to take over. It screams, “Stop everything! We need to pay attention to this, right NOW!!!” Generally, this means getting you angry, scared, or horny as quickly as possible—preferably in the thumbnail picture or the first half of the headline. This is why “angry, scared, or horny” pretty much describes our culture, right now.
This is not the freedom Christ died for.
But what is the point of all this attention harvesting? What is it built on? The foundation for the entire architecture of our “attention economy” is that someone is hoping to sell you something.
Ad revenue. That’s it.
This is all about material possessions. It’s people hoping that you will get sucked into storing up treasures on earth. It’s the pull to put Mammon on the throne of our culture and of your life. The saying itself, that “the eye is the lamp of the body,” is not necessarily about money. Luke quotes it without that context at all (Luke 11:34-36). But in our culture, at least, it circles back to exactly where Matthew put it.
“I’m hoping you can step back, see it for what it is, and regain some of your own agency.”
Why have I spent all this time talking about neuropsychology and modern marketing? Because I’m hoping to shift your attention. Instead of looking into this crazy kaleidoscope, I’m hoping you can step back, see it for what it is, and regain some of your own agency. I’m hoping your focus can shift enough to see that this whole system is the darkness reaching for you.
Turn it off and start looking to the light.
Be deliberate about where you put your attention. Let the Spirit and Scripture re-orient your focus.
“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Phil. 4:8).
Where are your eyeballs pointing? No matter how much our culture tries, it’s still your choice.