Question: What did Jesus mean when He spoke of a "good eye" and an "evil eye" in Matthew 6:22-23 and Luke 11:34-36? Surely belief in the "evil eye," or a look that brings bad luck, is just a superstition that contradicts Christian avoidance of magic and pagan influences, right?
Answer: These terms were used in the Bible as figurative descriptions of positive and negative attitudes, and had no connection to superstitious belief.
The Hebrew Old Testament refers to one having a "good eye" or an "evil eye." Five times it speaks of having an "evil eye"—in Proverbs 23:6, Proverbs 28:22, Deuteronomy 15:9 and Deuteronomy 28:54, 56. Once—in Proverbs 22:9—it speaks of having a "good eye." Those with an "evil eye" are shown to be stingy or greedy—focused on material gain for themselves rather than on serving their guests, helping the poor or even helping their family in times of dire need. Those with a "good eye," by contrast, are shown to be generous toward the poor.
These concepts carry over into the Greek New Testament, which was written mostly by Jews whose native language was Aramaic and who were familiar with biblical Hebrew idioms. One of the things that Jesus said come from within the man, and that defile the man (Mark 7:20-23), is "an evil eye" (v. 22). The Revised Standard Version renders this phrase as "envy." Other versions render it as "jealousy," "stinginess," and even "mean looks." Incidentally, the Greek text of Mark 7:22 follows the Greek Septuagint's literal translation of Deuteronomy 15:9, rather than its figurative translations of Proverbs 23:6 and 28:22.
In one of Jesus' parables (Matthew 20:1–16), the owner of the vineyard chided those who complained about how he paid his employees, saying, "Or is your eye evil because I am good?" (v. 15). The Revised Standard Version puts this last sentence as, "Or do you begrudge my generosity?")
But in Matthew 6:22-23 and Luke 11:34-36, Jesus took the concepts of a "good eye" and "an evil eye" a step further than Moses and Solomon did. The whole context of Matthew 6:22-23 has to do with one's approach to money and material things (vv. 19-34). Now consider Jesus' admonition to "lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven" (v. 20) in that light. We frequently cite this verse in the context of giving tithes and offerings to God—which Jesus certainly upheld (Matthew 23:23). Yet everywhere that Jesus spoke of "laying up treasures in heaven," He always did so in the context of giving alms to the poor (Matthew 19:21; Mark 10:21; Luke 12:33-34). The point is, if we are generous with God and our fellow human beings, then our spiritual eyes will be "good" (that is, "sound" in the Greek). If we are devoted to our own selfish, material pursuits, then our spiritual eyes will be "evil" (or "bad").
Remember, Jesus' disciples already were supporting God's Work under the Old Covenant through their tithes and offerings (Deuteronomy 12:6, 17; 14:28). That kind of support carried over to the Church's Work under the New Covenant. Yet as Paul wrote later, "Command those who are rich in this present age not to be haughty, nor to trust in uncertain riches but in the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy. Let them do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to give, willing to share, storing up for themselves a good foundation for the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life" (1 Timothy 6:17-19). The Revised Standard Version has "the life which is life indeed," which may convey the thought of the Greek ("the life," using the emphatic article) somewhat better.
Nothing is mentioned in this passage about tithes and offerings; their validity is simply assumed. Under both the Old and the New Covenants, one is commanded to tithe and give generous offerings to God. Financially, this comes first! But one is also commanded to be generous with one's fellow human beings. Such generosity is what gives one a "good eye" or a "sound eye." Of course, such generosity applies in principle to what one gives to God (Malachi 1:6-14; Proverbs 3:9-10) and to one's family (1 Timothy 5:8). After one meets these priorities, then one helps the rest of mankind, and especially "those of the household of faith" or fellow Christians (cf. Galatians 6:7-10).