The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”
(Matthew 19:10-12 ESV)
After hearing Jesus’ comments on marriage, divorce, and remarriage yesterday the disciples realized that such a teaching was a difficult one. Indeed, it was contrary to what they had been taught and what was the prevailing societal norms.
These young men were probably not married (except for Peter, who was likely the only one older than 20). They lived in a culture which had a shallow view of marriage. They looked at marriage as a means to satisfy self. Women were objects to fulfill sexual desires and to serve their husbands. If a man was unhappy with his wife for any reason he could divorce her.
But Jesus explained that God designed marriage to be permanent. Divorce was not an option except in limited cases. This meant that the husband and wife must put a lot of selfless effort into their relationship to make the marriage work. Human beings don’t like to do this. We want things to be easy and if they aren’t we want to be able to change our lives just as easily. If divorce is off the table then it is better not to marry, the disciples thought. They were clearly not interested in marriage except for how it could benefit them.
Notice that Jesus does not disagree with them. He simply says “not everyone can receive this saying”. In other words, if someone is interested in marriage only to satisfy themselves then yes, it’s better not to marry because marriage is all about self-sacrifice [Ephesians 5:22-33]. But not everyone can remain single because being single presents its own difficulties, notably celibacy.
Note that the ability to remain single and celibate is given from God. God does not call everyone to be married. Those whose sexual desires are strong should get married [1 Corinthians 7:9]. But God calls some, such as Paul, to remain single [1 Corinthians 7:8].
Those who live without sex (called eunuchs in this passage) fall into one of three categories. Two of these categories are physically incapable of sexual activity either because they were that way from birth (mental or physical birth defect) or because they have been made that way by men (castration), such as the guards who served in a harem.
The third category are physically capable of having sex but have made themselves celibate for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. These men have chosen not to get married and to, therefore, live without sex. Such an ability is a gift from God. Those who are able to receive such an assignment should receive it by living a life that joyfully serves God.
Marriage requires a man to be devoted to his wife and children whereas a single man can spend all his time serving God [1 Corinthians 7:32-34]. Neither is bad. Some are called to one way of life; some are called to the other.
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