Bible study at the 2014 FEET conference
Jacques Buchhold, Faculté Libre de Théologie Evangelique, Vaux-sur-Seine, France
1. For the sake of the Kingdom (Mt 19.1-12)
19 When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went into the region of Judea to the other side of the Jordan. 2 Large crowds followed him, and he healed them there. 3 Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?" 4 "Haven't you read," he replied, "that at the beginning the Creator 'made them male and female,' 5 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'? 6 So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate."
7 "Why then," they asked, "did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?" 8 Jesus replied, "Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. 9 I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery."
10 The disciples said to him, "If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry." 11 Jesus replied, "Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. 12 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." (NIV)
I have chosen to comment on a group of texts which form one section of the gospel of Matthew: Matthew 19.1 to 20.16. I will highlight the redactional unity of this section throughout my three studies. For the time being I will only underline the fact that Matthew gives a geographical unity to those texts (in 19.1 and 20.17): the events and the dialogues here take place in “the region of Judea to the other side of the Jordan” (19.1), before the last stage of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem (20.17). This section essentially contains teachings by Jesus but it’s worth noting that as a background to those teachings we can see another aspect of his ministry, the messianic activity of healing the sick, a sign of the Kingdom to come: “Large crowds followed him, and he healed them there” (19.2).
The first text of our section is 19.3-12. Its only parallel can be found in the gospel of Mark (10.2-12). In the first place it gives an account of the discussion Jesus had with the Pharisees concerning repudiation (19.3-9). It is then followed by what was probably a private discussion between Jesus and his disciples about marriage (v.10-12) because, according to Mark, it took place where Jesus and his disciples where staying, in “the house” (10.10).
My aim is not to deal with the issues of divorce and the permanence of marriage, with Matthew’s exception clause “except in case of ‘porneia’ ” (v.9). What I would like to underscore here are the strong ethical standpoints taken by Jesus, who orients his answer to the Pharisees and his discussion with his disciples. This could help us to better set our priorities in our teachings, our sermons and our social involvement.
A tricky question
In Matthew (v.3) as well as in Mark (10.2), the question asked to Jesus by the Pharisees is presented as a trick question. They try to “test” Jesus (peirazontes, v.3) and their intentions are probably not the purest (see 16.1; 22.18, 35). However, the question asked by the Pharisees is not shocking or disrespectful in itself. Haven’t thousands of pages of commentaries on our text been written with the honest desire to seek God’s will concerning divorce? Now, how exactly are the Pharisees testing Jesus?
Their intention is most probably to corner Jesus in an awkward position vis-à-vis the Law. It would be enough for his teaching to stumble upon one aspect of the Law for it to be called a lie in general. Knowing the radical teachings of Jesus concerning ethics, some Pharisees may have thought that they had found a question on which they could trap Jesus.
An answer which isn’t one
To the question asked: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” (v.3), Jesus answers by a reminder of what the institution of marriage was at the time of Creation: “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” (v.4-6).
One often observes, rightly, that through this answer and by the exception clause added in v.9, Jesus is rather on the side of Shammai, who didn’t tolerate divorce unless there was adultery, than on the side of Hillel, who allowed divorce for rather futile reasons (poor cooking skills, etc.). However it should also be noted that in reality, in verses 4 to 6, Jesus does not answer the Pharisees’ question (at least to the version presented in Matthew). Their question wasn’t to know whether or not one could repudiate his wife (possibility that was obvious for them) but to know in which cases the repudiation was legitimate: “for any and every reason” (v.3). They precisely wanted Jesus to take a stance in the debate that opposed Shammaites and Hillelites regarding the “something indecent about her” of Deuteronomy 24.1. It is indeed this passage that the Pharisees had in mind because they quote it as soon as Jesus answered: “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” (v.7).
It seems to me that by his refusal to answer, in verses 4 to 6, to the question of what is a legitimate motive of repudiation (either in Shammai’s view or Hillel’s), Jesus challenges the whole Pharisee conception of the Law. Since Moses’ Law isn’t this perfect expression of Yahweh’s will that the Pharisees imagined, it is impacted by the reality of the “stubbornness” of the human heart: “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning” (v.8). What the Law says isn’t always what God wants! It often only contains what God “allowed” (epetrepsen, v.8). Jesus thus applies another kind of hermeneutics to the Law.
A new kind of hermeneutics of the Law
Is it possible to better define the main guidelines of this new kind of hermeneutics? Jesus isn’t very explicit on this topic in our passage; we should, among other things, come back to the Sermon on the Mount, with its theme of the accomplishment of the Law, in order to grasp a more precise idea. It is however possible to highlight that by coming back to the realities of the “beginnings”, Jesus links the being of marriage to its goal.
The being of marriage is what makes marriage according to the two texts in Genesis quoted by Jesus: Genesis 1.27 and 2.24. Marriage is thus a heterosexual reality (“the Creator ‘made them male and female’”, “man will be united to his wife”); it’s a social engagement (he “will leave his father and mother”); and eventually, marriage is established in this exclusive relationship that is the sexual relationship (“the two will become one flesh”). But in our text Jesus doesn’t simply remind us of those truths; he links what makes marriage to one of its goals: permanency (“Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate”). Other goals of marriage could be mentioned – monogamy, love, spiritual communion – but it isn’t the case here since the discussion is about repudiation. The being of things shouldn’t be dissociated from the goals for which God created them!
According to Jesus, there are, in the Law, two different kinds of ethics that intermingle: the ethics of perfection or holiness, which links the being of things to their goals, and the ethics of permission or concession, which safeguards the being of things and concedes that, because of the human hearts’ stubbornness, their goals often won’t be achieved. This explains why, on one side, adultery, prostitution, homosexuality and bestiality are deadly sins according to the Law, because they undermine the being of marriage, and why, on the other side, polygamy and divorce are tolerated, because they only affect the goals of marriage. This kind of hermeneutics could be applied to other fields the Law deals with such as economy, politics and family.
The Pharisees thought they could trap Jesus by forcing him to give his opinion about the legitimate reasons for divorce in the light of Deuteronomy 24, but they were trapped by their own trick: they belong to those people who give themselves the right to separate what God has joined together! Their kind of hermeneutics of the Law led them to rebel against the God they were worshipping. It should be noticed that the presence of the exception clause in verse 9 is not a backward step to the Pharisaic issue of the “something indecent about her” in Deuteronomy 24.1, but is a consequence of the fact that porneia is a sin which undermines the very being of marriage.
The disciples’ perplexity
The disciples’ reaction reveals their perplexity: “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry” (v.10). They must have been stunned: how can you decide to spend all your life with the same and only woman! This is a very contemporary issue! Obviously, the disciples’ reaction is a male chauvinistic one, to which Jesus will respond by his teaching about “those who choose to be like eunuchs”.
But by their reaction, do the disciples express more than perplexity? Do they urge Jesus to qualify or even change his teaching? Or do they manifest their disagreement about it? It is hard to say. Were they even conscious that their reaction was self-contradictory, since it demanded more than Jesus did? Indeed, when they said that if a married man’s situation was really that that Jesus described it would be better not to marry, they were saying that it would be better for a man to give up all sexual life, unless you imagine that, for the disciples, marriage was not the exclusive context where men and women should have sexual relations. But neither their Jewish background nor what the Gospels tell us about them allow us to ascribe such a view of sexuality to them.
Eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom
Whatever the right interpretation of the disciples’ reaction may be, Jesus’ answer in verses 10 to 12 is quite enigmatic and raises several problems of interpretation. We would need time to discuss them; I will just make some remarks and give my own interpretation of Jesus’ teaching.
One of the main interpretative issues is that of the referent of the expression “this word” that not everyone can understand or, better, can accept (choreô), in verse 11: “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given.” “This word” cannot be the teaching Jesus is going to give about eunuchs in the following verses because this teaching is introduced by the word “for” (gar); this teaching comes afterwards, as an addition to what is meant by “this word”. Commentaries on Matthew’s Gospel hesitate between the word of the disciples, in verse 10, which Jesus would adopt as his own, and his own teaching, in verse 9, about repudiation. This second interpretation is much more natural. Jesus takes note of his disciples’ perplexity and underscores that it is indeed difficult to accept what he is teaching about the ethics of perfection. This is why he is going to develop the ins and outs of his teaching, as the recurrence, in verse 12, of the phrase of verse 11 (“Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given”) shows:
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.
This teaching of Jesus about voluntary “eunuchisation” has given birth to several interpretations. According to the prevailing interpretation, Jesus would be speaking of those who choose not to marry. Isn’t that the situation which spontaneously comes to one’s mind when one thinks about eunuchs? The fact that this choice is made possible only if it is “given” speaks in favour of this interpretation. Besides, the choice for a celibate life style concerns only some disciples and Jesus is the best example of the one who has become a eunuch “for the sake of the Kingdom”. After having reminded his interlocutors of the ethics of perfection requirements concerning marriage, Jesus would have responded to his disciples’ perplexity by presenting them an even more demanding choice: single life, which is a key to a greater freedom for the sake of the Kingdom.
However, does this interpretation sufficiently take notice of our text data? If the understanding of the expression “this word” which was given earlier is the right one, Jesus does not relate God’s gift, in verse 11, to voluntary eunuchisation (v.12), but to the acceptance of his teaching on marriage and divorce (v.9). Besides, eunuchisation is nowhere restricted to just some disciples; it is only said that some are eunuchs by birth, others by castration and others choose to become eunuchs because of the Kingdom of heaven. Finally, one could ask why Jesus used the metaphor of eunuchy, which was shocking for Jews, if it was all about single life? Was it not precisely because the issue was not fundamentally about celibacy? It could be useful here to remind ourselves that Potiphar, whom Joseph was sold to in Egypt, is called “a eunuch” (Gen 37.36; 39.1) while he was married (39.7-20).
In fact, according to me, the logic of our text pleads in favour of another interpretation than that of single life. It could be summarised this way: Not everyone can accept this word, Jesus says to his disciples, that is to say his teaching on marriage, but only those to whom it has been given – his true disciples! These, Jesus adds, are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom. For only eunuchs of this kind are able to live as the Kingdom of heaven requires (and are good husbands).
This minority interpretation, which is Lange’s in his commentary on Matthew’s Gospel as Mr Blocher pointed out to me, gives to the eunuchiation, taught by Jesus, its real metaphorical strength and excellently counters the disciples’ reaction in verse 10.1 Indeed, the problem does not come from the ethics of perfection understanding of marriage, but from human beings; the solution does not lie in the male chauvinism of the disciples who think it is better not to marry, because male chauvinism has its roots in human heart stubbornness. The only real solution lies in the violence of faith which goes as far as to make oneself a eunuch for the sake of the Kingdom – within marriage or even, as Jesus did, in single life.
The apostle Paul: Jesus’ disciple
The apostle Paul must have known these teachings of Jesus; this is what he seems to imply in 1 Corinthians 7 because, as he explicitly says, his teaching on divorce is founded on what Jesus taught (1 Co 7.10). Therefore, one should not be surprised to find in this chapter ethical developments on sexuality which remind us of those of Jesus on eunicity. One can find in this text words which have the same “violence” as those of Jesus; true, single life is advocated by the apostle, but Paul also teaches, because of the world to come, a kind of eunuch life style for married men and women:
What I mean, brothers, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they had none; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.
1 John Peter Lange, A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal and Homiletical. Vol. 1: Matthew (Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark, 1864).