So I was sitting at home, minding my own business, reading Christopher J. H. Wright’s commentary on Deuteronomy (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series) (review forthcoming) for a little relaxation when — all of a sudden — I stumbled across this passage — which seems to be a pretty good place to wind up this series. (We’re getting close to the end. Really.)
Wait … wait … I’ve gotten ahead myself. We’ll come back to Deuteronomy. First we have to review Matthew.
Here’s the question: In Matthew 19, why did Jesus choose to refer to those who choose to be celibate for the sake of the Kingdom as “eunuchs”?
(Mat 19:12 ESV) 12 “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.”
To modern ears, it’s off-putting — even offensive — to refer to a person choosing to be chaste as castrated! But to the Jews, well, they would have heard Jesus speaking in terms of the Torah, which says regarding eunuchs —
(Deu 23:1 ESV) “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose male organ is cut off shall enter the assembly of the LORD.”
A eunuch was not allowed in the Tabernacle (or, later, the Temple) — presumably even if he suffered castration in warfare or otherwise by accident. Wright does an excellent job of analyzing and explaining this passage in light of the rest of the Torah — but that’s not today’s discussion.
For Jesus to refer to those who live chaste, celibate lives for the sake of the Kingdom as eunuchs, well, eunuchs are rejected by the Torah! Oh, wow! How can this be? Was Jesus unaware of this passage? Or was he using it for his own purposes?
Well, the Torah wasn’t the final word. Isaiah said —
(Isa 56:1-5 ESV) Thus says the LORD: “Keep justice, and do righteousness, for soon my salvation will come, and my righteousness be revealed. … ”
3 Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely separate me from his people”; and let not the eunuch say, “Behold, I am a dry tree.” 4 For thus says the LORD: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, 5 I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.”
Through Isaiah, God invites eunuchs into “my house and within my walls” — into the Temple. And he promises them blessings better than even sons and daughters.
Therefore, when Jesus invites his followers to become “eunuchs” by giving up their sexuality for the sake of the Kingdom, he is promising his celibate followers the blessings promised to true eunuchs by Isaiah. He is saying that for those who choose not to have children for the sake of the Kingdom, God will bless them with blessings beyond even sons and daughters and invite them into his Temple!
If the “foreigner,” who is not part of that line, and the “eunuch,” who cannot pass that line on, choose to live in obedience to God’s “covenant” (vv. 4, 6), they are more pleasing to God than the Israelite who lives in rebellion against that covenant. God will give the eunuch a better heritage than children, “an everlasting name” (v. 5).
But this righteousness is more than legalistic law-keeping. Verse 6 speaks in relational terms of binding oneself to God as an act of love, service, and worship. Those who do this will be brought into God’s “house of prayer,” there to participate in the worship of that place, because God’s purpose is to gather “all nations” to himself (vv. 7–8).
By beginning the final section of the book on this rather shocking note, the prophet is both tying us back to the beginning of the book, reminding us that the redeemed servants of the Lord have a mission, to draw all the world to the “holy mountain” (56:7; cf. 2:2–3), but also telling us that being a member of the covenant community is not a matter of inheritance but of obedience.
Oswalt, John N. (2010-05-11). Isaiah (NIV Application Commentary, The)
We have to notice the flavor of the passage. That is, just like physical eunuchs, those who remain single and chaste for the sake of the Kingdom will take on a role that society once scorned. Indeed, during Jesus’ day, to be single as an adult was to violate the command to be fruitful and multiply.
But just like the eunuchs of Old Testament times, the chaste single members of the Kingdom, who were once looked down on, will become honored by God even above those who are married.
That is, I think, the fairest reading. And in New Testament times, the apostles, Jesus, and surely many other church leaders gave up marriage and the blessings of children for the sake of the Kingdom and were honored by God for their sacrifice.
Today, some Christians are single against their will, despite their best efforts, and this is no sin. If they remain chaste in their singleness for the sake of Jesus, God will reward them. Those who choose to be single and chaste for the sake of the Kingdom make an even greater commitment to God, and they will be rewarded all the more.
It’s sad that we live in an age in which few can even imagine choosing to give up marriage for the sake of God — not that giving up marriage is by itself meritorious. It’s not. The merit is found when we take on a role in the Kingdom that is so challenging that it requires us to give up marriage — for the sake of the Kingdom.
It’s even sadder that when we discuss the inability to marry or decision not to marry, we think of the question in terms of sex vs. chastity, whereas God obviously sees the question in terms of children vs. no children. The ultimate joy of marriage, according to Isaiah, is not sex but children. (Isaiah seems to have been reading Hauerwas.)
If a youth minister chooses not to marry to be more available for the teens, he will be rewarded for having given up the chance to have his own children. If he marries, God will bless his marriage, too. Neither choice is sin. Rather, God just wants to be clear that the choice to give so much time to the Kingdom that marriage would be unwise will be richly rewarded.
Just so, if a Christian is not attracted to women, and if he is therefore single and chaste for the sake of the Kingdom, God will reward him with blessings beyond the value of children — provided, I think, that he uses the opportunities his singleness gives him for the sake of the Kingdom rather than self-indulgence.
You see, we Westerners enjoy a self-indulgent culture, and when we choose not to marry, we (straight and gay) figure that the money and time and energy we save should go to vacations and clothes and furniture and good times. We fill the absence of a spouse and children with selfishness.
But Jesus and Paul both call the singles among us to fill their lives with Kingdom matters. What might that be? Well, there are countless possibilities, including missions, social service, volunteering for those in need, taking on a larger role in church … the list goes on. And those opportunities are equally available to the straight and the gay.
The point is that not having a spouse not only means a life of chastity, it means time, energy, and opportunity to pour oneself into Christian service, to truly be single for the sake of the Kingdom.
And this is no punishment. It’s a blessing — indeed, an opportunity that God promises to bless more than marriage — to be even better than having children.
And so the question, I suppose, is whether we believe the promise.