On Rev. Purdue’s post, Part 3: Jesus’ puzzling words about eunuchs

June 7, 2015

This is the third part of my discussion of fellow United Methodist pastor Paul Purdue’s recent post, “The Bible and Homosexuality.” You can read Parts 1 and 2 here and here.

In my previous post, I showed that Rev. Purdue agreed with me that the Creation stories of Genesis 1 and 2 only affirm marriage between a man and woman for life. Nevertheless, Purdue suggests that because those stories don’t apply to “marriage” between two men or two women, they therefore don’t rule them out, either. As I said in my post, from Purdue’s perspective, the very weakness of the biblical case for gay marriage becomes its strength.

Such is the case with an argument from silence, unfortunately.

I took pains to show, by contrast, that the logic underneath Jesus’ affirmation of Genesis 1 and 2 rules out not only divorce in most cases but also same-sex sexual behavior. Jesus isn’t talking about one type of marriage, while leaving open the possibility of other types; he’s talking about marriage, period.

Next, Purdue tackles Jesus’ seemingly strange words about eunuchs in Matthew 19:10-12. He writes:

Jesus’ condemnation of divorce startles the disciples and they question him. Jesus ends the conversation saying “Not everyone can accept this teaching… Let anyone accept this who can.” (Matthew 19:11-12). In Matthew’s marriage conversation, Jesus offers law and latitude. Is Jesus suggesting that faithful Christians may reach different conclusions around core institutions like marriage?

Please note that the ellipsis (…) is his, not mine. When you see the full quote without the ellipsis, it’s clear that Jesus isn’t offering latitude:

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.”

The main challenge is deciding what “this saying” (Greek: logon) (“this teaching,” “this word,” “this statement”) refers to. Is Jesus referring to his teaching about marriage and divorce in vv. 4-9 (as Purdue implies) or the statement that the disciples just made: “it is better not to marry”? It might remain ambiguous except that the first part of verse 12 includes the connecting word “for” (Greek: gar). In other words, what Jesus says about eunuchs in v. 12 directly relates to what he has just said about the difficulty of receiving “this saying.”

Since his words about eunuchs pertain to remaining celibate (instead of getting married), “this saying” must be the disciples’ words, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.”

That it’s “better not to marry” would only be true, Jesus says, for “those to whom [the saying] is given”—in other words, for those who are required to remain celibate—either by nature (birth defect), by violence (castration), or by grace (those who have a gift for celibacy).

If v. 12 isn’t related to the disciples’ objection, then these words about eunuchs are a cryptic digression. Otherwise, they fit perfectly.

Not only does my ESV Study Bible confirm this interpretation, I also checked Wesley’s Explanatory Notes on the New Testament. About vv. 11-12, he writes:

11. But he said to them – This is not universally true; it does not hold, with regard to all men, but with regard to those only to whom is given this excellent gift of God. Now this is given to three sorts of persons to some by natural constitution, without their choice: to others by violence, against their choice; and to others by grace with their choice: who steadily withstand their natural inclinations, that they may wait upon God without distraction.

12. There are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake – Happy they! who have abstained from marriage (though without condemning or despising it) that they might walk more closely with God! He that is able to receive it, let him receive it – This gracious command (for such it is unquestionably, since to say, such a man may live single, is saying nothing. Who ever doubted this) is not designed for all men: but only for those few who are able to receive it. O let these receive it joyfully!

Obviously, Jesus’ words about eunuchs are essential to understand his point. By omitting most of v. 12, Purdue is suggesting that Jesus’ strict teaching about marriage, divorce, and celibacy is optional. “Yes,” he would have Jesus say, “while it would be nice for you to accept this difficult teaching, not everyone can. So if you can’t accept it, don’t worry about it.”

Finally, Purdue asks, “Is Jesus suggesting that faithful Christians may reach different conclusions around core institutions like marriage?”

The answer, I hope you see, is an emphatic no.

I’ll turn to Purdue’s words about Paul in my next blog post on the subject.

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