Matthew 19:1-15, Marriage, Being Single, and Children – for the Sake of the Kingdom

The Borders of Judea (Matthew 19:1-2)

[September 23, 2012] Chapter 18 of the Gospel according to Matthew took place in Capernaum of Galilee (17:24), when Jesus returned from Mount Hermon and Caesarea Philippi in the north and prepared to make His journey to Jerusalem for the coming Passover. It was where Jesus lived and the center from which He travelled about in Galilee. It was where He gathered the Twelve and others, and therefore it was appropriate that it was here that He spoke of what the relationship among the disciples was to be—that of humility and mutual and active love. This introduced Jesus’ teaching on the practical nature of the church.

Now Jesus leaves Galilee behind and comes into the borders of Judea on the eastern side of the Jordan River, that is, the region known as Perea, part of the kingdom of Herod Antipas, and where John the Baptist baptized and was arrested and martyred. Here Jesus continues to teach His disciples about the practical nature of the church. No longer is His emphasis on the relationship between believers; now it is on the face that the church shows the world, its interface and the footing that the church has in the world. It is on the church where it is situated on the ground, the aspect that the world meets when it sees the Christian. In 19:2—20:16 Jesus discusses being married and single within the church, the relationship of adults to children in the church, property, and age—all matters having to do with the household.

We naturally distinguish the household from the church. Jesus was talking about the church and now He is talking about the household. I doubt, however, that Jesus or the early believers would have made this distinction. The apostolic work began in the households and the church took place in the households. It was in the households that the church met and where the relationships of chapter 18 were embodied. Each household was home to a distinct family, yet the early believers were not as private as we are. The household was not the fortress of the individual and nuclear family as it tends to be with us. It was primarily the place of hospitality. Here the extended family often lived plus any others whom the family housed (friends, associates, slaves, servants and employees, if there were any). The unmarried, too, often lived together. Believers invited others into their homes, and others frequently stopped by uninvited and unannounced, without calling beforehand. Hospitality usually took the form of a shared meal. The dinner table was usually the place where believers presented the Gospel to their neighbors. The household was also the place where the believers met with each other. Each home had an open door: open to their neighbors and to their fellow believers.

Household hospitality is assumed in the gospels and the apostolic writings. We see it everywhere we look. It is what we see instead of the church building (the sanctuary) that the modern believer so closely associates with the “place” of the church. It is also the means by which the church spontaneously expanded, the primary way evangelism took place.

So the shift between chapters 18 and 19 is not between the church and the household, but between the relationships among all the believers in the church and the households in which the church existed. There is no distinction between the life of the believer in the church and anywhere else; there is no “anywhere else.” The believer is always in the church. The so-called private life exists for the church. For the believer, the family does not exist separately from the church. It exists for the church. There are no separate ethical realms for church, family and civics. Just as the church exists for the sake of the world, so the believer’s situation in the world is for the church. This means that everything private about the individual’s life—his or her relationships, home, parenting, property, and relationships with other generations—comes under the rule or governance of the kingdom of the heavens.

This is one thing to keep in mind. The other thing to keep in mind is that which guides our behavior as the church. What is the way of the church in the world? The way of the church in the world is the way of the cross. This entire subsection is bracketed by Jesus’ announcement of His passion, and is introduced in 16:24-26 by: “If anyone wants to come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me [to the gallows]. For whoever wants to save his soul shall lose it; but whoever loses his soul for My sake shall find it. For what shall a man be profited if he gains the whole world, but forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” This “rule” applies to everything that Jesus describes in chapters 17—20. The way of the Christian household is the way of the cross too.

Marriage (19:3-9)

Jesus spoke about marriage, divorce and adultery in 5:27-32 (see “Adultery and Divorce”). This repeats and continues the teaching that the Lord presented there. We can also consider 1 Corinthians 7 in this discussion. The conclusions I drew with respect to the Sermon on the Mount is that under the kingdom of the heavens the Father deals with us as sons and daughters, not as subjects (see 17:24-27), and therefore His standard for our behavior is the standard of His Son. This is an impossibly high standard, we say, but think about it. When we believe, that is, enter a personal relationship with Christ, a relationship of fealty and fidelity, we enter into the Son’s own relationship with the Father. This is grace. We are in the place of the Father’s Beloved and receive the unconditional love that the Father has for the Son. After the resurrection of Jesus, the Holy Spirit creates in us the unrestrained love that the Son has for the Father. For this reason, the division that is countenanced by divorce cannot take place in Christ.

Moreover, for the reasons I stated in the earlier discussion, I think marriage participates in an eschatological reality. In that reality we are all married to each other as we participate in the hierogamy of the Son and Holy Spirit, the divine Bridegroom and Bride. Because we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, in relationship to Christ we are all the Bride, both individually and collectively, whether male or female. Our marriages between each other cannot be dissolved because they are an anticipation of our union with each other in resurrection. Individual marriages are a present sign of what is to come. In the resurrection they will not persist as exclusive unions. This will not be because our union will be spiritual, as opposed to physical but rather because the physical itself—as such—will be divinized and fully partake of the divine perichoresis (the dynamic union and coinherence—“dance,” choresis—of the Persons of the Trinity).

Two persons therefore cannot truly dissolve a marriage, although for good reasons they may need to separate. To separate in order to marry someone else is adultery, Jesus says; it violates the marriage for it violates the personhood of the partners. But Jesus does not actually forbid a second or third marriage (even when they are simultaneous as in polygamy). If we are separated from a previous spouse and marry another, the first marriage is not dissolved; we are married to a second spouse. In the resurrection, we will be married to both of them. Paul permits a separation when one partner is an unbeliever, and does not forbid another marriage. But the separation is nevertheless tentative; the unbeliever may become a believer.

The Pharisees want to know where Jesus stands on divorce. They themselves have different views: the school of Hillel permitted divorce “for any cause” and the school of Shimmai did not. Jesus’ response is to refer them back to the beginning. A man was to leave his own family and be joined to his wife (thereby becoming a member of her family: a matrilineage), and “the two shall be one flesh.” They are no longer two, Jesus says. “What God has yoked together, let man not separate.” The reason Moses permitted divorce, and the reason it may still be permitted, is “because of your hardness of heart.” The divorce does not reflect reality; it is a concession because two people should not be living together. It does not dissolve the marriage; it merely separates the two people.

Nevertheless, if a person divorces their spouse (Jesus says “if a man divorces his wife” because under Jewish law a woman was not allowed to divorce her husband) in order to marry another, that person commits adultery against their spouse. Fornication, as in 5:32, probably refers to an incestuous relationship, in which case, the two ought not to be in a sexual relationship. The word “and” (as in “divorces his wife and marries another”), based on the original Hebrew or Aramaic, has an intentional and consequential sense—he divorces his wife to marry another, as if he could dispose of his wife to make room for another. This violates her personhood and denies the reality that God has yoked them together—it is adultery; it is a violation of trust, an alliance that breaks up a home. Likewise, “he who marries her who has been divorced commits adultery.” This does not refer to any divorce, but to a participation in the adultery of the one who has violated their spouse. As long as reconciliation is possible, a second marriage ought not to prevent it; this is the point. Jesus is not forbidding separation and He does not forbid polygamy. Polyamory does not itself violate personhood. He is concerned with the honoring of trust, the honoring of relationships; He is concerned about the sacredness of personhood (the face-to-face bond). My point is not to encourage polygamy but to recognize that marriage does not only have one form, as we see in the Bible itself, but takes on different forms in different cultures; not all forms, however, are ethically neutral.

One may not cause the stumbling of one’s spouse, and if the spouse is the cause of your stumbling, you may not despise one’s spouse; instead, you are to seek reconciliation. Jesus is applying to marriage the teachings of chapter 18. The spouse is the fellow disciple, the “little one,” and you are to be a “little one” to them (see “The Interconnection of All the Siblings” ).

Polyamory requires an extraordinary amount of personal integrity on the part of all the parties involved, the same integrity that is required of any marriage, only when the relationship is polyamorous it cannot work at all without such integrity. When it is successful, it demonstrates the kind of integrity that a monogamous relationship should also have. Nevertheless, polyamory means that one’s freedom is more encumbered than in a monogamous relationship, because more people need to be taken into consideration. Polyamorous relationships also require a larger investment of time than a monogamous relationship. Therefore the apostle says that the elders of the church should be married to only one spouse so they can be free to invest more time to the care of the church. It is also better when they are married—to one spouse—because the management of their home demonstrates their potential to shepherd the church. So, for workers and elders polygamous marriages are discouraged.

The Single State (19:10-12)

The disciples think that remaining faithful to one’s spouse is ridiculously hard. “If the case of the man with his wife is like this, it is not profitable to marry.” As we noted, Jesus does not forbid polygamy, but He does not recommend it either. Nor does He even recommend monogamous marriage for everyone. Instead, He strongly recommends the single state for those who can handle it. Though in our resurrection bodies we may all be married to each other, and all of us are even now married to Christ in the Holy Spirit, in this life marriage to even one person can be a burden. It takes up our time and takes away a measure of our freedom.

“There are eunuchs who were born so from their mother’s womb, and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs because of the kingdom of the heavens. He who can accept it, let him accept it.” What does Jesus mean by His use of the word “eunuch”? Probably a eunuch is anyone who would not produce offspring. Rabbi Gershon Steinberg-Caudill (see “Article 2”) says that “eunuchs who were born so from their mother’s womb” probably refers to homosexuals; “eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men” are eunuchs who have been surgically made so (i.e., castrated); and “eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs because of the kingdom of the heavens” refers to those who voluntarily hold back from marriage, namely, the celibate (such as Jeremiah and probably Jesus himself).

While a eunuch refers to someone who does not procreate, Jesus is speaking not about having children but about being married. But He is not talking about having sex—which usually involved having children; He is talking about the obligation of marital fidelity. For the sake of the kingdom of the heavens, it is better to remain single and therefore unencumbered. Why? Because, as the disciples noted, marriage is difficult and the temptation to change spouses—and thereby disrespect one’s current spouse—is strong. The difficulty of staying with the same spouse, so they seem to be implying, is so difficult that it is probably not worth it. The apostle Paul is less harsh. He simply said that the married has to care for the things of the world, how he or she may please his or her spouse, and is distracted by these things from serving the Lord. The unmarried (or “de-married”) cares for the things of the Lord and can wait on the Lord without distraction.

“It is not profitable to marry,” the disciples say. “He who can accept it, let him accept it,” Jesus says. “But not all men can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given.” The single state is a gift, as the apostle Paul says. But it is better to marry than to burn with desire, for to burn with desire is an even greater distraction than being married is. To be single, without burning with desire, is best. If one marries, then let the spouses “render to their spouse what is due” and “not deprive each other” of sex. Otherwise, being married is just as bad, or worse, than being single and burning with desire. If married couples deprive each other of sex (when it is desired), they are putting a stumbling block before their sibling and may be causing them to fall. On the other hand, the spouse who is offended, ought not to despise their spouse. There are medical, traumatic, dispositional, and temporary reasons to abstain from sex, of course, and these should be negotiated honestly with each other.

In the case of being single, as in the case of being married, the important thing is that our state serves the Lord. We do not simply adopt one or the other for our own sake but rather for the sake of the church. How may we best serve the Lord? In either case, it is not just a question of commitment or dedication. It is a question of consecration. Everything we do takes place in the realm of the church for the sake of the kingdom of the heavens. If the Lord gives us the gift, then being single without burning with sexual desire is the best. If we can truly sublimate our sexual desires into spiritual energy and compassion, that is good. It is superior in that we are free of distraction. However, to deprive oneself of sex when our “body” desires it is not the way to serve the Lord. It is too distracting and can have very tragic consequences. Having sex within a relationship that honors the personhood of our spouse (and all others) does not take away our spiritual energy or lessen our compassion for others. Our experience of intimacy might well increase it. It is not inferior to celibacy except in that it takes up the time that a truly celibate person would have at their disposal.

The idea that Catholic priests and monks and nuns are more holy by not having sex is ridiculous. Sex is holy, and in the resurrection of the body it will find a much greater and less complicated fulfillment. Solitaries and male and female monks in the early church sought freedom from the demands and obligations of the patriarchal family. It was not initially about sex (except that sex led to pregnancy which then enslaved the woman to a man). The Gnostics were the ones who opposed sex and sexual desire as something unclean, because for them the body was unclean and even evil. That is why, in their view, Jesus did not even have a real body, only the appearance of one. Unfortunately, their anti-flesh program seeped into the church and affected its ethos.

The problem with celibacy is that the celibate can become self-absorbed and self-serving. If the celibate person serves the Lord in the church, this does not need to be the case. The love for one’s spouse is replaced by the love for one’s siblings which one may express energetically by service in the church.

Children (19:13-15)

People brought little children to Jesus that He might lay His hands on them and pray. How beautiful! Yet the disciples saw children as a distraction. Of course they are, unless we give ourselves permission to pay attention to them as something important in itself. It is what we ought to be doing, instead of whatever we think they are distracting us from (of course, overindulgence is not good for them either). Jesus says, “Allow the little children [to come to Me] and do not prevent them from coming to Me.” Jesus is not just speaking of our own children, but of all children. In chapter 18 Jesus talked about not causing a little one to stumble, meaning, our fellow disciple. If they cause us to stumble (or if they simply distract us), do not despise them. Here Jesus applies these words to actual children, “for of such is the kingdom of the heavens.” We are to be like them for the sake of the kingdom of the heavens, and the kingdom of the heavens is concerned for all such as these. The children, in other words, are to be treated as fellow believers, and are to be regarded and cared for with the same seriousness. Because we (mistakenly) do not regard them as “significant,” we may not treat them that way. They are to be regarded with the same importance as any adult; and again, I refer not just to our own children, but all children.

Children, however, are also very vulnerable. They are vulnerable not only to neglect and violence but also to sexual predation. This is true within our families and within the church: in the church, because normal sexual attitudes are repressed, perverted desires are often rationalized, and then children are often the target. It is the responsibility of all the believers to take measures to protect the children—all the children—from this.

Our attitude towards children in our homes and in each other’s homes (the households of believers) must affect our attitude towards children everywhere. The children everywhere are the ones Jesus is speaking about. Here we see how the church directly affects the roots of the wider society, for as we participate in our society—in our neighborhood, on our job, in our civics and in our politics—our serious regard for children must show through and be the salt of the earth. No concerns of adults must take priority to the wellbeing of children. Shame on those adults who would have us neglect the children of poor people. As Christians, we must regard the children of the poor as if they were our own children. Children after all do not belong to their parents (parents are merely their first stewards), nor do they belong to the state. First and foremost, they belong to Christ, and how we treat them is how we treat Christ, “for of such is the kingdom of the heavens.”

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