|Jesus and gays|
|Written by James R. Tanis|
|Friday, 13 March 2009 17:16|
Often we hear that Jesus said nothing about homosexuality.
That is true in that the word “homosexuality” is a modern, late-19th century technical term. Bible translators who use the word are trying to adapt modern words to ancient physical experiences. For all biblical situations relating to same-gender issues, therefore, we must look to related texts, knowing that none is an exact parallel. Where then does Jesus address an analogous problem of sexuality?|
We find that consideration most directly and most helpfully in Matthew 19. In Matthew’s passage Jesus is talking with the disciples about marriage and divorce, two institutions substantially different in biblical times from those institutions today. Rather than relax his teaching on divorce and remarriage — a position that was itself a decided break with much Jewish teaching of his day — Jesus brings into the conversation an alternative to unfulfilling heterosexual marriage. This is the way of the eunuch, the largest category of gender-variant persons of his day.
Jesus then deals briefly but broadly with three different types of eunuchs, the best know sexual minority in his world. 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. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it.” In summary, he describes three variant scenarios: the first includes what we now collectively call homosexuality; the second includes physical emasculation; and the third includes sexual sublimation for the sake of “a higher calling.”
Eunuchs of all sorts, literally “keepers of the bed,” were widely employed in the ancient world in positions where a person not heterosexually oriented, or distracted, could confidently be employed to oversee the females in a harem or those in the courts of the rulers and the wealthy. They also served as teachers to princesses and other young women. From such posts some eunuchs rose to even higher positions in the courts, as did Potiphar in Genesis, as did the Ethiopian eunuch who was the agent of God in Jeremiah (Jeremiah 38:7-13), and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts.
Eunuchs of Jesus’ second type, those “made eunuchs by men,” had been negatively stigmatized in Deuteronomy 23:1 and Leviticus 21:16-20. The prophet Isaiah, however, in Isaiah 56:3-5 forcefully rejected and radically reversed the earlier laws, found in the Pentateuch. Understanding how the Lord God gathers the outcasts of Israel, his argument for inclusivity climaxes in the 7th verse: My house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.
Skipping next to the third category, “eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom,” Jesus would have included himself, John the Baptist, and such disciples as deliberately chose celibacy. The New Testament only mentions, specifically, that Peter of all the disciples was married — though Paul infers that some others, together with Jesus’ brothers, were also married (I Corinthians 9:5).
In this third category Jesus was certainly not commending physical emasculation, though some early Christians like the Church Father, Origen, did at first interpret Jesus’ words literally. This position, however, was later denounced by Origen himself and was condemned at the Council of Nicaea.
Not all of the other biblical eunuchs had been physically castrated, that is men making up Jesus’ category two. There remain those in Jesus’ first category: “those who have been eunuchs from birth.” Included were those men not attracted to women sexually, whom we now loosely call gays or homosexuals.
Before 1892 when the word “homosexual” was popularly introduced, many biblical commentators sensed Jesus’ meaning more clearly than most twentieth-century commentators who largely skip over the subject. Philip Schaff, Reformed theologian and historian of the church and its creeds, described those in Jesus’ first category as “congenital, which implies neither merit nor guilt.” He went on to add that “the first class of eunuchs embraces the comparatively small number of those who are constitutionally either incapable of, or averse to, marriage.” Similarly, the still useful Pulpit Commentary edited by H.D.M. Spence-Jones and published about 1890 describes Jesus’ first category as “those who are physically unable to contract matrimony, or, having the power, lack the inclination.” Even Origen eventually recognized that in Jesus’ first category were eunuchs by disposition rather than by physical emasculation.
Already, before Christ, the traditions of the Old Testament itself were ones of growth in understanding. Hebrew law, reflected in Deuteronomy 23:1, made clear that no physically emasculated man (Jesus’ second category) was allowed to approach the altar. However, this position together with Jesus’ category one is radically altered by the words of the prophet in Isaiah 56:3b-5: … let not the eunuch say, “Behold, I am a dry tree.” … I will give them an everlasting name which shall not be cut off. Part of Isaiah’s messianic message is that faithful eunuchs will be included in the coming kingdom.
We see Isaiah’s words confirmed by the words of Jesus in Matthew 19:12 and later in Acts 8:26-39 where the apostle Philip is led by the Holy Spirit to baptize the Ethiopian eunuch into the covenant community. The eunuch of Acts 8 was a minister of the Candace, the Queen of the Ethiopians. As far as we know, he became the first African to be baptized. We do not know, however, whether he was in Jesus’ category one or two, that is, whether he was a gay man or a castrated man.
What we do know, however, is that in writing this account Luke felt no necessity to explain the status of this man, neither his race nor his gender identity nor his sexual proclivities. When the eunuch asked to be baptized into the Christian community, Philip baptized him.
By the same token, it is also an oversimplified misreading of the word “eunuchism” in the context of biblical times to equate it with celibacy, though these categories often overlapped. In an age when procreation was often the major reason for marriage, marriage could sometimes have purposes that did not include sexual pleasure. For example, it is most unlikely that Potiphar, a eunuch in the court of the Pharaoh (Genesis 39:1-10), was emasculated though he obviously was not satisfying his wife sexually.
Some commentators assume that Jesus’ first category simply refers to children born with genital problems of sexual identity, such as hermaphrodites. When one considers that this problem occurs, at most, in only one in more that 15,000 or so births, such a condition would scarcely have been a noticeable, much less a significant factor. That number of people is far more than Jesus would have met in his lifetime. On the other hand, even if one assumes that the so-called “gay” population of Palestine at that time was less than current estimates, the number would definitely have been significant and would have readily accounted for the majority of persons in Jesus’ first grouping.
Jesus’ injunctions, both immediately preceding and following his statement on eunuchism, still remain surprisingly relevant today. Not all men can receive this, but only those to whom it is given. And, He who is able to receive this, let him receive it. Jesus perceived that, though this message would make most sense to eunuchs in all three categories, his average hearer probably would not understand it.
Unfortunately, those words still describe the situation many gays confront in our churches today. The major difference between Jesus’ day and our day is that now the locus of misunderstanding is with the number of professing Christians who fail to grasp the Lord’s teaching. They have replaced the unperceptive Jewish listeners who would have missed his point. Jesus, however, clearly recognized the gender diversity of the people.
I am convinced that if Isaiah and Jesus were members of our Presbytery, they would eagerly welcome into the ranks of church leadership committed gay members of our community.
James R. Tanis is honorably retired, Presbytery of Philadelphia, residing in Audubon, Pa.