Mural painting from Sucevita monastery located in Bucovina (Northern Romania)
I think there are many people still confused about Christ’s words when he spoke of “eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake” in Matthew 19:12:
“For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.”
The disciples may not have known many eunuchs who were born so from their mother’s womb, or if they did they had never thought of them as eunuchs. Plus, the technology to do sperm counts did not exist at that time. But they certainly knew eunuchs who were made so by men. We are not told of the disciples’ reaction, but I can only imagine it was one of shock and horror, much like ours today. In wide-eyed amazement, they probably recalled the few people they knew who had met such a tragedy. They might have relived for a moment the gruesomeness that led to such a condition – the knife, blood, screams, and inhumanity of it all. And who knows, one of them could have participated in such a barbaric act. But what probably baffled them the most was the fact that these eunuchs were made so voluntarily by their own free will, without the cruelty of castration. I’m sure they were thinking, “What else but the blade of a knife could create a eunuch?” “Can a person will himself to be childless?” Plus, people with defective bodies were seen as unclean during that time. These are probably some of the same questions we ask today when we read these verses. We first have to see that Christ wanted us to think beyond the physiological effects of castration and understand the principle of permanence. The thing that is really cut off with such an act is a man’s name and the possibility of heirs. And I’m sure this slammed the breaks on the disciples expectations of divorce so hard that they are still sliding down the road today. A person’s procreative abilities at the time of Christ were not something that could be turned on and off. This requires us though to see our bodies as God made them, not as they are made by 21st century vasectomies and tubal ligations. A eunuch at the time of Christ was a eunuch forever. There were no reversal procedures. Likewise, a person with the celibate gift is celibate forever. There are no reversal procedures. There doesn’t need to be. And if you read closely, Christ didn’t say a person had to be a Catholic priest, take vows, or walk down the isle of a wedding chapel. All of that is man-made tradition. The person with the celibate gift is committed to Christ forever. Just like a husband and wife are committed to each other in marriage forever. I do believe eunuchs for the kingdom can be men or women. So the eunuch went from a state of disgrace and uncleanness at the bottom of Jewish society to a position of dignity for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He also gained the ability to produce children. In Isaiah 56:4-5, we read:
“4 For thus saith the LORD unto the eunuchs that keep my sabbaths, and choose the things that please me, and take hold of my covenant;
5 Even unto them will I give in mine house and within my walls a place and a name better than of sons and of daughters: I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off.”
So sex and babies were no longer needed to reproduce sons and daughters in the kingdom of God. I’m sure that the change in priorities in Jewish heritage was a traumatic experience in itself. But honoring eunuchs did not disparage marriage. By making a pitiful condition a state to be admired, God highlighted the distance between the Jewish mind and his own kingdom. He highlighted the difference between the lineage on earth and no lineage in heaven. In addition to permanence, I think the metaphor of the eunuch also indicates how difficult and painful celibacy can be. I think the image of a surgical procedure gets that point across pretty well. The renunciation of a sexual relationship and sons and daughters hurts. Unfortunately, many religious leaders today (like Al Mohler and Russell Moore) can only defile the gift of celibacy with homosexuality and the call for all men to “man up” and get married. Even though our culture may not be able to conceive of virginity beyond “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” its biblical reality to come will not be counted in years. And the euphemism of “singleness will fair no better.
By choosing the metaphor of a eunuch, Christ acknowledged that celibacy does not stand in opposition to marriage. It strengthens it. To me, there even seems to be a reciprocal relationship between the two – the difficulty of faithful marriage linked to the difficulty of faithful celibacy. The person with the celibate gift can give up no more than what is realized as an ideal marriage in the current age. But his status is always on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale. By making a pitiful condition a state to be admired, God still highlights the distance between the American mind and his own kingdom in heaven. Christ was also a eunuch, the same man who created marriage. He and his disciples may actually have been ridiculed as eunuchs. Marriage today may be broken with same sex marriage, divorce, domestic partnerships, and civil unions. But celibacy for the kingdom is as intact as it was 2000 years ago.