MATTHEW 6:22. The eye is the lamp of the body. So if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light; 23. But if your eye is a villain, your whole body will be full of darkness. If, then, the light in you is darkness, how great will the darkness itself be!
This is a warning not to let ourselves be deceived by the lovely color and appearance in which the villain greed can be dressed up and disguised. As I have said, among all the physical vices there is none that is more deceptive to people or more harmful to the Gospel and its fruit. This is the kind of fellow that does everything he can get away with to keep the Gospel from being preached and preserved among the people. And even when it is preached, those preachers who have succumbed to greed are worthless. Thus greed wrecks both the people who are supposed to listen and the people who are supposed to preach. Those whose duty it is to support the preachers refuse to do so; as far as they are concerned, the preachers can starve. When the preachers see this, they want to make sure that they do not have to live at the mercy of the people, and thus they become more dangerous enemies than the others. When a peasant becomes greedy and contributes nothing to the support of the Gospel, a preacher can still be provided for, if only very meagerly. But when the preachers themselves succumb to it, they lose their taste for the Gospel. They are not willing to suffer anything or risk anything for its sake. They try to figure out how to keep their belly well supplied, and they will preach whatever is pleasing to their audience and financially profitable to them.
For that reason St. Paul calls this particular vice “idolatry,” or the worship of idols (Eph. 5:5; Col. 3:5), because it is in direct conflict with faith, which is the true worship or honoring of God. Such a person makes Mammon and the helpless pfennig his god and lord. What it wills, he does; and so he lives and preaches. He is completely its property and its prisoner, and he no longer cares about the Word of God or risks a heller on its account. All that Christ can do about it is to denounce this vice and to issue a warning about it to anyone that is willing to be warned. That is really necessary, for even godly people have a hard time to keep from being taken in by it. But the others go along smugly, as if they had been drowned by it, and they ignore whatever may be preached or said to them. The Jews were such fellows, too, drowned in their own greed. Christ had to keep denouncing them for it; and the prophets had to conclude their sermons about faith with nothing but an outcry and a denunciation of greed, directed against the preachers and the false prophets as well as against the common crowd.24 But it did not accomplish anything, except in the case of the few who were preserved in the faith, on whose account Christ had to preach, and we all still do, letting the others go their own way, since they want to belong to the devil.
Christ used this saying more than once as a proverb,25 applying it not only to greed but also to other issues, especially to doctrine. In their doctrine the schismatic spirits and the lying preachers insist that they are completely sincere and earnest and that their object is the glory of God and the salvation of souls. No one boasts or swears as much as they do. To such people He presents this warning: “Watch yourself. Let your eye be sound and not a villain. That is, let your opinions and your boasts be of the right kind, with no hidden villainy behind them. And do not deceive yourself with false notions and ideas.” It is people like this that tile devil usually bewitches. They are just like a man sleeping and dreaming. He is so enthralled that he cannot see that he is dreaming. As far as he thinks or knows, all this is really happening. He feels nothing as certainly as he feels this, so sure is he of it. And yet it is all just a dream, which vanishes quickly and is all gone when he wakes up. Although sometimes it seems to him that this is a dream or that he is dreaming about a dream, yet he is so enthralled that he cannot get himself loose or recover control of his senses.
In the same way such people are enthralled, who feel so sure that their position is the unadulterated truth that they are willing to pledge everything to back it up. And yet these are just the vain dreams and ideas of crazy people. It is dangerous, therefore, not to maintain the Word of God pure and simple but to let yourself be led away from it to human ideas, which look fine and can quickly take you captive. Once you do become involved with them, you cannot work your way out of them. So far as you know, they are the genuine Word of God. You insist upon it so vigorously that nothing can persuade you to let go of it, as is evident from the fact that some people have even lost their necks for it.
But this is not the place to emphasize this. Here He is applying the saying to the common vice of greed. Although it is a coarse and an external thing, yet there is no vice in matters of doctrine that can dress itself up this way and wear such a beautiful disguise. No one will dare to call it greed, but will look at it and praise it for its vigorous opposition to the vice and for its mildness, gentleness, and mercy. Such a person himself does not see that his own heart is deceiving him and that it has been drowned in greed. Hence we must examine the text a little further and use some rather obvious examples to illustrate it, so that we can learn to be on our guard. It is impossible to imagine the many ways in which this villain can twist26 and manipulate himself. Among Christians, too, this is a common temptation. It is incredible how few people are free of it; for among the heathen and others it takes a coarse form and is easily recognizable.
When Christ says now, “The eye is the lamp of the body,” this is an allusion drawn from the natural body. If this were without eyes, no sun would help it, even though it were to shine a hundred times as brightly as it does. Therefore the body has no other light to lead and direct it except the eye. Because it enables you to see, you do not have to be afraid that you will accidentally miss the bridge and drive into the Elbe or land in the hedges and the bushes or run into a fire or a spear; for the light protects you from danger and harm. But when the man who has no eyes has to go somewhere, he stumbles over sticks and stones until he falls down and breaks his neck or falls into the water and drowns; for he has no light, but total darkness. “So it is,” He wants to say, “in the Christian way of life, especially with greed. See to it that your spiritual body has an eye, that is, a sound insight and a good understanding, so that you know about your faith and your life and do not deceive yourself with the darkness of false ideas.”
For example, you may have an idea like this: “I intend to work and accomplish something so that I can earn enough to support myself with my wife and children in a godly and honest way. And if God makes it possible for me to use it in serving and helping my neighbor as well, I shall gladly do so.” You see, this is the light or spiritual eye from the Word of God, showing you what is appropriate to your station and pointing out to you how you should administer it and live in it. Since the body lives here, it is right and necessary that everyone should do something to support himself and to maintain a household. But be careful that this eye does not become a villain and deceive you. Be sure that you are doing this from a single motivation and with the one purpose of working and doing what your station requires to satisfy your needs and those of your neighbor, and that you are not using it as a pretext to seek something else, namely, the gratification of your own greed. Flesh and blood is a master at abusing such a light and using it as a disguise. But perhaps you have managed to get a means of support that you enjoy, and all you think about is how to keep it and enlarge it, so that if you have one gulden, you would like to have ten more. That, you see, is the competition of the other eye, the villain, which is not concerned only about getting a means of support and the necessities, but also about gratifying its greed. And yet it can put on the lovely disguise that it is not being greedy but is merely doing what God has commanded and is accepting what God gives.
Now, no one can see into your heart and judge you, but you yourself must take care that your eye is not a villain. It can happen very quickly, and it is very attractive, especially in view of the profits and earnings it brings. Love is thirsty and is never satisfied, and nature is inclined that way as it is. So the whores and the rascals conspire, and things go the way they should. As the saying goes, “The opportunity makes the thief,” or “Money makes villains.” That is why Christ warns His own so diligently. The world is one big whorehouse, completely submerged in greed. We, too, have to live in it, being tempted by these examples and allurements. Therefore we are in great danger and have to be very careful not to let the devil ride us.
“Now, if your eye is sound,” Christ says, “your whole body is light.” That is, all your activity and life, your outward conduct in your office and social station, is all upright. It proceeds according to the Word of God and from the correct motives. This makes it shine like the sun before God and man and gives it a good standing before the whole world. Everything you do is worthwhile, and you can use temporal possessions with a good conscience as something you have earned in an honest and God-pleasing manner. On the other hand, if your eye is a villain, you do not behave according to God’s commands and your office, but you step out of line. All you think about is the gratification of your lust and love for money. Then your whole body is dark, and everything you do is damned before God and lost, even though the world may speak of you as a pious man. For in its outward relations and life the body lets itself be led around like a blind man, and the only way it can move or live is the way the eye directs it.
In this way He seeks to warn us and to require of every man’s conscience that he watch the condition of his mind and heart. He must not tell himself the lovely lie that he has a good, honest reason and a genuine right to be so grasping and greedy. He must not try to deceive God,27 to keep Him from noticing the villain. It is as if Christ were saying: “You can dress up all you please; but if you succeed in deceiving God, then you have deceived a man who is wise, intelligent, and experienced besides. But see to it that you are not deceiving yourself and that your light does not become a villainous eye, which will darken and damn your whole life before God. For His vision is clear and sharp, and He will not let you fool Him with the paint you have smeared on.” And He concludes the warning with a threat, to frighten people away from too facile a use of that lovely but fictitious motivation: “If then, the light in you is darkness, how great will the darkness itself be!”
That is to say: “Of course you can think up lovely ideas. You can say that you do not intend to make money greedily, the way the others do, but to do it in a way that is defensible in the sight of God and the world, and that therefore you cannot be accused of being greedy. Yet you go on living this way, and you make a light of your own for yourself in your heart. But make sure that this light is not darkness, too. Not only do you have unadulterated greed in your heart, but you try to cover it up with this light and to keep it from being called greed. This makes your darkness a double darkness, much worse than it was before.”
Under the papacy, for instance, there was a great darkness that completely blacked out the light of Christian teaching. All they taught was how works remove sin and bring salvation. But then they went on to defend this, to claim that it was the genuine divine teaching, and to maintain that anyone was a heretic and an opponent of divine worship and good works if he dared to deny it. It really becomes pitch dark when such darkness and error is decorated with the name of truth, and the darkness becomes worse with the addition of such light. If a person knows the devil and recognizes him as such, and then makes a god out of him, that is putting darkness on top of darkness and yet claiming that it is shiny and bright, indeed that it is the sun itself.
Now, Christ reasons this way: “If the opinion and teaching that you regard as light is really darkness, how great will the other darkness be, namely, the darkness that comes along when you practice this teaching and live according to it?” Applying it to this case, a man who has been overwhelmed by greed and who scrapes and scratches already has darkness in his heart. But if he goes on to pretend that it should not be called greed and gets rid of his conscience in order to avoid being denounced, that is really a thick darkness doubled. If a fool claims that he is a smart man, and disavows any foolishness, then he deserves the name “great big fool.” Or if an ugly hag claims that she is beautiful and dresses up in her tawdry finery, she only makes herself blacker and more disgraceful. As a matter of fact, all men are inclined that way. No one wants to have his sin denounced, but they all create a disguise in order to appear praiseworthy and precious. And so out of a single sin they make two.
When this happens in spiritual matters, it really does murderous damage. It is hard to be moderate here. When people first come upon the Gospel, they often become overgenerous in their contributions; on the other hand, once they apostatize from the Gospel, their greed becomes incessant. Until now it was the usual thing that when people began to give, it fairly snowed with gifts for churches, services, and religious institutions. Thus in days gone by emperors and princes voluntarily donated whole territories as endowments for such purposes.28 But now, by contrast, hardly anyone gives a heller. Everyone is so greedy and selfish that you would think he were afraid of starving.
This is the way the monks, priests, and canons have acted until now. They could never get their fill of contributions. If one of them had gathered two, three, or four fiefs, he would have wanted twice as many. And yet they all carried the same screen: “Though I personally would be satisfied with one benefice, parish, or bishopric, still I have to consider what is required for the dignity of my rank as a prince, a nobleman, or a prelate.” This opens up all the doors and windows, and he can take and grasp whatever he can get—everything, of course, for the sake of the dignity of his rank! But now the light is burning: he must not be accused of acting in order to gratify his greed but only in order to preserve the dignity of his rank. It is so easy to find a little excuse to light the devil’s path. And if there is no other solution, one will have to resort to saying: “I intend to accumulate my money in order then to endow Masses and services or to give alms for the support of the poor.” This really kindles a bright and beautiful light. Even as he kills himself grabbing, a man can go right on saying: “My intentions are good. And I have really fooled that old simpleton, our Lord God, and kept Him from seeing or noticing my clever tricks. I will get into His heaven before He realizes what is going on.” But I have also seen many people who have piled up so much that the guldens were just lying around by the thousands. Yet with all their possessions they finally died, and no one knew what had become of it all. It was greed that acquired it, and greed that got to keep it. It was devoured by rust and moths, and it was never properly used.
I mention this as an example to point out how skillfully Sir Greed can dress up to look like a pious man if that seems to be what the occasion requires, while he is actually a double scoundrel and liar. God does not care if you embark on a splendid career as a knight, and this will not persuade Him to enjoy the greed that you oppose to His commandment when you live as though you wanted to grasp everything for yourself. You cannot show off how magnificent and proud you are, and then say that you have done it for God’s sake and for the honor of the church and that you intend to pay for it with benefices and services. This would be as if someone pried open your house door and your treasure chest and took what he found, and then said that he intended to give part of it as alms. Oh, what a precious offering that would be! Here is the rule: If you want to give something to God, give from what is your own. He says (Is. 61:8): “I hate the offering that comes from robbery.” If you have something, give what you please; if you have nothing, then you are excused. But if you are greedy and grasping in order to be able to give, and you claim that is why you are doing it, you are being frivolous; for this is a light that you yourself have ignited from the dark lantern, to fool God and the people.29
In this way I could go through all the social stations, pointing out the decorations and the polish that give to greed the name of a virtue, and to Mammon the praise and honor of a god. But who can recite everything that the peasant does at the market or the citizen in the city or the nobleman in his office and on his lands? The one example that I have cited makes it evident enough and visible that the darkness is so thick you can feel it. The other cases can easily be judged on this basis. What about the bigwigs30 among the nobility? They are planning now to carry on practically every kind of business, including iron and nails. But we are not supposed to use the word “greed” to designate this sort of thing. Since God has given it, everyone has a right to look for a means of support wherever he can, “in order to maintain the dignity of his rank.” This, too, is a little light that blinds them so completely that they cannot see anything at all. Even in secular law it is decreed that everyone should carry on his business in such a way that others can still get along and support themselves.31 But now there is no room for anyone next to these griffins and lions, who monopolize every kind of business. And meanwhile they want to be called pious and honorable people.
As we have said, who could imagine all the tricks of this sort which people in every station and trade are mastering and using? What is the world but a big, wide, and turbulent ocean of inexhaustible wickedness and villainy, all made to look beautiful and good? This is especially true now in this latter time, and it is a sign that the world cannot last much longer and is on its last legs. As the saying goes, “There is no fool so stingy as an old fool.”32 There is so much greed everywhere that hardly anyone can get anything to eat or to drink on account of other people, even though God gives enough of everything. But that is a reward for the ingratitude and contempt shown toward the Gospel. As I have said, apostasy from the Gospel must make a man so possessed by the devil that he simply cannot be greedy enough. And on the other hand, whoever really has the Gospel in his heart becomes mild. Not only does he stop scratching, but he also gives everything away and is willing to risk whatever he can and should.
Well, then, we still have to let the world remain the world. Although it may be greedy and selfish for a long time, it must finally forsake everything and leave something for us. Or even if we have to endure poverty and suffering at its hands, still, like Isaac and Jacob among their brothers, we have received our fair portion. We have made it possible for them to gain worldly possessions as well as complete freedom from the regulations and annoyances of the papacy. They do what they please. This is Ishmael’s portion, the bottle of water that Abraham hung around his neck when he let him go (Gen. 21:14). But we have another portion, called a spiritual possession and a heavenly blessing, and so we are well taken care of. We are perfectly willing to let them have the great possession that they have, and we would not take it if they threw it at us. On the other hand, they want no part of the spiritual possessions that we have. So we shall hold our ground, and the inheritance that belongs to us forever. Let them strut around with their portion, which will disappear today or tomorrow. Let them deprive themselves of our inheritance on this account, though we would still be happy to let them have some. But if they deprive us of their portion, we always have so much that we can quickly regain the loss.
But let us heed the warning and not go along with the world when it succumbs to the false light, the villain’s eye, which extinguishes the true light and turns it into a double darkness. See to it that greed does not take you in with a sweet suggestion and lovely deception like this: that you intend to advance yourself or your children into a higher and more honorable rank and that you want to provide for them generously only in order to improve and exalt their social position. The more you get, the more you will want; and you will always be aiming for something higher and better. No one is satisfied with his position in life. The citizen would like to have a position as a knight, the nobleman would like to be a prince, and the prince would like to travel in imperial style. But if you would like to travel in Christian style, then beware of this idea as the most wretched darkness. If God blesses you and gives you success, do your job in such a way that your neighbor next to you may also be able to make a living and may enjoy your help when you give him a hand. For when you let the villain’s eye deceive you, you have already let the Word of God be lost and expelled by that other light. Thus one thick darkness is added to another, to make you so blind and stubborn that you are beyond help.
Luther, M. (1999, c1956). Vol. 21: Luther's works, vol. 21 : The Sermon on the Mount and the Magnificat (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works (21:177). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.