OK. It’s time to talk about eunuchs.
Remember our running example of the contemporary definition of celibacy from Focus on the Family?
Singleness is circumstantial […] Celibacy, on the other hand, is a vocation. It’s a rare gift that God grants only to a few special individuals (see Matthew 19:10-12; 1 Corinthians 7:7)1
So it is that Matthew 19:10-12 is the second pivotal passage for our Mythbusting Celibacy series. And yep, it’s about eunuchs. But not just eunuchs. In its broader context it’s also about marriage. And divorce. And remarriage. Basically, it hits all the controversial issues… plus, eunuchs.
As I’ve been ruminating over this post I’ve found myself going back and forth on how to best discuss not only this passage itself, but also its importance for this series. Because, you guessed it… it’s complicated.
You see, just like with the “gift” of 1 Cor 7:7 (see our 3 part previous sub-series), a lot of present day commentary on Mt 19:10-12 confidently asserts that the meaning and application of this passage (at least in relation to “celibacy”) is very straightforward.
However, in such discussions about the passage there is normally very little actual discussion about the details of the passage. Instead, what usually happens is that it is just referred to in passing (Ahem. Focus on the Family) . Or sometimes, if we’re lucky, v.12 is actually quoted as, well let’s just call it what it is, a proof text in favour of a particular view.
Now, that view might indeed be the right view. But like any interpretation of Scripture, it needs to be argued for, rather than just asserted. What is more, it needs to be argued for in the context of the broader passage itself and even in the broader context of the Gospel of Matthew as a whole. When we do that here, things become somewhat less straightforward, but more authentic. The passage’s application becomes somewhat less obvious, but more relevant.
So with that in mind, let’s turn to look more closely at this weird passage of Scripture. But let’s look at it in in context, rather than in isolation.
Working Through a Weird Passage
And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?”
He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female,
and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?
So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”
They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?”
He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.
And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”
The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.”
But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given.
For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”
(Matthew 19:3-12 ESV)
OK. Let’s break this down.
The Pharisees approach Jesus with a test badly disguised as a “question”. (Side note: Whenever you see the Pharisees or Saducees approach Jesus with a question, it’s probably safe to assume they have some murky motives). The test they have for him concerns divorce, and particularly the reasons why a man might legitimately divorce his wife. The real question behind their “question” was probably to do with well known internal disputes between different groups of Pharisees on this matter. Some thought any old gripe was enough to justify divorce. Others set a significantly higher bar. Essentially, these Pharisees were trying to back Jesus into a lose-lose position where he’d upset someone, no matter what he said.
Of course, Jesus doesn’t fall for the trick. He responds to their “question” while also refusing to getting sucked into it. Instead of providing a detailed list of legit reasons why a man could go ahead and file for divorce, Jesus says:
You guys know your own Scriptures. When a man and a woman marry, God has joined them together as one flesh. So, the answer is, don’t separate what God has joined together. Capice?
(In case you thought Jesus really used Italian slang, that was a paraphrase. So is most of what follows.)
The Pharisees are quick to come back at Jesus:
“You think you’re so smart. But you seem to have forgotten that Moses gave us some rules which allowed us to divorce our wives. If divorce is such a no-go, then why did he allow it? Riddle us that, Jesus”.
In his infinite patience, Jesus responds:
“Moses allowed for it because of sin. In the garden there was no divorce. After humanity sinned, God made provision for divorce because he knew human sinfulness would end up with husbands and wives not loving each other as they promised they would.”
(Side note: The Mosaic law about divorce was primarily designed to restrict a husband from deciding to ditch his wife for any old reason. It was also intended to provide some security for the divorced woman who would otherwise be left in a very vulnerable situation).
But then, did you notice that Jesus goes a bit off script? The Pharisees’ original question was about the grounds for divorce, but in his final sentence Jesus takes things further. He says:
“And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality,
and marries another
, commits adultery.” (Mt 19:9)
(^^ Not a paraphrase. He literally said that bit.)
You can imagine the Pharisees right?
“Whoa. Wait. Who said anything about remarriage? We just want to know which group of us you’re going to side with about the reasons we’re allowed to divorce our wives!”.
But here Jesus is reemphasising what he has already said.
“In marriage God makes two people one flesh. Not only does divorce itself undermine this truth, but so does remarriage after divorce. In fact it double-undermines it because not only did you separate yourself from the woman that God joined you together with as one flesh, but now you are doubling down on your hard-heartedness by becoming one flesh with another woman. We call that adultery, guys. Unless the reason behind your divorce is because your spouse has committed sexual immorality (and so broken the one flesh relationship him/herself), then remarriage after divorce is an adulterous rejection of the vows of marriage you made before God”.
(Side note: What Jesus says here about divorce, sexual immorality, remarriage and adultery is significant and, for some, perhaps difficult to hear. However, it is also not the topic of this post and so we’re not going to dive into it any further. If you have questions about this I’d really encourage you to speak to your pastor or a trusted and mature Christian friend about them).
OK. So up to this point, the passage has been all about marriage and divorce, not singleness and celibacy. But notice, that all changes with the disciples next words:
“If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.”
Now, it is important to notice the switch here. Until this stage the discussion has been between Jesus and the Pharisees. But now, the conversation turns to Jesus and his disciples. Mk 10:1-10 is a partial parallel passage and over there this next part of the conversation between Jesus and the disciples happens when they are back inside the house.
In essence, the previous discussion was a public one between Jesus and those who oppose him. But this second part of the discussion is a private one between Jesus and those who follow him. (Hint: There is a reason this paragraph is in bold. Remember it.)
Having heard Jesus’ response to the Pharisees about divorce and remarriage, the disciples say to him:
“Far out. If
true then surely it is better to not get married!?”.
(Side note. The asterisks above are there intentionally, because (#spoileralert) exactly what the disciples were “far out-ting” here is a little ambiguous. That’s one of the key things we need to work through together. At some point.)
And then… Jesus starts talking about eunuchs.
How in the heck did we get from marriage, divorce and re-marriage to eunuchs?! And what on earth does it mean? Well, we need to slow down a little because this is where things become complicated in terms of this passage’s relevance to our discussion.
Basically, there are two possible ways of understanding what unfolds next. That’s right. There are actually two different ways of understanding what Jesus is saying and therefore what its relevance is to us today
There is the “He obviously means this…” reading.
And then there is the “Huh. I’ve never thought about it like that…” reading.
And we’re going to tackle each of them in turn.
Yeah. Sorry guys. It’s another 3-parter.
"The Apostle Paul on Marriage and Singleness", Focus on the Family, https://www.focusonthefamily.com/family-qa/the-apostle-paul-on-marriage-and-singleness/