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Refinding Faith: Matthew 19:12

Note: I’ve updated this to reflect my own growing curve in word choice and understanding, most notably removing the word “homosexual”. I also corrected some typos – not something I often do for blog posts. 

Jesus’ disciples then said to him, “If this is the case, it is better not to marry!”
“Not everyone can accept this statement,” Jesus said “only those whom God helps. Some are born as eunuchs, some have been made eunuchs by others, and some [make themselves eunuchs] for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.”

Structure

This quote by Jesus comes as a response to a statement by his disciples. He sandwiches an explanation of different types of people (if he were a motivational speaker he would have started with “there are 2 types of 3 types of people”) with the statements about being able to accept a specific truth. He purposefully allows for the fact that not all would be able to accept what he is saying, but never suggests that he would not accept them as a result.

Language

The focus for varying interpretations of this passage seems to be driven around the meaning of the word “eunuch.” There are actually two forms of the same greek word used in the passage. The first is a noun,“Eunouchos,” and the second is a verb,“Eunouchizo” (shown above in brackets), referring to the process of becoming a eunuch. The New Living Translation actually translates the verb form “choose not to marry.” The importance of that is that it allows for the possibility that this is not only referring to the physical state of the person, but also the philosophical position taken by the person.

The word is only used one other time in the New Testament: during Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian Eunuch who was eventually baptized into the faith.  With such a small pool of evidence in Biblical text, scholars look to other texts of the era to help define the word. There is little argument that the word can be used to describe the physical state of a man, having been castrated, or the symbolic choice a man makes to abstain for sexual activity. I have seen no evidence that suggests “Eunouchos” or “Eunouchizo” means to be engaged in any form of same sex relationship, by either ancient or modern standards. If anything the passage suggests a complete abstinence from physical intimacy. What the dialog does address is a departure from the strict letter of the law which created a second class group of “others” is the spiritual culture of the era.

Context

This quote comes in the middle of a conversation. Anytime we encounter a conversation in scripture we need to be aware of who is involved, what triggered the dialog and the intent of the author to include the conversation in the overall narrative. This exchange is between Jesus and his disciples. The pharisees had challenged Jesus on his position on divorce and his interpretation of the Mosaic law. The disciples, confused as they often were, were asking for some clarification – presumably out of earshot of the pharisees.

This particular group of religious leaders, the Pharisees, seemed intent on trapping Jesus in a conflict with the law and often asked him questions they thought would trip him up. He consistently rose to the occasion, usually by addressing the intent of the law compared to the letter of the law by which the Pharisees worked to live. This approach to understanding how to we relate to God was often the source of his disciples’ confusion.

His response is curious in that he jumps from talking about marriage to talking about eunuchs. He seems to be using this group of people as an example of some who either can’t or choose not to marry.  One important thing to note is that a “eunuch” was more often than not a servant or slave. Not only were they slaves, but were often very high ranking servants and/or slaves for life. To be born a eunuch or made a eunuch by a master implied no choice in the matter, to become a eunuch by ones own choice showed dedication and an “all in” type of commitment.

This passage is often used as evidence that Jesus supported same sex relationships. By bringing this up in the context of the disciples statement – it would be better not to marry – he seems to come closer to supporting asexuality, while acknowledging that it is not for everyone. One thing that is not clear from the text is if he is talking about literal eunuchs (having genitals removed) or figurative eunuchs (acting as if they have they the genitals removed).

Whether literal or figurative, he appears to recognize that two distinct, acceptable possibilities: a condition existing from formation in the womb and a state of being made by choice – either one’s own choice or someone else’s. By all appearances this shows that Jesus willingly embraced individuals who did not conform to cultural norms of gender presentation. Regardless of their status as “men” and how they came to be in that state, there is a place for these individuals in God’s Kingdom.

Further Reading:

“Sex Difference in Christian Theology: Male, Female, and Intersex in the Image of God” Megan Defreza (Eerdmans, 2015)

“Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships” James V. Brownson (Eerdmans, 2013)

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