For his chapter 19, the writer of Matthew rewrote Mark 10, which is well covered by the Elves in Year B, cobbles together rules for divorce; the admonition not to prevent children to come to Jesus; the plight of the rich young ruler who was reluctant to give up his wealth; and the aphorism about camels squeezing through the eyes of needles. The chapter is a hodge-podge tour de force worthy of the Elves themselves, especially considering Jesus’ observation about “men who castrated themselves because of Heaven’s imperial rule [eunuchs],” which Matthew alone tosses into the mix.
In the later years of the first century, Matthew was struggling with the reality that Jesus had not yet come again, and the temple was destroyed. Surely God must have been getting ready to act soon to deliver God’s people from oppression and death. But meanwhile, did Jesus really expect people to give up sex, mutilate their bodies, and throw away their possessions? Origen – considered one of the founders of the Christian religion in the late second and early third centuries – is said to have castrated himself because of Matthew 19:12. While that legend may have been invented by Origen’s detractors, it nevertheless is a cautionary tale for those inclined to take everything in the Bible literally.
At the end of chapter 19, Matthew repeats the aphorism that “the first will be last and the last will be first.” He also gets apocalyptic. When the disciples ask Jesus, “if the rich can’t get into heaven, who can be saved?” Matthew’s Jesus says, “for God everything is possible” (a favorite one-liner to this day). But Peter (of course) objects. “Look at us,” he says, “we left everything to follow you! What do we get out of it?” Jesus responds, “You who have followed me, when the son of Adam is seated on his throne of glory in the renewal of creation, you also will be seated on twelve thrones and sit in judgment on the twelve tribes of Israel.” Luke puts the same words into Jesus’ mouth in 22:28-30, which is the suggested reading for the liturgy of the Passion on Palm/Passion Sunday in Year C. When these verses are taken to be the literal words of the historic Jesus, anti-semitism, Christian Zionism, pogroms, and holocausts are inevitable.
There is no excuse for this. For 21st Century exiles from Christianity, who know the theories of the origin of the Universe and the laws of physics, these legends and admonitions are not only meaningless; they call into question the sanity of anyone who still claims to be a “Christian.”
The time is long past for Christian leadership to repudiate the literalism that has become orthodoxy. Critical, liberal, Christian Biblical scholarship must get out of the seminaries, whose graduates are primarily concerned with corporate church growth, and keeping a paying job. Seminarians, educators, and lay leaders must be empowered to make that knowledge available, accessible, and meaningful in a way that deepens faith without alienating tradition for people who are not yet ready to abandon it. Christianity must stop being a “religion” and become a way of life without demanding belief. Only then can Christianity speak to the growing numbers of people who identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious”
As a prime example of the kind of reclaiming and reframing that Biblical scholarship offers, the Jesus Seminar scholars argue that Jesus may have actually said, “there are castrated men [eunuchs] who were born that way, and there are castrated men who were castrated by others, and there are castrated men who castrated themselves because of Heaven’s imperial rule.” Matthew created the context in which that quote was placed. The additional phrase, “If you are able to accept this (advice), do so,” was added by Matthew in an attempt to soften the implication that any man who wants to participate in the kingdom of God has to castrate himself. The scholars make two assumptions. One is that Jesus’ words reflect an asceticism that was evident in some of the early Christian communities.
The role this text played in encouraging asceticism in the early church, particularly in the form of celibacy, has caused many to conclude that Jesus was the author of the celibate tradition. The Fellows of the Seminar were overwhelmingly of the opinion that Jesus did not advocate celibacy. A majority of the Fellows doubted, in fact, that Jesus himself was celibate. They regard it as probable that he had a special relationship with at least one woman, Mary of Magdala. In any case, the sayings on castration should not be taken as Jesus’ authorization for an ascetic lifestyle; his behavior suggests that he celebrated life by eating, drinking, and fraternizing freely with both women and men. The Five Gospels, p. 220.
The second assumption is that Jesus regarded eunuchs as yet another group marginalized by Jewish law and society. Eunuchs were not considered to be true Israelites because they were not considered whole beings, and were excluded from temple service. Jesus could well have made the point that eunuchs, like women, children, the poor, tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, etc., were equally acceptable in God’s realm. Matthew hints that it is better not to marry, and that the advice on divorce and castration is only “for those for whom it was intended . . . If you are able to accept this advice, do so.” But Matthew’s context contradicts the inclusive party animal that Jesus probably was.
Some 40 years or so before Matthew wrote his version of Jesus’ story, the Apostle Paul, another expert on Jewish law, weighed in on sex, marriage, and divorce in Chapter 7 of his first letter to the Corinthians. First-century Paul, like Harold Camping in 2011, believed that Jesus would return soon to begin the reign of God on earth. Unlike Harold Camping, who subscribes to a literal interpretation of 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 (the “Rapture”), Paul thought the establishment of God’s rule in a transformed earth with transformed bodies was imminent – that it would happen within his own lifetime. Camping’s mistake – like others who have attempted to predict the “end of the world” – was to claim to know a particular time. But Paul says “Concerning the chronology of the great events to come friends, you don’t need to have [anything] written to you. Surely you know perfectly well that the day of the lord will come like a thief in the night. . . Therefore, . . . let us always be in control of our senses and let us protect ourselves with the armor of our confidence in God and our unselfish love for one another and with a helmet of the hope of our liberation” (1 Thessalonians 5:1-2, Scholars Version).
In that context, Paul’s admonitions about sexual behavior and his hope that no one would marry make some degree of sense. In 1 Cor. 7, he says, “This is what I mean, friends; this period of opportunity [for our mission] is coming to an end. In what is left of it those who have wives should live as if they did not have them . . . and those who buy things as if they have no possessions, and those who deal with the world as if they have no use for it; because the world in its present form is passing away.” Paul was definitely apocalyptic. Whether Jesus was is debated, although the evidence from the Jesus Seminar supports the view that Jesus did not subscribe to the popular apocalyptic legend laid out in Daniel, and believed by Paul to have been made manifest in the life and death of Jesus.
Even though Matthew’s Chapter 19 is a prime example of what should be excised from the lectionary (and along with it, Luke’s agreeable anti-Semitism), Peter’s question remains: “What’s in it for us?” What difference does it make if we leave everything and follow Jesus’ teachings?
For starters, there are mountain tops in Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia, that might still be home to eagles, and the sources of clear, healthy, streams in productive, fruit-filled valleys. There are rain forests world-wide that could still be combing the winds of pollutants, and assuring the oceans and the deserts stay within their boundaries. Democratic capitalism that gives everyone a fair chance at a fulfilling life might be the preferred method of human social governance instead of failed socialism, predatory fascism, and soul-less libertarianism.
The problem is, you can’t just wave your magic wand and feed five thousand people with five loves of bread and two fish. And so the struggle continues. Some after-life where the believers sit on thrones and judge non-believers is not a viable answer.