Reading Matthew 19

(The first in a series on looking for “a foundation-laying biblical theology of human sexuality”)

If you were to go looking for “a foundation-laying biblical theology of human sexuality,” where would you turn? Finding such a theology of human sexuality was the task presented by the synod of the Christian Reformed Church in 2016 to a freshly minted study committee. The committee has now reported the results of its study. You can access it here:

My question in this post as well as those that immediately follow it is not about the conclusions reached by the committee, important though they are, but about how the committee approached their task. Assuming for the moment that the project makes biblical sense—an assumption that I will question in subsequent posts—how did they do in handling the biblical texts?

As it turns out, not so well. Pretty much everything the committee report says In regard to biblical theology of human sexuality comes down to a single New Testament passage: Matthew 19. The argument is contained in section III of the report (pp. 15-37), entitled, “A biblical theology of human sexuality” (pp. 15-37). Although they go on to discuss other texts from Old and New Testaments, pausing longest on Paul’s comments on sex and marriage in 1 Corinthians 6-7 (pp. 31-35) and ending with a meditation on Ephesians 5, it is fair to say that their attempt to establish a biblical theology of human sexuality rests largely on this single passage.

In Matthew 19:3-12 (along with a parallel passage in Mark 10), Jesus addresses a question about marriage brought to him by a group of Pharisees to, the words of the text, “test him” (NIV; the Greek word here has the sense of something like “to trip him up”). They ask their question as if it were out of the blue, “Is it permissible for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason at all?” This was in fact a question debated by first century rabbis, and many commentators on this passage think that is what the Pharisees are up to: implicating Jesus in a rabbinic debate. Jesus might give the impression that this is how it understands the question by giving a rabbinic response, putting together a set of scriptures, first Genesis 1:27: “Have you not read that the creator from the beginning ‘made them male and female?’” And then, Genesis 2:24: “Because of this, a man will leave his father and mother and be united with his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” To this, Jesus adds his own application: “What God has put together, let no one put asunder.”

In the Matthew version of this story, after Jesus has laid out his position, the Pharisees come back with Deuteronomy 24:1-4, the only direct ruling on divorce in the Old Testament (see also Exodus 21:7-11 and Deuteronomy 21:10-14, both on women taken as slaves). The Deuteronomy ruling gives permission for a man to divorce his wife “if he finds something indecent in her.” The meaning of the phrase “something indecent” is not at all clear in Hebrew, and a long argument among rabbis had ensued about what exactly it meant. There was a strict interpretation among some rabbis in which “something indecent” meant sexual infidelity, and a looser interpretation in which the phrase could mean almost anything the husband wanted it to mean from burning the beans to “she no longer fulfils me,” the complaint of divorcing husbands from time immemorial. Jesus chooses neither of these alternatives, instead saying that Moses allowed divorce only as a concession given to men (women are not included in the Deuteronomy rule) because of their hard hearts. In his severer ethic (see also Matthew 5:31-32), Jesus counsels against any divorce at all, although Matthew, unlike Mark, slips in a qualifier, “except for porneia”(broadly “sexual immorality,”) in agreement with the stricter rabbinic interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1.

For the writers of the study report, this brief exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees is foundational for constructing the “biblical theology of human sexuality.” How can this be true? you might ask. It’s a passage about divorce, not about human sexuality in general, and about divorce in a specifically ancient and Jewish setting. What’s crucial for the study committee is the appeal Jesus makes to the creation texts from Genesis. By so doing, they claim, Jesus is signaling that he regards monogamous marriage between a man and a woman not in cultural terms but as something baked into creation. They regard this as a foundational comment about marriage not only but about human sexuality itself. Against modern claims that sexual identity is on a spectrum or on several different spectra, they regard Jesus’ reference to these creation texts as certifying that humans are intended by God to be binary, male and female. Any variation from that binary standard is, according to the report writers, the result of the fallenness of creation.

By almost any criterion this exegetical move is a stretch, but it’s fundamental for the report writers. The writers return to the same creation argument with regard to Paul’s comments on marriage on sex and marriage in 1 Corinthians 6 and 7. They note that Paul refers to Genesis 2:24 in the course of his denunciation of prostitution in 1 Corinthians 6:16. The point they are making is that marriage between a man and woman is grounded in creation and that, therefore, any deviation from it violates God’s own order. In this scheme, ethics—what we should and should not do—is grounded in creation norms. This means, in practice, that ethics are always backward looking. We need to get back to what existed before the fall. I’ll return to this creation ethic idea in the next blog post, where I look at the assumptions that the study committee brings to the text, but before we turn to that, it’s important to ask whether, even if we grant the study committee their creation ethics perspective, they get Matthew 19 right. Are they in fact listening to scripture or are they using scripture for their own purposes, purposes largely or entirely peripheral to what the text is about.

This is important. If we assume with the writers of the report, as I do, that the Bible is the word of God, “able to make [us] wise for salvation” (2 Timothy 3:15), should we not be listening for what Jesus through Matthew is teaching us in this passage? Shouldn’t we be asking the question: what is Jesus up to here? If we look a little more closely at this chapter, what we discover is that Jesus is up to quite a lot, not all of it, perhaps not most of it, having to do with human sexuality or even with divorce.

Part of the problem for the writers of the report is that they begin with verse 3 of the chapter. To get at what is going in this passage, you have to begin not with Matthew 19:3 but with Matthew 19:1. Matthew (like Mark in the parallel passage, Mark 10) makes a point of telling the reader that Jesus had left Galilee and is now preaching and healing in a new location: the lower Jordan River valley. This geographical note is not just there to move around the stage furniture. The point that the gospel writers are making is that Jesus is standing in this passage where John the Baptist stood. Where according to the gospels John talked about marriage. Where in talking about marriage John spoke too bluntly and where as a consequence of what he said he was arrested and ultimately executed. The story, if you want to look it up, is in Matthew 14:1-12.

The reason John was arrested and executed is that John’s comments were not about just any marriage or all marriages but about a specific marriage, the marriage of Herod Antipas (son of Herod the Great) and Herodias, who had been the wife of Antipas’s half-brother (confusingly enough, another Herod, known as Herod II or Herod Philip).  The marriage of Herod Antipas and Herodias was notorious at the time because Antipas basically stole his brother’s wife. Or so it appears. The ancient historian Josephus blames it on Herodias: “Herodias took upon her[self] to confound the laws of our country and divorced herself from her husband while he was alive, and was married to Herod [Antipas], her husband’s brother by the father’s side.” John the Baptist was having none of it. He said to Herod Antipas, probably more than once, “It’s not right for you to have her” (14:4). Saying it got him killed.

When the Pharisees approach Jesus, who is standing now where John the Baptist had preached, they are not innocently asking a random theological question, it seems to me. They are not trying to involve him in a rabbinical dispute. As Matthew says, they are hoping to trip Jesus up by getting him on the wrong side of Herod Antipas so that Jesus might suffer the same fate as John.

How does Jesus respond? In answering that question, it’s important not only to have Matthew 19 in front of you but also the parallel passage from Mark 10. Mark’s is probably the older of the two accounts. The standard theory of how the gospels were written is that Mark was the earlier by a decade or two and that Matthew and Luke wrote their gospels using Mark’s gospel as a primary source. In the case of Matthew 19, it appears that Matthew, for reasons of his own, reasons I’ll come to below, has rearranged Mark’s narrative a bit. In Mark’s account, after the Pharisees ask Jesus about divorce, Jesus doesn’t begin by stating his own position (as in Matthew). Instead, he asks them first for their interpretation of scripture: “What did Moses command you?” They cite Deuteronomy 24:1-4, the basic Old Testament regulation on divorce, as I noted above. Jesus, responding to their citation of the Deuteronomy law, does not reject the rule but qualifies it, saying that Moses gave it to them as a concession, “because of the hardness of your hearts.” He then goes to Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 to argue that men and women were created for each other, and he seals this interpretation with his own words, “What God has put together, let no one tear asunder.”

In this public exchange, Jesus is being careful. He says nothing that would explicitly condemn Herod’s marriage. The law regulating divorce, even if it is made because of the hardness of their hearts, still stands. It’s only later in the Mark account, after Jesus has withdrawn from the public forum and entered a house with his disciples that he expresses stronger views, views that can be taken as a direct judgment on the marriage of Herod and Herodias. Mark, unlike Matthew, notes the transition from outside (the public venue) to inside (a private venue): “When they were back in the house, the disciples asked Jesus about this.” About what? Not just about marriage per se but, it would appear from what Jesus says next, about the marriage of Herod and Herodias. Jesus says, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her.” And, adding the reverse scenario, “If a woman divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” Why add this last unless Jesus has in mind specifically the way that, in the words of Josephus, Herodias “confounded the laws of [the] country” and initiated the divorce?

But that’s Mark. Mark places this passage about marriage and divorce between two passages about children. A contrast is drawn is between the adulterous affair involving sophisticates like Herod Antipas and Herodias and the simplicity of children. Jesus says, “Let the little children come unto me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” Not, presumably, to Herod and Herodias, the claimants to the throne.

But, if that’s Mark, what of Matthew 19, the passage on which the report writers lean for their construction of “a foundation-laying biblical theology of human sexuality?” Matthew does something quite other with this material. After Jesus answers the Pharisees and makes his declaration about divorce, “If a man divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality and marries another, he commits adultery,” Matthew adds an exchange between Jesus and his disciples not found in Mark. The disciples, appalled by Jesus’ strict interpretation of marriage, say to him, “If this is how it is between a man and wife, better not to marry.” Jesus responds with a metaphor or parable based on eunuchs in ancient society:

“Not every is able to receive this word but only those to whom it is given. Some eunuchs are born that way from the wombs of their mothers; other eunuchs are made that way by human intervention; still others become eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Whoever is able to receive this, let them receive it. (19:10-12)

The report makes much of this little parable, but what they make of it is not what Jesus seems to have in mind. Most, including the study committee, agree that the focus in this saying of Jesus is on the third group of eunuchs. If the first two are, respectively, men born with incomplete or malformed sexual organs and men who have been castrated, the third are those who have chosen celibacy for their vocation in the kingdom of God. What this seems to be about is an early Christian ascetic practice, a strict form of discipleship.

Matthew is the gospel of severe discipleship. It’s Matthew that contains the Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7) with its “you have heard it said. . . ,” but I say to you. . .” (5:21-48). It’s in the same sermon that Jesus speaks of the narrow way (7:13-14). It’s also in the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus says that his disciples are to have a righteousness that surpasses that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law (5:20) and “to be perfect as [their] heavenly father is perfect” (5:48). The saying about eunuchs in Matthew 19, it seems to me, is of a piece with this emphasis on a severe discipleship. In this passage Jesus pushes on beyond the question of marriage to a more severe discipleship, the discipleship of those who are willing to forgo sex for the sake of the kingdom.

This move towards a severer discipleship is reinforced by what follows. After again the saying about children, “the kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (19:14), Matthew tells the story of the rich young man who wants to know what he must do to get eternal life (19:16). There is much bound up in this passage in the way of first century hopes for eternal life, but that will have to await another occasion. For the moment, what matters is how Jesus answers the young man, saying, “Sell your possessions and give them to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (19:21). As with being eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, Jesus challenges his disciples to give up ordinary life. And, again, the disciples wonder about this, saying, “Who then can be saved?” (19:25). These challenges to a severe form of discipleship are not for everyone. Jesus brackets his comments about eunuchs with his acknowledgement that “not everyone can receive this” and adds, “let those who can receive it, receive it” (19:11-12).

The study committee embraces this challenge to a severer ethic but directs it mostly to those who are attracted to forms of sexuality the committee wants to proscribe. But that is to miss the point. The saying of Jesus about eunuchs has nothing to do with whether one is same-sex attracted or opposite-sex attracted.  He is addressing his comments to those “can receive them,” to those who are called to this severer form of discipleship.  It’s a word to all who would, in the words of Jesus in the same chapter, “leave behind houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields” (19:29) and follow him.

There remain two things to be said. The first is that in their effort to use Matthew 19 with Jesus’s citations of Genesis 1 and 2 to argue a creation ethic, the committee has failed to catch the nuances of the biblical text. I explored some of these nuances in reading Jesus’ comments on divorce in Mark and Matthew. One of things that I noted is that these two gospels tell the same story but in different ways and to different effect. In Mark’s telling of the story, the marriage of Herod and Herodias is much in the foreground and with it a condemnation of the power of the rich. Divorce was a rich man’s game. Or, in the case of Herodias, a rich woman’s game. It was less divorce, in the sense the word has today, than a discarding of one partner for another. Jesus speaks to the injustice implicit in the Deuteronomy rule on divorce.

Matthew does something different with the story. In his telling of the story, he uses the question about divorce to lead into a challenging call to an ascetic discipleship. Neither of these should be divorced—not to overwork that term—from the historical contexts in which they were originally uttered. Neither of them speaks to human sexuality in general terms.

But what of the argument that the report writers make? What of the argument that Jesus by referring to Genesis 1 and 2 establishes for all time that the sexes are binary and that marriage is permitted only between a man and woman. Can we read that conclusion out of these texts? The answer I think is no. Jesus doesn’t have any of that in mind. It’s not the point of the texts. And to turn something that is not the point into a divine dictate may have no end of theological uses, but it’s not actually reading scripture. Using Matthew 19 to ground a “biblical theology of human sexuality” does not arise out of Matthew 19. It arises out of assumptions that the report writers brought the text. It’s to that story that I turn to next in the piece that follows this one, “Does the Bible Have a Plot?’

Clayton Libolt


  1. Hi Clay,
    I know you posted this blog on your thinking about the Synod committee’s conclusions some time ago, yet I have just read it. Two comments: I (as a PC(USA) pastor have had discussions about the Bible’s statements on human sexuality for quite some time. We are a little further down the road.However, I wish I/we had had the benefit of your clear and scholarly thinking to enrich and clarify our discussions.
    In this post, I appreciate your look into the different accounts of Jesus’ response to the Pharisee’s. You look carefully not only at what the text itself says, but also what is behind the text, as well as what the readers “in front” bring to the texts. These lenses are so important!
    A professor of New Testament in our church has been teaching the congregation about these lenses and reading your blog reminded me of nuanced interpretation Biblical is when we are sensitive to those lenses. Thank you Clay!

    Right now, I’m going out to walk the dog, but I can’t wait to read the rest on this topic!

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