A new reading of Matthew 19:1-12
New Direction works to cultivate community in a number of Generous Space groups. While each group is unique, usually there is a discussion time led by one of the group members. We heard great feedback from a session that Andrew Dykstra facilitated and asked if he would be willing to pull his notes together into a post for our blog. Thank you Andrew for sharing your reflections with our wider community!
In the familiar story where Jesus is tested on the matter of divorce, he answered the Pharisees, Torah for Torah. Afterwards, when speaking to his disciples, he showed a shocking bias, but he warned them twice it could be hard to accept.
In this post, I will be referring to “heteronormative” and “sexual minorities”. A more technical description for the latter might be “non-normative minorities.” These words are not meant to be judgemental. Rather, they distinguish heterosexual majority, or heteronormative, from a sexual or gender minority, or non-normative.
Many of us connected with New Direction identify as sexual minority people. While this experience is the primary focus in my reflections, I would like you all to be alert to how this story affects you at a gut level. You may initially find that this passage in Matthew does not seem to reflect your experience. But read on, because I believe Jesus offers good news that offers freedom to all. Once in a synagogue, Jesus said the following words:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” Luke 4:18-19
* * * * * * * * * Take some time to read: Matthew 19:1-12 * * * * * *
Jesus is healing and there is a crowd. Healing is important not only to those being healed, but also to Jesus. In Luke 7, John the Baptist asked, “Are you the one we were expecting?” Jesus confirmed that he was by including His work of healing as evidence. Imagine for a moment you are waiting to be healed and you are next in line. Jesus is almost getting to you when suddenly He is interrupted. Imagine your frustration. The interruption occurs when Pharisees, who are specialists in the Law of Moses, show up wanting to discuss a point of law. Actually, they don’t want to discuss Moses—they want to ask Jesus a trick question. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” (vs. 3) I think they are hoping for a yes or no answer. Instead, Jesus answers a question with a question, quoting from Genesis 1 and 2. (1:27 and 2:24)
“Haven’t you read, “ he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said ‘for this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.” (vs. 4-6)
There are at least two places in Jesus’ words where we sexual minority people could feel triggered. First, Jesus speaks about two genders, male and female. I am a cis-gender male. I feel I am the male I appear to be, so I don’t feel anything in particular about these words. However, for those who are transgender, intersex or experience other gender variance, this gender naming may be a challenge. That Jesus doesn’t name one’s experience of gender may make cause a feeling of invisibility or erasure.
Secondly, Jesus speaks about marriage. We understand Jesus to be saying: “Because the Creator made them male and female, therefore will a man leave his father and mother and be united to his wife and the two will become one flesh.” Where does this leave those in the non-normative minority?
Whoever we are, we all have our stories of not fitting in. For sexual minorities who take Scripture seriously, this passage can be a big problem. I knew I was gay since I was in my teens but I knew enough not to tell anyone in my family. I didn’t know why I was different, and I was too afraid to ask anyone to help me understand. I was deep in the closet, swimming in shame, but couldn’t talk about it. It was a deep, dark secret. Silence and isolation keeps shame strong. That’s what a closet does. There was no escape because I could not twist my life to fit this Bible passage. If I’d tried, by marrying an opposite gender spouse, I think I would have lost my mind in the process.
A friend of mine who is a family physician shared with me an interesting observation. She told me that right before patients disclose that they are lesbian or gay a look of apprehension crosses their faces. This look doesn’t appear when they are sharing other intimate information. This appears to her to be a look of shame. Let’s be clear about our words: Guilt is feeling bad about something I’ve done wrong. Shame is feeling bad about who or what I am.
Like me, but for different reasons, the Pharisees also seem to have a problem with Jesus’ words. They counter his Genesis quote with this text: “Then why did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away? (Deut 24:1)
Jesus clarified, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman, commits adultery” (vs. 8)
We can understand the text like this: “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because you were hard hearted towards them.” I don’t believe Jesus was defending marriage as much as I believe Jesus was trying to prevent men from discarding women. Jesus, in typical fashion, was concerned about justice for those who were vulnerable. That was His bias.
Who did Jesus say had a hard heart? He implies that it was the men of Israel in the days of Moses, but it seems clear to me that Jesus implies that the Pharisees did too. This comment about hard hearts is vital to the story, so let’s not lose track of it.
A third group also has a problem with Jesus’ words: the disciples. One of the disciples exclaims. “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry!” (vs 10) I wonder why they react this way. Are they fearful of losing male privilege? What is the problem with the disciples that Jesus must now remedy? Do they also have hard hearts?
Jesus responds, “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it has been given. For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”
Both at the beginning and end of this passage, Jesus admits this may be a stumbling block. In the past, because I stumbled on the part about marriage, I never read the part about eunuchs. When I finally did read it, it took me a while to understand its relevance, but when I did, I felt like a prisoner set free. Let’s unpack it now.
Jesus contrasts two groups of people:
- Those who enter heterosexual marriage: the heteronormative.
- Those who do not fit that paradigm: sexual and gender minorities.
In seeking to remedy hard hearts, Jesus urges his disciples to consider the second group of people: the sexual minority. There is no hint of judgment or condemnation towards this group. He refers specifically to eunuchs and includes a spectrum of people in the term that may surprise us. In modern usage, eunuchs are emasculated men, but Jesus includes two more categories. Jesus refers to eunuchs who were somehow “born that way,” some eunuchs who were “made that way” (presumably by emasculation as in 2 King 20:18), and some who felt called to be celibate, “eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom,” Why does Jesus bring to the attention of his disciples the minority who do not fit the heteronormative paradigm? I believe it is because eunuchs, a sexual minority, do not share the privilege enjoyed by the disciples and the heteronormative majority.
Who in the Bible fits the description of eunuchs, the sexually non-normative?
I am unaware of a single eunuch in Scripture who was “born that way,” and yet Jesus makes this reference. I identify with this description, feeling strongly I am a part of a sexual minority and that I was born that way.
One eunuch, likely from the category of “made that way,” is the Ethiopian eunuch of Acts 8:26-39. He was black, a foreigner and he was a eunuch. An angel specifically pointed him out to Philip. Verse 27 says he had gone to Jerusalem to worship. He was reading about the suffering servant of Isaiah 53. He had the means to afford a scroll of Isaiah. He managed to procure it despite this sanction in Deuteronomy 23:1 “No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the Lord.” Consider that one of the first persons to ever be baptized as a Christian was a sexual minority person.
Paul is an example of the third category: a “eunuch for the kingdom”. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul indicates that he chose not to marry for the sake of the kingdom. In this passage, Paul implies that to be like him and not to marry is a gift from God. Yet his choice, in his historical and cultural context, makes Paul part of the sexual minority.
There seems to be another “eunuch for the kingdom” who is much more prominent than Paul. That person was Jesus.
Jesus does not call himself a eunuch for the kingdom. Yet, as a presumably unmarried rabbi, Jesus operated outside the common heteronormative, effectively aligning with the sexual minorities. If Jesus chose to be part of the minority, then we sexual minority people are affirmed in a very significant way.
Philip told the eunuch that Jesus was the fulfilment of Isaiah chapter 53. When the Ethiopian eunuch continued just a little further in his scroll, he would also have read the promise of Isaiah 56:3-5: “Let no foreigner who is bound to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely exclude me from his people.” And let no eunuch complain, “I am only a dry tree.” For this is what the Lord says: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant—to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will endure forever.” I believe Jesus is the fulfilment of this promise too because Jesus was one with sexual minorities. That was His bias. . Rather than be a “dry tree”, the eunuch will be “a fruitful tree.”
Sexual minorities today, from the perspective of the heteronormative, are non-normative, but not necessarily quite the same way as “eunuchs”. We are not necessarily infertile and in some countries we enjoy marriage equality. Conservative evangelicals question the acceptability of non-normative sex, but Scripture was more concerned about people being non-normative in connection with child bearing and whether they were unable or unwilling to perform their heteronormative duties. In the Old Testament, Onan was condemned for his refusal to comply with the levirate law to sire children with his dead brother’s widow.
In Matthew 19, Jesus referred to eunuchs as an illustration of sexual minority people, but eunuchs are only a part of a larger group of sexual minorities, non-normative peoples. Jesus stands with the whole of people in the gender and sexual minority, not only the eunuchs. They include every gender description that does not fit the male-female binary. Affirming people may enter into loving relationship with persons of their own gender. People with traditional beliefs may feel called to a life of celibacy. Regardless of one’s conclusion on same-sex relationships and whether sexually active or not, the good news is that every sexual minority person is affirmed.
What has become of our shame now? All shame is removed because Jesus is in solidarity with sexual minority people. That is so freeing! We have been accorded such dignity because Jesus is fully aligned with us. We can hold our heads high, for we at the margins are the beloved. Though we once hid in shame, we sexual minority people receive a blessing and a name that is better than sons and daughters because Jesus chose to be counted among us. It is as though Jesus says to us, “Be not ashamed, for I am with you.”
This is very consistent for Jesus because his incarnation provides a parallel. When Adam fell, humanity experienced a great fall, but when Jesus, the Second Adam became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14) humanity was accorded a huge honour: Jesus became human. He was truly one with us. Being human was his bias. Being one with those in the minority was his bias. Justice was his bias.
I have focused on the place of sexual minority people, because that is how many in our community identify. But, the heteronormative majority can also feel excluded and shamed like us. They too may find the passage a stumbling block but for different reasons. Some may not have succeeded in finding a spouse. Some, even if they do find one, may not experience the intimacy and love of being one flesh. Many are lonely even in marriage. Others have experienced the pain of separation and divorce. Where are the ideal marriages in Scripture? I can’t think of any.
Heteronormative people when they are so blessed with a memorial and a name (Isaiah 56) they are blessed with sons and daughters. Consider the many women in Scripture who mourned their lack of children. They felt ashamed to be barren. God is aligned with women who long for children. (Isaiah 54:1) A vital point of Matthew 19 is that Jesus is on the side of abandoned women. Jesus put limits on male privilege in order to act for justice for vulnerable women.
Of those with majority or minority experience let it be said “Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family, so Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.” Hebrews 2:11 Jesus became one with humanity in his incarnation. Jesus became one with the marginalized by also being marginalized. In so doing, Jesus displays his bias toward the vulnerable, the oppressed, and those with minority experience.
Questions for reflection:
If we believe Jesus is among us as one of the non-conforming minority, how might that help us gradually be released from shame?
If Jesus shared solidarity with those on the margins, how does that impact the priority placed on the so-called “clobber texts”?
When we are released from our closets and our prisons of shame, how can we grow in freedom and more fully live our lives with dignity?
How might this understanding of Jesus’ solidarity with the marginalized help us to understand and respond to the challenges others face?
What might prevent us from reading our current understanding of sexual minority persons retroactively as the intention for the type of eunuch that Jesus referred to as “born that way”?