Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Matthew 19: Jesus Against Gay Marriage ... and All Marriage!

Last week, Justice Vaughan Walker--a Reagan appointee, left--handed down a decision declaring California's gay-marriage ban unconstitutional. (If you hadn't heard, please stop trying to get your news from my blog.) Excerpts from Walker's decision can be found here.

Walker's decision has unleashed an expected gush of bile from the American right, and the blogosphere is once again awash with 1) fearful warnings that marriage is under renewed attack, and 2) fervent declamations that gay marriage is un-American, immoral, and irreligious.

In calling gay marriage irreligious, many critics point to the Bible's putative support for heterosexual, monogamous marriage. Most begin with some form of the tired, old argument, "It's Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve." But frankly, they can't get much further.

On CNN's Opinion page, Bishop Harry Jackson defends heterosexual marriage on Edenic grounds ... but, hilariously, can only cite the same passage from Genesis three times as support. (He cites Genesis 2:24 and then two Gospel passages that quote it too.)

Now, as I hope all of you know already, the Bible has nothing to say on the topic of gay marriage--an institution about as old as Miley Cyrus. And its statements on male homosexuality are negative but often ambiguous. Many argue that Paul, whose writings are frequently cited in condemnations of homosexuality, is actually more concerned with ending male prostitution. (The Bible says nothing about lesbianism.)

However, the Bible's silence on the issue of gay marriage aside, its support for monogamous, heterosexual marriage is not so uncomplicated as its defenders would suggest.

First, many heroes of the Tanakh--among them Jacob, David, and Solomon--are polygamists. Impressively, Solomon has 700 wives, according to 1 Kings! To adjust the aphorism, it's not Adam and Eve ... it's Adam and Eve and Sarah and Kelly and Liz and Ethel and Havilah and Rachel and Sue.

But second, and more importantly, Jesus himself takes a very dim view of the institution of marriage. His advice? Avoid it if you can!

In the synoptic gospels, Jesus addresses marriage twice, first in Mark 12. (Different gospels narrate these episodes with only slight alterations). Here, Sadducees come to Jesus with a question: if a widower remarries, which wife will he have in heaven? (The Sadducees are trying to trip Jesus up.)

He answers their challenge with the following: "when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven" (Mark 12:25). For Jesus, marriage is a this-worldly convention that will be left behind in the next. It's a stepping stone that will fall beneath the waves when we all become angelic.

It's not heavenly; it's not even permanent.

However, Jesus's unvarnished feelings on marriage come out in Matthew 19--a discussion of divorce. In the first part of the chapter, Jesus harshly condemns those who would seek to end their marriages casually: "whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery" (19:9). Translation? You may not divorce your wife unless she is unfaithful. Jesus's stance significantly intensifies Moses's command, in Deuteronomy 24, that a husband who wishes to divorce his wife must notify her in writing--itself a win for early women's rights.

(Here, I repeat the important point that that Jesus repeatedly condemns divorce in the gospels but says nothing about homosexuality.)

For the disciples, Jesus's new law is difficult, perhaps untenable; they respond, "If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry" (19:10). Jesus's effective reply? "Yep." He says, "there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can" (19:12).

Now, we're not entirely sure what a "eunuch for the kingdom of heaven" is, but most believe that it's someone who avoids women as part of his spiritual seeking. The New International Version of the Bible makes no bones about it, calling these "eunuchs" those who have "renounced marriage." More simply? Avoid marriage if at all possible, as it will hinder your religious progress.

To tweak the old saw once again, it's not Adam and Eve, it's, well, just Adam.

Of course, actions speak louder than words, and this is advice that Jesus himself follows. And for all the hot air and spilled ink let loose by conservative Christians, they must conveniently ignore the fact that the institution they so revere is one that Jesus himself eschews.

It's worth noting that Paul--the other pillar of New Testament teaching--also stays single, saying, "to the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am" (1 Corinthians 7:8).

Thus, I close by agreeing with all those who scream that marriage is under attack! But "the gays" aren't mounting the assault. Jesus is.


  1. A good examination into scripture, but limited since it’s a blog. Obviously marriage is a complex thing and Jesus and Paul are quick to outline this, but I would say that neither Jesus nor Paul is saying to flee from marriage. Genesis tells us that God made Eve because Adam was lonely; he felt incomplete until he became “one flesh” with Eve. Both Jesus and Paul seem to be saying marriage is a difficult thing and not something to fall into on a whim. Marriage should be taken very seriously. Furthermore, Paul discusses marriage famously in Ephesians where he likens marriage between a man and woman to Christ and the church which certainly has a profound meaning.
    In regards to marriage, I believe scripture certainly alludes that this sacred covenant is between a man and woman. True, it may not be as explicit, but I don't believe that authors of the Bible anticipated 21st century politics when God provided them inspiration. Just because marriage and homosexuality aren’t discussed in the same paragraph doesn’t mean we can assume it’s God’s will.
    The meaning of marriage has already fallen greatly; I'll be bold enough to propose that most marriages don't even make it a goal to peruse one another's ‘immortal self’ and to wash one another before God. I would certainly prefer if the Church and someone like Bishop Harry Jackson would spend more time defining marriage rather than condemning homosexuality. I for one appreciate Tim Keller’s sermons on marriage.
    Finally, in regards to gay marriage, this is more about the State than it is about the Church. It’s the constitution and it’s definition of marriage which should be the focus, not the Church’s. Once the ban is uplifted constitutionally (which I expect it to be) then the Church can discuss if they will recognize homosexual relationships in any way. But again, gay marriage seems to be more about the rights and privileges the State will provide rather than the Church. I believe the United States should be a land of freedom, especially in regards to pursuit of happiness, religion, and your future spouse.

  2. Thanks for your comments, anonymous. Indeed, the Biblical discussion of marriage is more complex than my blog post indicates ... but exponentially more complicated than Bible-beating gay-marriage opponents would have us believe. I appreciate your help in continuing to muddy the waters.


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