Pp Mark 10:2-12
Jesus on Marriage
Jesus on Celibacy
The harmonisation of the two parallel passages is by no means easy to achieve, seeing as there’s a significant rearranging of the story. Mathag maintains throughout his commentary that Mark is original and that Matthew has been brought into being - where there exists a parallel passage - by an adaptation of the Markan material and states at the beginning of his commentary on this passage that
‘...Matthew here continues to depend on Mark...’
going on to speak of
‘The basic alteration made by Matthew...’
where, presumably, the Markan text is to be thought of as original and of keeping the chronological order of the statements made. Of course, the composition of the Gospels don’t appear to be that easy to determine as I’ve said on a few earlier pages where it’s difficult to imagine Matthew depending on Mark and where it would be more logical to see dependency reversed.
If both Gospels are likely to be dependent upon each other at different points in the narrative, it would suggest that neither one nor the other was the basis upon which the other came into being but that they both represent a compilation of material which had already been brought into existence - and there appears to have been some variation either added to them by personal memory or included within them by the different authors who had committed the incidents to writing.
But, to say that Matthew is dependent upon Mark here, and that he has altered the order of the discourse for his own reasons, is difficult to be authoritative about. But why either should have ‘altered’ the order which they might have found in the records of this event is difficult to imagine though, perhaps, Matthew has arranged the event into an order which brings out more of the underlying currents behind the question and answer discussion than Mark does - note his contrast of the Pharisees’ question which speaks of Moses commanding a divorce (Mtw 19:7) with Jesus’ reply that Moses had only allowed such a thing to take place (Mtw 19:8).
In both passages, it’s the Pharisees who begin the discussion with their question concerning divorce (Mtw 19:3, Mark 10:2) but, even here, Matthew has given the reader the understanding that what lay behind the question was whether a divorce could be expected ‘for any cause’ whereas Mark omits the clarification - this shows that the question presupposed the right of a man to divorce but that the exact grounds for it were needing definition (Jesus will actually answer that divorce is not a right of a man against his wife and that only adultery breaks the relationship).
From here on, though, the text becomes rather shuffled. In Mark, Jesus asks them what it was that Moses commanded (Mark 9:3) and, to the Pharisees’ statement of the allowance of divorce (Mark 9:4), Jesus then continues to give His teaching on the matter (Mark 9:5-9) with a subsequent explanation of divorce to His disciples privately after the event (Mark 9:10-12).
Matthew, on the other hand, records Jesus as initially answering their question directly (Mtw 19:4-6) before being asked by the Pharisees why Moses commanded divorce (Mtw 19:7). Jesus’ reply gives an explanation for why the commandment was given (Mtw 19:8 - though, even here, we are listening to Jesus’ words which are explaining an issue from the Rabbi’s perspective rather than as absolute truth) before He proceeds to speak to them in words which are recorded in Mark as having been spoken to the disciples privately (Mtw 19:9 - I will interpret below that they are both original statements and that they were spoken both publicly and privately). There then follows a private question and answer with the disciples which is unique (Mtw 19:10-12).
Although Mark’s Gospel contains all the essential statements, Matthew’s account is the more detailed and brings home to the reader more of the intent of the religious leaders by the words which are employed. It may be that this account is more an interpretation of the incident than Mark’s account and that the author has deliberately added certain phrases and rearranged the questions and answers to bring home to the reader what it was that the characters meant not just what they were heard to say.
This appears to be about the simplest explanation of the differences encountered and the reader who wants to know accurately what happened should read Mark, whereas the one who would want some sort of explanation as to why things were said and the intention behind some of the words should read Matthew.
I noted with some interest that, at the start of his discussion, Mattask writes that
‘This passage about divorce is so difficult and there have been so many diverse interpretations given by individual scholars and different sections of the christian Church that a commentator may well feel reluctant to express any opinion at all about it lest he be guilty of adding to the exegetical and ecclesiastical confusion’
It was interesting simply because I’ve never thought of this passage as particularly difficult and of open to more than one - or, at most, two - different interpretations. Our main problem with the passage, however, is one of experience because we think that we can go along our own way of living and incorporate only those pieces of Scripture as applying which don’t present us with radical alternatives to the way we’ve chosen to live.
This is one such passage which challenges our way of life, which cuts at the very ease with which we’d like to drift in and out of sexual relationships through marriage. It raises up marriage (whether accepted as an informal ceremony or as a living together which is never broken - the Bible is not insistent that there has to be a marriage certificate to validate such an event but that sexual union is what secures it) as a relationship which can’t be broken save by adultery in either of the two involved.
Matfran comments, even before he launches into the text that
‘...the issue was not “divorce” in the modern sense of a legally approved annulment of a marriage on the initiative of either partner...but the right of the Jewish man...to repudiate his wife by a simple unilateral declaration against which there was no appeal’
but this is a little disconcerting for it implies that Jesus’ definitive definition of what marriage is and of it’s unbreakability (Mtw 19:4-6) is only applicable to such a situation. It doesn’t read like this and it shouldn’t be so taken. Jesus is laying down the principle of marriage and of why it was brought into being - from here, the interpretation of why Moses gave the Jews permission to divorce is outlined, but it is worthless unless there’s a solid ground of interpretation from which to begin.
Therefore, Jesus’ statements regarding God’s original intention for marriage have to be accepted as being God’s plan for marriage still. Anything less undermines Jesus’ position and the authority of Scripture.
And none of this is very pleasant reading for our society, is it? And, to our own shame, it isn’t very popular in the Church, either!
Jesus is now in the region of Judea which lay ‘beyond the Jordan’ (Mtw 19:1), an area which could have been not more than twelve or thirteen miles due east of Jerusalem where the Pharisees’ main council held jurisdiction. It isn’t surprising, therefore, that they approach Jesus once they hear that He’s in their midst again and, presumably, that He was about to come to their city to celebrate the Passover.
They would probably have heard reports concerning His journeying south from people who had journeyed passed Him and we may be fairly certain that they heard about His intended destination into Judea even before He arrived at the place where He was ministering to Israel. We should, perhaps, see them having sent a contingent of religious leaders to catch up with Him at the earliest moment to see what He was up to. Alternatively, they may have been Pharisees who had journeyed with him and who simply ‘come up to Him’ at an opportune time.
Remember, they had already pronounced Jesus to be demonically inspired (Mtw 9:34, 12:24) and had sent out a contingent to meet up with Him while He was still in Galilee (Mtw 15:1) - not that they were trying to come to terms with how God was using Him, but with how they might trip Him up and so discredit what it was the people were forsaking themselves for. They had criticised Him for eating with tax collectors and sinners (Mtw 9:11), may have laid behind the question which was posed by John the Baptist’s disciples (Mtw 9:14) and were certainly not amongst some of the greatest of His fans (Mtw 12:2, 12:14), even trying to tempt Him to perform a sign in their midst (Mtw 12:38, 16:1)!
But their opposition of the move of God was nothing less than they had already done when John the Baptist had appeared on the scene and they went out to see what was taking place (Mtw 3:7, 21:25, Luke 7:29-30).
So, even now, the religious leaders - presumably from Jerusalem - come out to Him to put Him to the test. Whether this Rabbi was going to be strict like the Pharisaic school of Shammai or lenient like the school of Hillel, the chances were that He was bound to upset someone by what He was teaching. But their main point of stumbling lay in what His regard was for the Mosaic Law.
It’s quite possible that they had already heard Jesus speak concerning divorce in Mtw 5:31-32 - or, at the every least, the words may have been repeated to them - and it’s on this basis that they’re attempting to trap Him into teaching against what they believed the Law commanded. Their question in Mtw 19:7 is almost a ‘check mate’ in their argument for they’ve drawn Jesus to say marriage is forever and then counter with an authoritative Scripture which cuts, they believe, directly against what He’s just said.
Whether you were from the lenient or strict belief structure with regard to marriage, neither school would have tolerated the undermining of the importance of the Law and their second question is not expecting an answer so much as a silence on Jesus’ part which would have been tantamount to an admission of guilt.
So, their initial question is cleverly thought out because they are fairly certain what Jesus’ reply will be before they even ask it and, if Jesus does state that marriage is forever, they have the ultimate response which they think will undermine the authority of His teaching. Matfran is also quick to point out that, if they had understood Jesus’ previous statements, His reply would be necessarily putting Himself in a position of opposition to Herod Antipas’ marriage to Herodias (see here) and even would cause Him to
‘...lose popular support by condemning the divorce which was freely practised by His contemporaries’
Matfran therefore summarises the Pharisees as putting to Jesus an ‘explosive question’ and this is certainly how it should be taken. However, Jesus rebukes them fairly strongly even before He answers their question. His opening phrase
‘Have you not read...?’
while it may have been spoken with a softness in the voice, couldn’t have been disguised as anything else for here were the teachers of the Law asking what the Law had to say on the subject of marriage. Jesus’ opening statement is almost incredulous in its tack, and would have been taken along the lines of
‘But you’re teachers of the Law! Don’t you know what the Law says?’
by those who were witnesses to the conversation. It immediately undermined their authoritative position in the eyes of the people and also showed that He was wise to the real reason why they’d come to ask Him their question.
These were men entrusted with the correct interpretation of Scripture, men who were supposed to be full of learning and understanding, yet they were coming to Him because they’d failed to read what was plainly obvious in the Scriptures? Perhaps, then, they needed someone to teach them the first principles of the Torah!
Jesus’ reply actually uses the opening chapters of the Law scrolls rather than specifically the Law which was given to Moses at Sinai but, even so, it was still a part of what the Jews regarded as the Torah.
I should point out here before we go any further that it has often been levelled at people within the Church that they have no qualifications to speak and teach on subjects of which they themselves have not experienced - no doubt the reader will read into that that I’m saying that it’s happened to me and they wouldn’t be wrong.
When my wife and I first began married life, there were certain choices which needed to be made seeing as our lives had been transformed by beginning to live together and of experiencing sex, and one such area was whether we should have children or not. It may surprise some people to learn that we felt that, for us, it was incorrect to bring any kids into the world simply because of what we felt Jesus would have us do in the future.
After all, though some people may live life differently, a child is a long term commitment of some sixteen years at the very least and commits large sums of money into their upkeep and well-being which could be spent on promoting the Gospel.
Though every marriage has to determine their own calling with regard to children, for us it was a ‘no’ from very early on and, to be honest, a commentary such as this could never have hoped to have ever been started had I had the responsibility of nappy changing thrust upon me (the responsibility of a hamster is just about all I can manage)!
However, there arose a time in the church we were in when teaching on marriage and the family was needed and, being the person who had been labouring in this ministry, I half-expected to be asked to look at the Scriptures and see what it had to say concerning it.
Apparently, I didn’t qualify to teach on the subject of children or of the family because we didn’t have any children. If you don’t have children, it would appear that you can’t teach on what God wants for them and, in a similar way, if you aren’t married, you can’t teach on marriage.
I really felt sorry for Jesus, you know. After all, how dare He teach us married people on the obligations of marriage when He was a single male! What does He know about marriage?! And what does He know about children? What right does He have to speak about them being the example of what it means to be a believer when He’s never had to bring any up (Mtw 18:1-3)? And how can He regulate the practice of sex when He was a virgin?
As you can see, I don’t mean for that last paragraph to be taken seriously but we should be careful not to bring our wrong ideas to the Scriptures because we would debar Jesus from ever teaching on marriage and the family - when He’s the best person to do just that because He heard from Heaven directly!
Unfortunately, our wrong assumptions about ‘experience’ usually stop God moving in our midst instead of allowing Him free course. The married (and that includes me) are more likely to have gotten comfortable in our relationships and have forgotten about what God really intended it to be rather than a young upstart of a believer who’s come to the Scriptures with no pre-conceived ideas and who hears God speak accurately and directly to Him.
There’s certainly a place for the married to speak of marriage - but there’s equally a place for the unmarried to do so. Indeed, the only criteria for speaking God’s will on an issue is that the person must know God’s will (I Peter 4:11) - not that he must necessarily have experienced it.
Jesus on Marriage
Jesus’ teaching on marriage is so simple and radical that we might quite easily gloss over it and forget the principles when we’re confronted with the multiplicity of situations that we encounter on a daily basis in the society in which we live.
Indeed, I believe that we need to recover this simplicity if we are ever going to be able to recapture God’s will for sexual relationships between men and women in the societies in which we live - the Church is just as much at sixes and sevens with its view on marriage as the world is.
As I write this, the UK Government has been running new tax allowance legislation which undermines marriage by giving an allowance to households in which there are children rather than in which there are two people living as husband and wife.
Though the implications of such legislation has yet to kick in fully, it will become increasingly the case that marriage is viewed with less and less favour simply because there are no tax incentives to do so amongst the non-christians.
What this nation will actually reap in the breakdown of society in future years when children will be brought up in an unstable household with change occurring every time a relationship is considered to be ‘not working’ or ‘breaking down’ is difficult to imagine, but it certainly won’t be a step in the right direction. I know of one family where the children within the partnership aren’t the flesh and blood children of either partner because, when the original relationship broke, the children taken by one into another relationship were then ‘passed on’ to the other partner when that broke down.
And, with ever increasing regularity, genetic problems through inter-familial sexual intercourse will become common when the offspring are unaware that the partner they’ve taken in later life is also the product of the father who was responsible for their conception.
Let me make one final rant before I deal with this text - you’ll excuse an old fool, won’t you?
I cannot understand how the world can hold up the scientific theory of evolution and yet also hold up sex simply as a good feeling that produces no children. After all, evolution is about the survival of the fittest and of securing our own genetic line into the next generation - if evolutionists believe that this is the principal which has gotten us where we are, then they should stand up in the media and proclaim that casual sex and sex done simply for pleasure when no children are attempting to be conceived is tantamount to an illness and a distortion of the evolutionary procedures which they believe to be fundamental to the survival of our species.
What is considered normal with regards to promiscuity should actually be condemned by the scientific boffins who espouse the survival of the fittest.
But, of course, although the theory is upheld for species ‘below man’, they forget that the section of mankind which practices such a belief structure must be on the verge of extinction. Only in Christ are there grounds for celibacy and a reason for marriage relationships not to have children - evolution does not make provision for the cessation of the genetic line even though it’s held as a strong view within societies where anti-evolution lifestyles are practised.
Well, enough of the diatribe. Let me move onto Jesus’ words concerning marriage.
I’ve dealt with the subject of Betrothal on a previous web page and the subject of Divorce on another, the latter of which gives a sufficient background to the thoughts and teachings which were present amongst the Jews in first century Israel. It certainly seems correct to say that permission from God to divorce was never a consideration amongst the leaders, only the grounds on which it was legally allowable.
What the Jewish leaders accept as a foundation, then, Jesus rejects by His appeal to the earliest record of a marriage made on earth at the very inception of mankind into the created order. He therefore comments on what God’s original and sinless intentions were for man and woman rather than what had to be allowed when sin began to get a hold of the future generations. As such, Jesus is aiming at perfection and at a fulfilment of the Father’s original will.
Jesus begins, then, with the Creation and notes that mankind was created in duality (that is, male and female) and that the two together are a perfect expression of God’s character on this earth - that, ultimately, they are better together than apart for it was in this manner that they were brought into being (Gen 1:27, Mtw 19:4).
Mankind finds completeness and fulfilment in the union of male and female through marriage - that is, through sexual union. That last point is a necessary definition of marriage for a simple ‘certificate’ is really no marriage at all - indeed, two people who live together as husband and wife until the day that one of them dies is more like what God intended than two who are contracted through a marriage ceremony and who live almost separate lives.
Male, then, is fulfilled in female and female in male - it’s both together that summarise what mankind is rather than one sex being able to put their hand up and say
‘I’m it! The other one is only a shadow of me, not of God’
If God’s image is therefore a union between one man and one woman, whoever seeks to destroy this union is actively opposing God’s will for mankind (Mtw 19:6). There are two aspects to this truth for, whereas man and woman united are a reflection of God, so, too, are man and woman individually.
As I wrote in my notes on Creation (adapted. See this page also for teaching on the role of children within a marriage and the responsibility which exists for fathers and mothers and which has long since been neglected within both society and the Church)
‘Corporately, men and women were created as one unit to reflect the image of God. Gen 1:26 reads
‘“...Let us make man(kind) in Our image...”
‘where “man” is not “the man” referring to Adam or “men” referring to all males but “mankind” referring to both men and women.
‘Individually, also, both men and women should be reflections of God. Gen 1:27 reads
‘“God created (the) man in His own Image...male and female He created them”
‘where we see that, while “man” was created to be a reflection, both aspects of male and female, when standing alone as individuals, should be reflections of the nature of God’
In the marriage union (expressed ultimately in the action of and the fusion which comes by sexual intercourse) is the picture of God’s love in Christ for mankind and of His union with her (that is, in the Church - Eph 5:31-32). God doesn’t ‘put away’ His wife and choose another because she no longer pleases Him - though because of adultery He may do so (Jer 3:6-13 especially verse 8. However, see also Is 50:1 where it’s noted that it’s sin which separates man and God but that, even in spiritually adulterous relationships, God chooses to forgive and reconcile His erring wife to Himself - otherwise who could possibly be saved?! This is also the lesson and teaching of the Book of Hosea - Hosea 1:2-3,8-9, 2:1-22, 3:1-5).
To ‘put away’ a wife as the Jews were doing would be to reflect a lie about God to society that God flirts with men for a time but that He’s not eternally committed to them. That position, very simply, is blasphemy because it represents God as being something which He isn’t. The Jews had made marriage out to be an easily dissolvable arrangement that could be re-entered into with little commitment from either side as to its importance before God, and there is a losing sight of the sanctity of that union as expressed in the first record of marriage in Genesis’ opening chapters.
Besides, when God unites with a man, He never breaks that marriage - only man can do that through spiritual adultery or ‘sin’. The Jewish traditions and customs had downgraded women to be second class citizens - as do many societies and religions today. In Christ, however, that barrier of man’s own building is removed so that all are of equal standing (Gal 3:28).
Jesus’ approach is just too simple for modern man, though, but the consequences of ignoring such a cut and dried approach can be seen in the complicated relationships which we have not only in society but within the Church. We want to live the way we choose and then blame God for not making things work - we enter into relationships which aren’t from Him and pray anxiously that He might make them work but we only reap the consequence of our actions when they fail to do so.
It’s very true that a person who comes to know Jesus may initially be in a vastly complicated situation with regards marriage when he first comes to acknowledge the cross and to live for Him - as, indeed, I was.
But believers are usually unwilling to stand by the agreement they made with a marriage partner even when it remains legally in existence and they’re separated, deciding to court and even live with a partner when the former relationship has not yet been resolved. We would do better to be sincere in our love for God by reflecting that in our lives and seek God as to the direction that He would have us to go rather than take matters into our own hands and mess up God’s will for our lives.
Christian marriages are by no means perfect and there will be breakdowns - but the principle in Scripture is that, should a situation occur, celibacy should be the norm (I Cor 7:10-11), not divorce and remarriage. It could be said, even, that a separation of partners in christian marriages is allowed in this passage but the only grounds for remarriage following divorce remains adultery (that is, where divorce is simply affirming what adultery has already brought about), not because one partner hang their socks out to dry on the bedstead overnight.
Therefore, Jesus’ statement (Mtw 19:9) that
‘...whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery’
and that which is recorded in Mark 10:11-12 that
‘...whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery’
should be taken not as a cultural comment on the Jewish leaders’ interpretation of the Mosaic ordinance but as a definitive statement concerning the entire subject of marriage and remarriage.
Again I repeat that, when a person comes to know Jesus, they may find themselves in a position which is complicated to say the least and where God has to give them a direct word that tells them what they should do. But if (I Cor 7:20)
‘Every one should remain in the state in which he was called’
then there should be no taking our situations into our own hands and doing what we please. In everything it should be God who is honoured and this should never be sacrificed to considerations which put ourselves over and above Him.
One final point needs to be made about casual sexual relationships which isn’t covered in this passage. It would be easy to think of the union of man and woman only to occur where the two come together with some sort of agreement and a uniting of funds and resources. That would mean that relationships which exist for just a few weeks - or, even, a few short days - would not be seen to be a relevant example of what it means for marriage to occur.
However, against this is Paul’s statement in I Cor 6:16 where he asks
‘Do you not know that he who joins himself to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written “The two shall become one flesh”’
so that any sexual union is to be seen as uniting the two - not just where there is an agreement between two parties that they will live together for a time. Therefore, sexual intercourse should be taken as being the fundamental reason upon which a marriage is thought of as having taken place - not a marriage ceremony which may, or may not, result in a signed piece of paper and a tax allowance!
NB - I have previously dealt with the subject of divorce and the Mosaic Law on a previous web page and I only intend summarising some of the major points here while interpreting Jesus’ words in the light of the cultural interpretations of first century Israel.
It’s only Matthew who brings out the intention of the Pharisees’ retort to Jesus’ authoritative teaching and I’ve already noted that, as far as they were concerned, this question was supposed to put Jesus to silence when it was pointed out to Him that He was opposing a direct commandment of God given to the nation through Moses.
The author records their question (Mtw 19:7 - my italics) as
‘Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?’
and Jesus’ reply (Mtw 19:8 - my italics) as
‘For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives...’
where their rebuttal refers us back to Deut 24:1-4. This was an instruction given to the nation for when divorce took place, it didn’t command divorce to transpire - in the same way as Deut 24:10-13 didn’t teach that men had to make a loan to a neighbour or that Deut 25:11-12 taught that men were expected to fight with one another.
The command was simply ‘when’ a divorce occurred, a man was not to be allowed to take that divorcee back to himself if, inbetween times, the woman had become another man’s wife. Matmor sees the problem which may have existed as being that the former husband might claim that the first woman was still his wife and, therefore, unable to be married. Such a situation would have been tantamount to making the woman unmarriageable but, at the same time, not able to be supported and protected by a man. In this case, the first husband would be virtually sealing the wife’s fate. However, that this was the background to the legislation is far from certain.
However, Deut 24:1-4 (Mtw 19:7a) didn’t say
‘When you divorce you must give a certificate of divorce...’
and neither did it say that the correct procedure for divorce was to (Mtw 19:7b)
‘put her away’
It’s intention was to put safeguards into a custom that already existed, not to bring a new code of conduct into being. The Mosaic Law made nothing perfect (Gal 3:21, Heb 7:18-19), it could only impose rules and regulations upon man that would ‘guard him’ (Gal 3:19,24) until Jesus was to come to cause perfection to be made available (Gal 3:19, Heb 7:11, 6:1ff).
Therefore we get a fuller understanding of some of the legislation of the Law through Jesus’ statements on this matter for there must necessarily be some of what’s contained within the pages of commands given to the nation which were never meant to be absolute statements of God’s will but which were given as allowances until the time was to come when He would radically transform the nation by the power of the Holy Spirit and through the work of the cross.
It’s not sufficient - as I’ve previously said - to see Jesus’ words as solely a comment on the cultural interpretations of marriage and divorce that were in existence in first century Israel but as a definitive statement of the will of God for mankind in marriage.
Moses’ regulation is seen only as a stop gap measure to limit imperfection but (Mtw 19:8)
‘...from the beginning it was not so’
and neither should it be so within the life of the Church which has the name of being Jesus’ representatives on the earth. Mattask sees this statement as implying that, before the Law, the situation was even worse where polygamy was regularly practised, but he seems to have misunderstood the intention of Jesus’ words here. He is concerned to contrast the original intention of God for mankind with what Moses had allowed them to do, rather than to comment on whether Moses had reformed society from one of polygamy to monogamy and the repeat of the phrase ‘from the beginning’ should be interpreted in the same manner as where the original phrase occurs in Mtw 19:4.
After all, Moses’ instructions presuppose an allowance of divorce which was already taking place and it simply legislates boundaries within which it could continue. It said nothing about banning polygamous relationships and replacing them with monogamous ones by urging the Jews to end one relationship before they began another.
Jesus’ appeal is to ‘first principles’ and, as Matfran comments
‘This is a crucial element across the whole field of ethical discussion and one which has not always been observed when christians have failed to distinguish which are “the weightier matters of the Law”’
We dare not state that God’s will is imperfection (Mtw 5:48) and teach it as so. That there may be complications within simple relationships because of men and women’s hardness of heart is true and allowances are going to have to be made when different situations are encountered. But, if the believer is to aim at being perfect as the Father is perfect, that must necessarily include his own encounter with marriage and sexual intercourse.
We cannot take the world’s standards and attempt a christianising of them.
Jesus on Celibacy
These verses are unique to Matthew’s Gospel, even though Mark has the disciples approaching Jesus privately and asking Him to explain the matter again (Mark 10:10-12). It would appear that Jesus’ repetition of His statement on adultery being the only grounds for divorce - which occurs in the hearing of the Pharisees in Mtw 19:9 - is the reason for the disciples’ subsequent statement (Mtw 19:10) that
‘...if such is the case of a man with his wife, it is not expedient to marry’
The Greek word translated as ‘expedient’ here (Strongs Greek number 4851) means, better, ‘profitable’ or ‘advantageous’ (simply because it’s open to less misunderstanding) and this is the intent behind their words. The word ‘expedient’ is explained in the Oxford Reference Shelf On Line Dictionary as meaning
‘advisable on practical rather than moral grounds’
and this certainly gives good sense to the disciples’ question. They appear to be looking at the practicalities of such a marriage relationship and the onus it put upon the man to continue the relationship even if there was a time when he came to the point when he wanted to divorce. Mathag sees the disciples’ reaction as being one that confesses that
‘The risks of becoming inseparably linked with an unsatisfactory wife, in whatever way, were too great...’
so that, on a purely practical level, marriage wasn’t seen to be the be-all-and-end-all of God’s ultimate will for mankind, a statement which would be well to be repeated in a great many church circles where it is seen to be everything that’s important! There is such a great responsibility placed upon both the man and woman to either make the relationship work or never to remarry that it can’t be something which is entered into lightly. Rather dryly, Matmor sees the disciples as having no intention of ever divorcing their wives (those that had them) but that
‘...they found it comforting that the provision was there in case of need’
and there may be a shocked humour in their question where they find that the conclusion which they arrive at is as horrifying as it is absurd.
Jesus’ response needs some clarification before we can go on to discuss it, for the phrase
‘Not all men can receive this saying...’
has often been taken to be referring to the entire teaching which He’s just given on the matter (as Matmor). However, the way the statement sits, it’s better to take it as a reference to the declaration which has just been made by the disciples themselves (as Mathag) that, when it comes to considerations of the Kingdom of Heaven, it isn’t obviously advantageous for a man to take a wife if he has to stick with her (and she with him) until one of them dies. Jesus’ words which follow about the saying not being easily receivable to all but
‘...only those to whom it is given’
also seems to relate to the idea of celibacy which they’ve just mentioned. It’s almost impossible to see Jesus’ reference here to His teaching on the subject of marriage - including the two becoming one from the Creation narrative - as only being able to be accepted by certain people who are given a special gift to do so. God has made it natural for men and women to be married and to stay with one wife until death. Rather, the ‘celibacy for the Kingdom’ is a special gift of grace given to those whom God chooses to remain as eunuchs (the three occurrences all have slightly different meanings which I’ll discuss below) for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Why, then, if a man/woman relationship is a perfect reflection of God’s love for mankind and His unity with him, and a perfect expression of the image of God, would it be advantageous not to marry? Although such an explanation isn’t given here, Paul gives two explanations in his discussion on marriage in I Corinthians chapter 7.
Firstly, I Cor 7:26 speaks of there being an advantage because of the present distress in the world and that the married man should live as if he wasn’t married (I Cor 7:29). In everything, the advance of the Kingdom should be of paramount importance rather than seeking to build up the relationship and of strengthening it at God’s expense. Additionally, when the husband suffers, so does the wife and vice versa - a single person should be able to more effectively do the Lord’s will regardless of the consequences of his own actions than to forever be concerned as to the implications of what is being done to the security of their own marriage.
This leads on into the second point in I Cor 7:32-35 where there’s always a need for individuals to devote themselves wholeheartedly to serving God. But marriage necessarily means that each partner - if they’re devoted to one another - must be concerned about pleasing the other and this detracts from
‘...your undivided devotion to the Lord’
Nevertheless, to marry is no sin (I Cor 7:36) - it’s only more advantageous to the advancement of the Kingdom of Heaven that the single person remain so - but to remain single and celibate requires a special gift of God in order to live before Him.
This second of Paul’s two points is possibly behind Jesus’ statement for it springs out of the disciples’ observations that to be bound into a marriage relationship could be extremely unprofitable if there is to be no annulling of the relationship if things should go wrong apart from the one where adultery is committed.
Jesus goes on from here to speak of celibate men, though He uses the term ‘eunuchs’ which was a derogatory word in Jesus’ day and which shouldn’t be deprived of its full force here. The Law spoke of the eunuch in Deut 23:1 and forbade them from ever entering the congregation of God. It records that
‘He whose testicles are crushed or whose male member is cut off shall not enter the assembly of the Lord’
and there would have been a natural revulsion in Jesus’ words which it’s hard to convey in our present society. Not only does Jesus mention the eunuch but He speaks of those who have ‘made themselves’ so for the sake of the Kingdom. Kittels observes that
‘Rabbinic Judaism...insists on the duty of marrying and having children’
whereas Jesus here cuts against it. In the Mishnah, Yebamoth 6:6 states specifically that
‘No man may abstain from keeping the law “Be fruitful and multiply” unless he already has children’
and Jesus’ marital state must therefore have served as another offence to the Jewish authorities even though we find no such statement in the Gospels as to any accusation which was laid at His door. The Mishnah does, however, show how marriage and procreation was always the obligation of the Jew rather than a ‘good idea’ and that celibate individuals would have been looked down upon as second class citizens and out of step with the will of God.
Rather than speak of literal eunuchs who have made themselves so, Jesus speaks of those who have made themselves more available to the Kingdom of Heaven’s advancement than the married could be because they’ve chosen not to be obligated to a relationship which is for life. The Rabbis, on the other hand, although they felt that marriage was a duty, also wrote get out clauses which made it possible for them to move on to other relationships when things went wrong (or even when they didn’t!).
But, for Jesus, there are no safety nets! - it’s either a lifetime marriage or no marriage at all. And, even then, it’s the latter which is the most advantageous for the advancement of the Kingdom - and, please note, this is exactly the state in which Jesus ministered to the nation.
The actual Greek words used here (Strongs Greek numbers 2134 and 2135) were employed, as Kittels, to refer to not only men
‘...but also for castrated animals and for fruits and plants with no seed or kernel’
so their application could be taken simply to refer to that which cannot or does not distribute its seed into a future generation. Nevertheless, the three definitions of eunuchs are all slightly different and need defining carefully in case we misunderstand.
Mathen defines the first group ‘who have been so from birth’ as
‘...those who are eunuchs because of a congenital defect’
and the second as
‘...physically castrated men...’
The third group parallels I Cor 7:32-35 to which we’ve previously referred. Jesus isn’t teaching that physical castration should be a part of His disciples’ lives but that the gift of celibacy is given by God to some men (I Cor 7:7-8) so that they’re able to devote themselves wholeheartedly to the work of God and to the extension of His Kingdom on earth (I Cor 7:38). Such was Jesus on earth, it must be noted, and His words are vitally important for the Church to heed and apply - for derogatory terms and statements have been levelled at the celibate and unmarried even to the point of their rejection on the grounds that they are rejecting the will of God for their lives. In point of fact, it’s the married (and I’m married) who aren’t able to commit themselves as fully to the work as if they were single. As such, the people who condemn single people are very often the ones who are restricting the advancement of the Kingdom of God through their own interpretations and preferences which stand opposed to both Jesus’ and Paul’s teaching on the matter.
Partly in view would also be I Cor 7:5-6 when the married choose to fast from sexual relations to devote themselves to prayer but, even so, this is temporary and it’s agreed upon by both parties, not just one.
Marriage is most certainly the norm and celibacy the unusual and exceptional state. Marriage is the gift of God where the idea is one of something which has been given to all men through Creation (Gen 2:21-24) and unmarriage is a gift of God - or, perhaps, more of a gift of God as it requires a special gift of grace (I Cor 7:7-8, I Cor 12:,4,11, Rom 12:6). All who are given to receive this teaching (Mtw 19:12) are encouraged to receive it even in the face of opposition from those who insist upon marriage.
But, if celibacy is the will of God for a man or woman, it would be expected that the desires and emotions which are present within mankind would be dealt with by God Himself so that the person could be free from them to be committed to the Gospel. I find it difficult to accept that a man would be aflame with sexual passion and yet for him to maintain that God wants him to remain celibate (I Cor 7:5,36) - there must surely be a special gift for the man not to go insane!
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