Matthew 19:10-12


Matt. 19:10-12

His disciples said to him, “If the only reason for divorce between a man and his wife stands thus, it is not expedient to marry.” He said to them, “Not all can receive this saying, but only those to whom it has been granted to do so. There are eunuchs who were born so from their mothers’ womb; 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 him who is able to receive this saying, receive it.”

Here we come to the necessary amplification of what has gone before. When the disciples heard the ideal of marriage which Jesus set before them, they were daunted. Many a rabbinic saying would come into the mind of the disciples. The Rabbis had many sayings about unhappy marriages. “Among those who will never behold the face of Gehinnom is he who has had a bad wife.” Such a man is saved from hell because he has expiated his sins on earth! “Among those whose life is not life is the man who is ruled by his wife.” “A bad wife is like leprosy to her husband. What is the remedy? Let him divorce her and be cured of his leprosy.” It was even laid down: “If a man has a bad wife, it is a religious duty to divorce her.”

To men who had been brought up to listen to sayings like that the uncompromising demand of Jesus was an almost frightening thing. Their reaction was that, if marriage is so final and binding a relationship and if divorce is forbidden, it is better not to marry at all, for there is no escape route as they understood it–from an evil situation. Jesus gives two answers.

(i) He says quite clearly that not everyone can in fact accept this situation but only those to whom it has been granted to do so. In other words, only the Christian can accept the Christian ethic. Only the man who has the continual help of Jesus Christ and the continual guidance of the Holy Spirit can build up the personal relationship which the ideal of marriage demands. Only by the help of Jesus Christ can he develop the sympathy, the understanding, the forgiving spirit, the considerate love, which true marriage requires. Without that help these things are impossible. The Christian ideal of marriage involves the prerequisite that the partners are Christian.

Here is a truth which goes far beyond this particular application of it. We continually hear people say, “We accept the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount; but why bother about the divinity of Jesus, and his Resurrection, and his risen presence, and his Holy Spirit, and all that kind of thing? We accept that he was a good man, and that his teaching is the highest teaching ever given. Why not leave it at that, and get on with the living out of that teaching and never mind the theology?” The answer is quite simple. No one can live out Jesus Christ’s teaching without Jesus Christ. And if Jesus was only a great and good man, even if he was the greatest and the best of men, then at most he is only a great example. His teaching becomes possible only in the conviction that he is not dead but present here to help us to carry it out. The teaching of Christ demands the presence of Christ; otherwise it is only an impossible–and a torturing–ideal.
So, then, we have to face the fact that Christian marriage is possible only for Christians.

(ii) The passage finishes with a very puzzling verse about eunuchs. It is quite possible that Jesus said this on some other occasion, and that Matthew puts it here because he is collecting Jesus’ teaching on marriage, for it was always Matthew’s custom to gather together teaching on a particular subject.

A eunuch is a man who is unsexed. Jesus distinguishes three classes of people. There are those who, through some physical imperfection or deformity, can never be capable of sexual intercourse. There are those who have been made eunuchs by men. This represents customs which are strange to western civilization. Quite frequently in royal palaces servants, especially those who had to do with the royal harem, were deliberately castrated. Also, quite frequently priests who served in temples were castrated; this, for instance, is true of the priests who served in the Temple of Diana in Ephesus.

Then Jesus talks about those who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of God. We must be quite clear that this is not to be taken literally. One of the tragedies of the early Church was the case of Origen. When he was young he took this text quite literally and castrated himself, although he came to see that he was in error. Clement of Alexandria comes nearer it. He says, “The true eunuch is not he who cannot, but he who will not indulge in fleshly pleasures.” By this phrase Jesus meant those who for the sake of the Kingdom deliberately bade farewell to marriage and to parenthood and to human physical love.

How can that be? It can happen that a man has to choose between some call to which he is challenged and human love. It has been said, “He travels the fastest who travels alone.” A man may feel that he can do the work of some terrible slum parish only by living in circumstances in which marriage and a home are impossible. He may feel that he must accept some missionary call to a place where he cannot in conscience take a wife and beget children. He may even find that he is in love and then is offered an exacting task which the person he loves refuses to share. Then he must choose between human love and the task to which Christ calls him.

Thank God it is not often that such a choice comes to a man; but there are those who have taken upon themselves voluntarily vows of chastity, celibacy, purity, poverty, abstinence, continence. That will not be the way for the ordinary man, but the world would be a poorer place were it not for those who accept the challenge to travel alone for the sake of the work of Christ.


Matt. 19:10-12 (continued)

It would be wrong to leave this matter without some attempt to see what it actually means for the question of divorce at the present time.

We may at the beginning note this. What Jesus laid down was a principle and not a law. To turn this saying of Jesus into a law is gravely to misunderstand it. The Bible does not give us laws; it gives principles which we must prayerfully and intelligently apply to any given situation.

Of the Sabbath the Bible says, “In it you shall not do any work” (Exo.20:10). In point of fact we know that a complete cessation of work was never possible in any civilization. In an agricultural civilization cattle had still to be tended and cows had to be milked no matter what the day was. In a developed civilization certain public services must go on, or transport will stand still and water, light, and heat will not be available. In any home, especially where there are children, there has to be a certain amount of work.

A principle can never be quoted as a final law; a principle must always be applied to the individual situation. We cannot therefore settle the question of divorce simply by quoting the words of Jesus. That would be legalism; we must take the words of Jesus as a principle to apply to the individual cases as they meet us. That being so, certain truths emerge.

(i) Beyond all doubt the ideal is that marriage should be an indissoluble union between two people, and that marriage should be entered into as a total union of two personalities, not designed to make one act possible, but designed to make all life a satisfying and mutually completing fellowship. That is the essential basis on which we must proceed.

(ii) But life is not, and never can be, a completely tidy and orderly business. Into life there is bound to come sometimes the element of the unpredictable. Suppose, then, that two people enter into the marriage relationship; suppose they do so with the highest hopes and the highest ideals; and then suppose that something unaccountably goes wrong, and that the relationship which should be life’s greatest joy becomes hell upon earth. Suppose all available help is called in to mend this broken and terrible situation. Suppose the doctor is called in to deal with physical things; the psychiatrist to deal with psychological things; the priest or the minister to deal with spiritual things.
Suppose the trouble still to be there; suppose one of the partners to the marriage to be so constituted physically, mentally or spiritually that marriage is an impossibility, and suppose that discovery could not have been made until the experiment itself had been made–are then these two people to be for ever fettered together in a situation which cannot do other than bring a lifetime of misery to both?

It is extremely difficult to see how such reasoning can be called Christian; it is extremely hard to see Jesus legalistically condemning two people to any such situation. This is not to say that divorce should be made easy, but it is to say that when all the physical and mental and spiritual resources have been brought to bear on such a situation, and the situation remains incurable and even dangerous, then the situation should be ended; and the Church, so far from regarding people who have been involved in such a situation as being beyond the pale, should do everything it can in strength and tenderness to help them. There does not seem any other way than that in which to bring the real Spirit of Christ to bear.

(iii) But in this matter we are face to face with a most tragic situation. It often happens that the things which wreck marriage are in fact the things which the law cannot touch. A man in a moment of passion and failure of control commits adultery and spends the rest of his life in shame and in sorrow for what he did. That he should ever repeat his sin is the least likely thing in the world. Another man is a model of rectitude in public; to commit adultery is the last thing he would do; and yet by a day-to-day sadistic cruelty, a day-to-day selfishness, a day-to-day criticism and sarcasm and mental cruelty, he makes life a hell for those who live with him; and he does it with callous deliberation.

We may well remember that the sins which get into the newspapers and the sins whose consequences are most glaringly obvious need not be in the sight of God the greatest sins. Many a man and many a woman wreck the marriage relationship and yet present to the outer world a front of unimpeachable rectitude.

This whole matter is one to which we might well bring more sympathy and less condemnation, for of all things the failure of a marriage must least be approached in legalism and most in love. In such a case it is not a so-called law that must be conserved; it is human heart and soul. What is wanted is that there should be prayerful care and thought before the married state is entered upon; that if a marriage is in danger of failure every possible medical, psychological and spiritual resource should be mobilized to save it; but, that if there is something beyond the mending, the situation should be dealt with not with rigid legalism, but with understanding love.

Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW (Chapters 11-28)

Back to: Barclay’s Commentary

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