The Book of Mormon is a challenging book. To the faithful it is the word of God. To some it’s a work of deception. For those who have read it as faithful believers but then come to doubt its truth and divinity, how do you go back to the Book of Mormon for a fresh perspective? At the very least the Book of Mormon is a rich source of ideas that can shape one’s identity and thought. Studying it in that way might provide a middle path to a second look.
I’d like to talk a little about the Book of Mormon. I’m planning to do a longer episode on the Book of Mormon with a collaborator early next year. But today I just want to share some thoughts I’ve had lately about ways to read the Book of Mormon, depending on where you stand in relation to it.
The Book of Mormon is a challenging book. For its contents, yes. It’s certainly a complex and demanding text. But also, and maybe even more so, for everything that surrounds it. Its origin story is one of buried gold plates, angels, and seer stones. Supernatural elements abound. To the faithful it is the word of God, “the most correct of any book on earth” and the keystone of a religion. To others it’s an outrageous fraud perpetrated by a consummate charlatan. That, makes it difficult to approach the text itself. From one camp or another people are watching and evaluating, wondering which side you will join.
In looking at another way to read the Book of Mormon I’m thinking primarily of Latter-day Saints who have already read it as faithful believers but who have come to doubt its truth and divinity. How do you go back to the Book of Mormon now? How can you not have the specter of (possible) fraud hanging over your shoulder the whole time. At the very least it’s a distraction.
Philosopher Henry Nelson Wieman, in his book The Wrestle of Religion with Truth, spoke of three approaches to religion that I think apply to scripture, like the Bible, and to the Book of Mormon as well. The first approach is of “religious rationalizers” who think about religion primarily to defend it. The second approach is of “irreligious rationalizers” who think about religion primarily to attack it. The third approach is of the “religiously inquisitive” who think about religion with a view to “discovering precisely what may be the good of it”.
Personally I take all three approaches. I’m certainly a religious rationalizer, trying to give rational justification for things that I believe to be true. I’m even an “irreligious” rationalizer at times, in a manner of speaking, in the sense that I criticize what I understand to be heresies and false doctrines. And much of the time I’m just religiously inquisitive, even as a committed believer, because there are still many open questions that, while not decisive to my faith as a whole, are interesting, even consequential, and that I can take up and evaluate in a provisional and experimental way.
I think the inquisitive approach can be useful for the Book of Mormon when you’re just not quite sure what to make of it, not ready or even just not feeling the need to commit to a view of it as venerated scripture or outrageous fraud. Taking up the Book of Mormon apart from those positions one could read it looking for what may be the good of it, just as a book.
One of the reasons I like to read “old books” or works of literature and mythology in general is as a source of ideas. Humans are a sophisticated species and we’ve been thinking about stuff for a long time, thousands of years. Even before we had writing we were passing down stories and concepts orally. I repeatedly feel like I’m just scratching the surface of the insights that my species has accrued over the millennia.
In the Star Trek episode “Darmok”, the crew of the starship Enterprise encounters as species that speaks entirely in terms of ancestral stories. As a comparison I sometimes think I’m halfway there with family and close friends when much of our conversation consists of movie quotes. It’s funny but I think that’s also part of being human. We think in terms of stories because, even more than words, stories convey a lot of meaning, densely packaged in the form of those references.
Something I’ve realized is that I do the same with the Book of Mormon. I speak in Book of Mormon quotes and short phrases a lot. There are many complex ideas that I either would have to work really hard to express in a different way or even wouldn’t be able to express at all without recourse to a story or phrase from the Book of Mormon. What does that imply?
Philosopher Jacque Derrida, among other post-structuralists, had an interesting idea that words never stand in isolation. They are always connected in long, maybe endless, “chains of signifiers”. So if I use a phrase like “neither sense nor insensibility” (2 Nephi 2:11) that’s connected to other phrases like “compound in one”, “opposition in all things”, “in the wilderness”, “consecrate thine afflictions”, and to the broader story of the “days of my tribulation in the wilderness” in which these are all embedded and interconnected. I suspect that it’s not just that these are useful ways to express ideas, though they are, but that they actually shape the way I think and actually compose the substance, the gears in the mental machinery, of my thought. The Book of Mormon is inextricable from my thought. Trying to expunge it would result in a severe impediment.
I’ve heard of some Latter-day Saints doing readings of the Book of Mormon focusing on particular topics. Going through it and highlighting every reference to Christ is the most common I think. But it can be done with all sorts of topics. The idea being that you might notice things you didn’t notice before or see things in a different way. In a sort of similar way I’d propose that it’s possible to read the Book of Mormon with an eye to what may be the good of it, in a provisional way, neither committing to it as scripture or as fraud, but just looking at it as a text and considering its ideas. And additionally, for people who grew up with the Book of Mormon, investigating how much of yourself you find in it. How has the book shaped you? And what does that mean for you and your identity?
There are lots of ways to do this. The text of the Book of Mormon itself of course is the primary source. Currently I’m reading a couple of books that take a literary approach to the Book of Mormon. One is Michael Austin’s Buried Treasures: Reading the Book of Mormon Again for the First Time. The other is Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide. And I don’t mean to say that these exact books are going to be what makes studying the Book of Mormon in this way most fruitful but I’m just giving an example of a way to do it. Kind of to show what’s possible, to see more in the text than you may have realized is there.
Michael Austin’s book Buried Treasures is a collection of essays he wrote while he was reading the Book of Mormon for the first time in 30 years. Austin is a professor of English and reads and analyzes texts very closely as part of his job. But he said he had been worried that the Book of Mormon would disappoint him, that it wouldn’t be as rich as the great works of literature he usually worked with. And I’ll just quote him here saying what he found instead:
“I discovered in the Book of Mormon a profoundly human record of people struggling with their relationship to God and to each other. It has all the messiness one would expect of a record compiled over a thousand years, with multiple narrative perspectives, biases, agendas, and blind spots—as the authors and narrators groped towards an understanding of the Kingdom of God. It is a book that can bear multiple readings from multiple perspectives without exhausting its treasures. And it is a book that Latter-day Saints should never be ashamed to place alongside the great books of the world’s traditions, both religious and secular.”
And the book has some very interesting essays. Just to give a few examples from their titles: “Lehi’s Vision as a Corrective Typology of Eden”, “Nephi: The Anti-Isaiah”, “Laman’s Curse: Etiology and Race in the Book of Mormon”, “Why the ‘Anti-Nephi-Lehies’ Matters Today”, “Economic Inequality and the Tragedy of Fourth Nephi”.
Grant Hardy is a professor and history and religious studies and I’m actually most acquainted with his work on Eastern culture from his fantastic Great Courses lectures on Great Minds of the Eastern Intellectual Tradition and Sacred Texts of the World. He’s enthusiastic about intensely curious about the great storehouse of human wisdom collected from various cultures over the millennia of human existence. So it’s interesting that he is able to be similarly fascinated and dedicated to the Book of Mormon. His book Understanding the Book of Mormon also takes a literary, narrative approach to the book and elucidates the richness of the text.
Again, I don’t mean to say that you need to look at the Book of Mormon through the eyes academics like Austin and Hardy, though I certainly recommend their work if you find that interesting. But the takeaway I want to give here is that there are different ways to read the Book of Mormon. If you don’t quite know what you think of it, or what you think of Joseph Smith, it’s possible, I think, or I’m at least making the hypothesis that it’s possible to pick up the Book of Mormon to see what kind of resource for ideas and meaning it contains. And if you find something there then it’s another project to determine what that means. If the Book of Mormon contains a lot of useful ideas and conveys a lot of meaning, that doesn’t entail or prove that it’s the word of God or a translation of an ancient record. But it’s something and maybe something important. Even if it’s just something of relative, individual and personal significance, like how I find that the Book of Mormon is pretty much indispensable to much of my thought and speech. That’s something of deep subjective, personal significance, whatever it may say about the broader objective implications about its historicity and potentially divine origins.
It may sound like I’m just trying to sneak in pitch to sell it as the word of God. Maybe. But I’ll also say as a comparison that this is possible with many texts. And I hope not to offend faithful Latter-day Saints with this comparison but I think it’s useful. It’s possible to find tremendous insight from clearly fictional works like Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings or the tragedies of Sophocles, without thinking that they are narrating things that actually happened. If it helps to think of the Book of Mormon in this way, at least for a time, or even if that’s where you ultimately end up, I think there’s value in that too.
Approaching the Book of Mormon as a treasure of insights and resource for ideas is not limited to people who have doubts about its historicity or divinity. I think it also blends well with normal devotional reading, as a testament of Jesus Christ. So really this “other way” is potentially a supplement as well as an alternative. Fortunately, scripture is versatile enough to be accessible in different ways for different people, from wherever they’re coming at it.
It’s an exciting time in the Star Wars universe. Jeff and Todd start things off talking about all the new shows just announced. Then we talk about fan service, material in a work of fiction or in a fictional series which is intentionally added to please the audience. What are the merits of fan service? Possible pitfalls? We look at examples throughout the films and shows, where it’s worked well and some instances where, maybe less so.
Mike, Jared, and Todd discuss prediction. What skills and practices make people “superforecasters”? How do prediction betting markets like PredictIt work? Brier scores and how to quantify the accuracy of probabilistic predictions. What are the limitations of prediction, for people and for algorithms? How might the practices of probabilistic predicting also encourage intellectual honesty and improve social discourse?
In this second part in a series on the Sermon on the Mount we go through Matthew 6. The Sermon on the Mount is especially instructive on “The Way” disciples of Jesus Christ are to follow. In Matthew 6 Jesus taught about charitable deeds and fasting with sincerity rather than hypocrisy, about simple, humble prayer, the kingdom of God, forgiveness of debts, devotion to God rather than to riches, and trust in God’s providence rather than preoccupation with worldly cares.
This is the second part of a three-part series on the Sermon on the Mount. Last time I went through Matthew chapter 5. This time we’ll get into Matthew chapter 6.
Before getting into the chapter itself I want to review a few framing ideas. One is that I’m looking at this sermon for insight into the nature of “The Way”, ἡ ὁδός (he hodos), of Christianity. This is how early Christians referred to what we would call the religion they were practicing. They called it “The Way”. And it’s to understand The Way that I come back to the New Testament for grounding, to see how Jesus taught his followers to live and how they lived. And The Way was remarkable in a couple important ways. For one it was very different from the way people lived in the wider Roman and Hellenized world in which they were embedded, different in a way that’s difficult for us to imagine today because we don’t live in that world. We don’t live in a world where people can think of just going to gladiatorial games and seeing people, people thought to be the expendable, being ripped limb from limb in a bloody spectacle for our entertainment. We would find that horrific. And that’s a testament to the way that the world has been radically transformed. But The Way of Jesus’s teachings is also remarkable because it’s still so different from the way the world is today. Even though our norms in the West have been shaped by Jesus’s teachings, whether we’re Christian or not, they still surpass what we consider practical or sensible. And I find that fascinating.
Also important to remember the significant theological insight that Jesus Christ himself is The Way: Ἐγώ εἰμι ἡ ὁδὸς (Ego eimi he hodos) (John 14:6). So this is all an investigation of Christ himself as well as of the way we are to live.
So let’s get into it.
“Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven. Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly.”
Last time I brought up this passage as a comparison to Jesus’s teaching to “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16) There seems to be an important difference in motivation: who is meant to be glorified? Are the good works intended to glorify God or self?
I’m reminded of the difference between an icon and an idol. An icon is an important theological concept spoken of favorably in the New Testament. For example, Paul says in his Epistle to the Romans: “For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, τῆς εἰκόνος τοῦ Υἱοῦ αὐτοῦ (tes eikónos tou Huiou autou) (Romans 8:29). The elect are to be conformed to the image, or εἰκών (eikón), of the Son. We also read in Colossians that Christ is “the image [εἰκὼν (eikón)] of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). This concept of the icon, or image, shows up in the Old Testament as well. In Genesis: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him”. In Hebrew this “image” is צֶלֶם (tzelem), the image of God, צֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹהִ֖ים (tzelem elohim). In the ancient Greek translation, the Septuagint, this is translated as the εἰκὼν (eikón) of God, εικόνα θεού (eikóna theou). A very important theological concept. So that is a good thing. We should be icons that point toward God. People should see us bearing the image of God, seeing through us, toward God.
An idol is different. An idol is not an image that points toward God but an image that replaces God. And we can be idols in the way we go about doing ostensibly good works. If the motivation is not “Praise God” but instead, “Look at me”, it is the kind of ostentation that Jesus condemns. Jesus says this is the behavior of the ὑποκριταὶ (hupokritai), the hypocrites, play-actors, pretenders, dissemblers. Why do they do their charitable deeds? “That they may have glory from men.” And interestingly enough, Jesus says that that is what they get. “They have their reward”. But the strong implication here is that this is all they get. What they don’t get is the reward of those who do their works out of genuine concern, they don’t get their reward from the Father.
Jesus says to do our charitable deeds “in secret”, which is superior to self-glorifying display. But it’s also useful to remember and compare this to the teaching in chapter 5 that we actually should let our good works be seen by others, so that they glorify God. Something to reflect on.
“And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words.”
What is the purpose of prayer? Prayer can certainly be a public act, though it can also be done privately. Praying in a community can bring a church community, in Greek a συναγωγή (sunagoge) or “synagogue”, closer together and at the same time closer to God. But what’s the wrong way to do it? It’s not right to want to be heard for your πολυλογία (polulogía), your “many words”. And that’s definitely a temptation. As I’m sitting here doing my own podcast and literally listening to my own voice I can appreciate the narcissistic appeal of hearing your own voice and the allure of polulogía. But that’s not what prayer is for. It’s not a time for performance. And so Jesus teaches a remedy: keep it simple. And he gave as a model what became one of the most important passages in all scripture: the Lord’s Prayer.
“Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him. In this manner, therefore, pray:
Our Father in heaven, Hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done On earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, And do not lead us into temptation, But deliver us from the evil one.
“For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
Some manuscripts also include at the end of the prayer: “For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.”
It’s interesting that Jesus says that the Father already knows what we need before we ask, a fact he seems to mention as refutation of the need for polulogía, many words. So we might ask again, what is the purpose of prayer? Is it to actually inform the Father? Seems not. Is it to influence his will? Maybe, but still seems perhaps not. Is it to bring about some change in us? That seems closer to the mark to me. But that’s just an interpretation, for what it’s worth.
The Lord’s Prayer is very simple. Not ornate. It’s quite short. So it’s interesting what Jesus chooses to include in such a short prayer.
One feature is reverence for God. “Hallowed be Your name.”
A second is an expression of the desire that the Father’s Kingdom come. This is a major theme that we see in Jesus’s ministry in the Gospels. If we could give a one-sentence summary of Jesus’s message I’d go with: “The Kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15). His message was all about “the Kingdom of God”, ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ Θεοῦ (he basileia tou theou). Most of his parables were framed as parables of the Kingdom of God. In Matthew it’s expressed as the “Kingdom of Heaven”, ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν (he basileia ton ouranon).
“And the disciples came and said to Him, ‘Why do You speak to them in parables?’ He answered and said to them, ‘Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.’” (Matthew 13:10-11) The parables are meant to convey the “mysteries of the kingdom of heaven.” So, “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field” (Matthew 13:24). “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed” (Matthew 13:31). “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal till it was all leavened.” (Matthew 13:33) “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field” (Matthew 13:44). “The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls” (Matthew 13:45). “The kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet that was cast into the sea and gathered some of every kind” (Matthew 13:47).
These all start the same way. Jesus tells these parables to tell what the Kingdom God, or the Kingdom of Heaven, is like. And it’s this Kingdom that we will to arrive in the Lord’s Prayer. I think that one line in the Lord’s Prayer here in Matthew 6 is thematically connected to the parables of the Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew 13. And thinking of both together will enhance an understanding of both sections. What is the nature of this Kingdom that we are willing to come? That’s a challenge, I think an exciting and interesting challenge, to understand. Jesus’s parables are quite conspicuously and intentionally difficult to understand. I know they are for me. So when I pray the Lord’s Prayer I feel like I still have some work to do to understand what I’m praying for. But I think at least I know where to look to find the answers.
“Your will be done On earth as it is in heaven.” That’s an interesting line. Is it that we affirm God’s action to bring about his will, on earth as in heaven? Or are we committing to bring about his will by obedience? Or is it both? I think it’s both. And that it’s not just in heaven, but also on earth is interesting to me. This isn’t a wholly other-worldly Gospel. It’s relevant to the world we live in. This world is supposed to be a certain way. And it’s not just disposable. Explicitly not. “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” (John 3:17) This world is supposed to be saved. God loves the world, so we should love it too and work for his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. What would this transformed, saved world look like? I think we know quite well what it should look like. It’s “The Way”, ἡ ὁδός (he hodos). Everything Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount. That’s the way the world is supposed to be.
“Give us this day our daily bread.” We are physical beings and we have to eat. Jesus will tell us later in this chapter that we don’t need to preoccupy ourselves about that. God will and does provide for our material needs. But we should recognize that it is God who meets our needs. Without nourishment we will die. It’s God who sustains us and gives us life.
“And forgive us our debts, As we forgive our debtors.” Now there’s a provocative statement! It’s important to note here that, as Jesus said in chapter 5 that he is fulfilling the Law that was given through Moses, forgiveness of debts goes back a long way and was an important part of the Mosaic Law. Forgiving debts brings hope, new life, and freedom to people. For people without wealth, debt is a necessity. To get started in life certainly but sometimes even just to survive. And being able to pay off debts is not guaranteed. Certainly not in a Christian worldview. Recall from the previous chapter Jesus’s teaching against oaths: “ Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black.” (Matthew 5:36) Christian humility involves understanding that much of our fate, including our prospects for income and wealth, are outside our control.
The Torah also reminds us of this. “Beware that you do not forget the Lord your God… lest—when you have eaten and are full, and have built beautiful houses and dwell in them; and when your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and your gold are multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied… then you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gained me this wealth.’ And you shall remember the Lord your God, for it is He who gives you power to get wealth” (Deuteronomy 8:11-18) We can call this the providence of God, that aspect of things occuring in our lives to our benefit or misfortune, but that lie beyond our control. I think here of the expression, “there but for the grace of God go I.” Perhaps not unrelated to that important fact is the commandment to forgive debts. Also in Deuteronomy: “At the end of every seven years you shall grant a release of debts. And this is the form of the release: Every creditor who has lent anything to his neighbor shall release it; he shall not require it of his neighbor or his brother, because it is called the Lord’s release.” (Deuteronomy 15:1-2)
Here in the Lord’s Prayer what kinds of things are being forgiven? I think it could be all sorts of things. Certainly literal debts on our part, as we forgive our own debtors. To God our debts would seem to be in the form of sin, not having paid what we owe to him under the Law. And we might also have debtors in those sorts of intangible ways. People who have not given us what they owe to us, maybe in terms of respect and love. Those are also debts that we can forgive. In Deuteronomy it speaks of there being a “release”, a שְׁמִטָּה (shmita) from the verb שָׁמַט (shamat), to let something drop. I think that’s a great way to think of it. At some point we just need to let things drop and stop trying to keep account. As Tevye says in Fiddler on the Roof, trying to keep account of offenses by an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth will leave the world blind and toothless. Reconciliation requires letting things drop. This is the path to reconciliation, both between us and God and between each other.
So how does that actually work? Can you actually forgive debts? Whether they be monetary debts or debts of obligation in conduct like criminal offenses? And this is where we get again into some of the surprisingly radical and seemingly impractical aspects of Jesus’s teachings and the Bible generally. The secular part of me can fully appreciate the dynamic power of finance and investment, of which debt is an essential part. Much of the modern world as we know it today wouldn’t function without loans and credit. Not to mention “usury”, i.e. loaning at interest, which the Torah prohibits. That’s something to think about. How to be a Christian and live in the modern world? And how does that relate to the coming of the Kingdom of God? How are things to change? What is God’s ideal that we will be moving toward? I don’t have conclusive answers. But I’m also reluctant to craft easy answers that compromise Christ’s teachings.
“Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.”
This is a similar message to the teaching about charitable deeds, that we do them for the glory of God and out of genuine love rather than for drawing attention to ourselves. Another point worth noting in this passage is that we ought not to make religious practice appear severe and miserable. Living the Gospel can be difficult and Jesus often acknowledges this. But we don’t have to make a grand display of that.
The age of social media has transformed the ways in which we can present ourselves to the world. There are extremes of making our lives look better than they actually are or worse than they actually are. Either one is an act. Philosophically I’m inclined to think that some form of presentation is unavoidable. We are always interpreters, even of ourselves. But we can at least try to prevent excesses in our self-presentation. John Piper, in his book Desiring God, has advocated what he has called “Christian hedonism”, the view that Christian faith should bring us joy. And he argues this point from scripture. For example, Psalms 37:4 – “Delight yourself in the LORD.” This doesn’t mean that we need to pretend to be happier than we are. But we should go about our lives normally. Jesus puts this in terms of regular grooming. Do your hair, wash your face, do the things that you normally do, even when observing periods of fasting. It’s not about trying to look miserable.
I think we can also read this teaching on fasting in light of Jesus’s teachings on the internalization of the Law. Recall Jesus moved the locus of sinfulness from murder to anger, from adultery to lust. Fasting also seems not to be about appearance but about internal edification. To the extent that it is for the benefit of others, that we are letting our let so shine, it is for the glory of God. And it’s also about an internal transformation of the heart.
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Here is the first of Jesus’s teachings in the Sermon on the Mount regarding riches, or what he likely usually called “mammon” (ממון) in his native Aramaic. Jesus also contrasted treasures on earth with treasures in heaven when he told the rich man to sell what he had and give to the poor: “you will have treasure in heaven” (Matthew 19:21). Treasures on earth are seriously downgraded in Jesus’s teachings, even discouraged if not outright condemned. The relationship is still a little complicated, which we’ll get to in a bit, but it’s pretty clear that Jesus sees treasure in heaven as vastly superior, and that’s where the focus of his followers needs to be.
“The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness!”
Because of its placement between the previous passage on heavenly treasures over earthly treasures and the next passage on serving God over mammon, this passage would seem also to pertain to the focus of devotion to God rather than to riches. This is a beautiful and richly figurative saying: Ὁ λύχνος τοῦ σώματός ἐστιν ὁ ὀφθαλμός (ho luchnos tou somatos estin ho ophthalmos) – “the lamp of the body is the eye”. The source of illumination for our whole being is that part by which we center our focus of attention.
“If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light.” That’s NKJV translation. The more traditional King James Version is: “if therefore thine eye be single,” which I think is a decent translation too. The greek there is ἁπλοῦς. It can mean “single”, “simple”, and “honest”. So there’s some rich meaning from the gospel writer there conveying both goodness and focus.
“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.”
As I mentioned earlier, “mammon” (ממון) is an Aramaic term for wealth. I like these Aramaic quotations in the Greek text because it gives us a little glimpse into Jesus’s own native voice. This is a succinct summation of the former two passages. Basically Jesus says you have to choose. Your master is either God or wealth. Can’t be both.
I said earlier that it’s a little complicated. But not for the reasons we might usually hear in the form of awkward accommodations, excusing our deviation (my own included) from Jesus’s literal teachings. It’s just that Jesus uses money and riches in his parables a lot. This doesn’t mean that he’s speaking favorably of literal riches. Jesus is after all the master of the nonliteral, and adamantly so. But it’s easy to forget that he may often be talking in such cases about treasures in heaven rather than treasures on earth.
One classic example is his parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30. And let’s recall here that a talent – τάλαντον (tálanton) – is a unit of measure, rather a special skill as we think of it in English. A man gives three servants five talents, two talents, and one talent respectively. The first two are enterprising and double the principal investment. The third man generates nothing, to his own condemnation. The first two would definitely be better examples to follow in our financial practices. That’s what I try to do in my personal finances. But Jesus’s message would seem to be something other than this literal meaning. He says it’s a parable of the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven comes, without warning, as the master in this story. And we will be made to give an account and must be prepared.
Another, stranger example is the parable of the unjust steward in Luke 16:1-13.
“He also said to His disciples: ‘There was a certain rich man who had a steward, and an accusation was brought to him that this man was wasting his goods. So he called him and said to him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your stewardship, for you can no longer be steward.’”
“Then the steward said within himself, ‘What shall I do? For my master is taking the stewardship away from me. I cannot dig; I am ashamed to beg. I have resolved what to do, that when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses.’”
“So he called every one of his master’s debtors to him, and said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ And he said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ So he said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ So he said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ And he said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’ So the master commended the unjust steward because he had dealt shrewdly. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in their generation than the sons of light.”
“And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by unrighteous mammon, that when you fail, they may receive you into an everlasting home. He who is faithful in what is least is faithful also in much; and he who is unjust in what is least is unjust also in much. Therefore if you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in what is another man’s, who will give you what is your own?
“No servant 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.”
What a strange passage! I love it. What does it mean? Again it would seem not to be meant literally. The parable concludes with the same teaching we see in Matthew 6: “You cannot serve God and mammon.” Yet just a few verses before that it speaks of making “friends for yourselves by unrighteous mammon”. It’s certainly strange.
I bring this up because I want to be fully transparent in the way we look at Jesus’s teachings. I think we often proof text to highlight the teachings that conform to our views and conveniently ignore some of the other difficult or strange things Jesus taught when they don’t fit the agenda. The best practice is to actively resist and counter that tendency.
Regarding the parable of the unjust steward, I’ve read a lot of commentaries on these verses and I’m not satisfied that any one of them explains them adequately or at least that any one of them is able to demonstrate any interpretation conclusively. The safest interpretation I’ve seen is that, as the dishonest manager was prudent in using the things of this life to ensure the future, so believers should be prudent in preparing for the coming of the kingdom of heaven. It’s a comparison.
Interesting to note here another example in scripture where shrewdness or craftiness is presented more positively than we would expect. I think here also of Jacob in Genesis, in his shrewd plans to get his father’s birthright and blessing from under Esau and to get the better part of his father-in-law Laban’s flock. The shrewdness of the unjust servant is, in greek, φρόνιμος (phronimos). Jesus uses the same word in Matthew 10:16 when counseling his disciples to be as wise (φρόνιμοι, phrónimoi) as serpents but also innocent as doves. The same word is also used in the parable of the five wise virgins. This kind of resourcefulness, prudence, and shrewdness is, intriguingly, encouraged. But the object or aim to which either wisdom or foolishness apply is important. Using another word for wisdom, σοφία (sophia), Paul told the Corinthians that “the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God” (1 Corinthians 3:19). Symmetrically “the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him” (1 Corinthians 2:14). We ought to be prudent, resourceful, and even shrewd for the things of God and of the kingdom of heaven.
“Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?”
“So why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, 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 after all these things the Gentiles seek. For 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. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”
This brings us back to the doctrine of divine providence, that events in our lives can occur to our benefit or misfortune, that lie beyond our control. Appreciating this is important for our well-being and happiness. But I think it’s also just an important part of understanding the nature of reality. And that makes sense. A proper understanding of reality would be conducive to well-being and happiness, at least in the long-run. What is the illusion that this understanding might dispel? The illusion of reality as something that we can direct and control. It’s not a total illusion. We can direct some things to an extent. But there’s always a limit. And remarkably, also fortunately, much in reality that we rely upon just happens outside of and beyond our control or even awareness.
One of Jesus’s parables is especially illustrative of this point.
“The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground, and should sleep by night and rise by day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he himself does not know how. For the earth yields crops by itself: first the blade, then the head, after that the full grain in the head. But when the grain ripens, immediately he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.” (Mark 4:26-29)
We know more through modern botany about these processes but there is still a lot we don’t know and, significantly, the more we come to understand about the physiological and biochemical complexity involved in seed germination and plant growth the more astounding it is how all this just happens with minimal input from us. It’s miraculous. And that’s what the whole world is like.
It’s easy to forget this because we are always engaged in activity and it feels like we’re the ones keeping our lives going. And yes, there are things that we have to do. But the vast majority of what sustains us is given to us. Hugh Nibley had this line: “Work we must but the lunch is free”. Playing there off the expression in economics that “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch” – TANSTAAFL. Work may be necessary but we shouldn’t conclude from this that our work is sufficient for all that we have. The greater part of what sustains us and makes our existence possible precedes us and is beyond our control and awareness. I think this realization is one of the first steps toward sincere piety.
Another side to this is that we preoccupy ourselves much more than we really need to. At least for the things that are needful. Jesus said, “One thing is needful”, χρεία (chreia) or necessary (Luke 10:42). But we preoccupy ourselves – μεριμνάω (merimnáo) – unnecessarily. But Jesus commands: “Do not worry” – μὴ μεριμνᾶτε (me merimnáte). And the list of things for which Jesus says not to worry gets down to what we might consider the most basic things.
“Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on.” Food, drink, clothing. Those are pretty basic things. Stuff we would say today goes right at the foundation of Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs. Is it possible to live like that? I honestly don’t know. I guess I’m in the class of people Jesus calls the ὀλιγόπιστοι (oligópistoi) – those of little faith. I’m not ready to take that kind of leap yet. But I think we can say this: if Jesus says we shouldn’t preoccupy ourselves with even those most basic things it’s reasonable to suppose that we shouldn’t preoccupy ourselves with the many far less basic things with which we do regularly preoccupy ourselves. Jesus teaches a much simpler way of life than the vast majority of people practice. Even as oligópistoi Christians, if we’re not able to go all the way to the kind of life Jesus teaches us to live we can at least move in that direction and simplify our lives.
The last verse of this chapter is one I’ve found personally meaningful. “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” I’ve found it easy to fall into unhealthy imaginative fictions about troubles the future might bring. Getting fixated on and upset about things that aren’t even real. That is not a good way to live. I get a kick out of Jesus’s half-sardonic, half-optimistic saying: “Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” We’ve got enough to worry about in the present moment. Don’t multiply worries beyond necessity or reality. But it’s not only trouble that we experience in the present. There is grace, free gifts, to be seen all around us right now. We can see this in the birds of the sky, the lilies of the field, and in countless other free bounties given to us by God. We do not need to worry and should not worry because God is mindful of us and watching over us.