Wednesday, July 3, 2013

"Born That Way": Jesus' Take on Eunuchs

For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.  (Matthew 19:12).

I just read a heart-breaking story on The Huffington Post about a mom and dad and their homosexual son.  He'd had struggles with his Christian faith and homosexual desires since the age of twelve, and the parents truly loved their son in both word and deed, and after over a year of abandoning both God and family, he had come back, breaking free from the addiction to some of the strongest entanglements out there: crack and heroin.

He still had strong homosexual desires, and mostly, wanted his parents to love him no matter what.  They affirmed to him that yes--even if he practiced the homosexual way of life, they would love him, as they always have.  Just come home!  One night, out with the wrong friends though, has left this family with indelible loss due to drug overdose.

Now, Jesus says there are eunuchs, and they come to be in three different ways, only one of which involved actual surgery (though I'd say it is more like violence done to a man, than surgery).  First, they are either born that way in a sense of likeness within their inner constitution regarding desire, or they are born without genitals or they are born with both (hermaphrodites).  Second, they are made that way by other men through an act of violence, and third, they choose a life of being like a eunuch in order to be missionaries. 
Biblical Context and Background

Should people even get married?  This is the question of the disciples, as Jesus had just given a strong teaching on divorce: if you divorce your wife, except for the reason of sexual immorality, and marry another, you commit adultery.  His disciples respond with "If this is the way between a man and his wife, it is better not to marry."   Now, men could divorce their wives in the 1st century with a swiping clap of the hands, merely for burning dinner, so there were a lot of frivolous men misusing women.  This was the Hillel school of rabbinic teaching.  One rabbi in this school also taught that a man could divorce his wife if he found someone more attractive!  Jesus is a defender of women here.  And, the disciples' response is odd, isn't it?  "It's better not to marry"?  A clue to their response is that in 1st century Palestine, parents arranged marriages and sometimes it 'just didn't work out.'  Marriage without an escape clause, the disciples are arguing, makes the prospect of marriage frightening (IVP Bible Background Commentary, 97).    

Jesus lets us in on the euphemism of eunuch life by means of the proverb: ὁ δυνάμενος χωρεῖν χωρείτω (let the one who has the ability to accept this in the gut, accept it in the gut).  Chew on it, digest it, let your body consume it and become a part of your entire self: I'm going to argue that in the first instance of eunuchs being "born that way" that Jesus is not talking about rare birth defects, but rather that God makes people certain ways for grander purposes than sexual pleasure and human companionship in marriage, because God is on a mission with his kingdom.  Jesus, who is God's king, is giving us a clue that in order to accept his teaching on eunuchs, we need to think differently about what a eunuch is: that they come in many forms.  In other words, he's using a metaphor as well as an actual, physical descriptor, as the context of the story is in response to whether people should get married or not.  Again, Jesus' teaching goes against 1st century Jewish sensibilities.  But then again, he had a way of upsetting the apple cart.

Two loving parents have lost their son.  There aren't words to describe that pain.  Was their son born that way?  Possibly, I think so. 
The story in HuffPo made me think of the catchphrase "born that way" so replete within the pro-homosexual community in affirming the natural accord of homosexual practice.  Both homosexual advocates and non are on either side of the coin regarding whether one is "born that way," as some punt to genetic predetermination while others eschew this notion in favor of free choice, arguing that the latter gives more dignity to ourselves as humans, being that biological predeterminism makes people automatons (who sometimes have to act against their wills, this also producing cognitive dissonance), and isn't it better, by the way, to know you have a choice in the things you do?   

Now Jesus says some eunuchs are "born that way."  Yes, there it is, right in the text.  He says some people are "generated out of the womb of their mothers thus" (ἐκ κοιλίας μητρὸς ἐγεννήθησαν οὕτως--out of the cavity of the mothers were generated thus).  Now in actual terms, a eunuch is one who is emasculated or castrated.  In the ancient world, the men with the harems in the Eastern courts needed other men to protect that harem, but to not touch the women, so they knew how to solve that problem.  Seems they knew a little about where testosterone came from.... 

But let's say that Jesus, when talking about being "born that way," is referring to an actual birth defect, and not an inner propensity.  Does that destroy the idea that people can be born by the purpose and plan of God with certain propensities, propensities that make someone desire something contrary to the plan and purpose of God?  After all, why would God give me the constitutional makeup that desires that which is contrary to his law? 

The answer is that if it is true that people are born with these innate desires, and they don't go away--no matter how much prayer, fasting and pleading, perhaps that person is being called by God to something very special for the sake of a greater mission than personal fulfillment in terms of sexual pleasure and the human companionship of marriage.  "There are those who chose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of God." 

I have to ask myself: regarding the HuffPo story, what would I do in this situation?  Would I do what these parents did and tell my child she has to chose between Jesus and sex?  It is the way of holiness, after all, and Christ demands obedience to himself:
"If you love me, you will keep my commandments," (John 16:15).  
And we know his commandment for sexual pleasure is constituted within the confines of monogamous, heterosexual marriage (Matthew 19:5).  Note that Jesus' declaration regarding marriage is at the beginning of the very chapter in which we find ourselves studying eunuchs.  It's all connected, people.  I probably would choose to offer this repose to my struggling child:

"Maybe God made you this way for a greater purpose: for the sake of the kingdom of God."

 The Apostle Paul picks up on this them in 1 Corinthians 7:32-35 
I want you to be free from anxieties.  The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the LordBut the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife,and his interests are divided.  And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.
Ok, so Paul says, If you are single and aren't planning on getting married: do the work of the Lord for his kingdom, because you have all the freedom in the world to do so.  I know a man who is a "eunuch" and lives in Ethiopia and takes care of street boys.  He feeds them, clothes them, teaches them the Scriptures and seeks their betterment by offering education, etc. He is in a perfect situation to take care of the poorest of the poor for the sake of the kingdom of God by fulfilling the Father's desire to take care of widows and orphans in their distress (James 1:27). 

On the Contrary

What we're talking about here in the story of this particular young man, and as with many young men and women, is not that they are eunuchs in the sense of having no desire for sexual relations with the opposite gender, rather, they are dealing desires for the same gender as their own.  It would be one thing if it was a problem of negativity--"I have no desire for women."  But the problem is more profound than that: it is the positive charge, "I have desire for men."  This is compounded for some who don't want these desires for reasons of their faith in God and his ways, or because, in their heart of hearts, they are confused and "just want to be normal" i.e. be attracted to the opposite gender.   They are often left with a terminal choice: no sexual intimacy and human companionship wrought by means of that or, God.  Pick one.  

What about "praying the gay away?"  Well, for some former homosexuals, that works.  Rosaria Butterfield has written a stunning autobiography about this called "The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert."  But for others, it doesn't.  No amount of praying, fasting, or pleading with God makes the desires go away.  Could it be that what Jesus says is true of this person: the were born that way?


We all have propensities, desires, and personal problems like anxiety, OCD, depression and the like that just...don't...go away, no matter how hard we try or how much we pray.  For myself, I'm a "red-blooded American male" who has to channel his desires for sex through the conduit of marriage with one woman.  What man doesn't dream of having a harem?  The writer of Ecclesiastes says, "I acquired male and female singers, and a harem as well—the delights of a man’s heart" (2:8).  We all have weaknesses, and "thorns in the flesh" and "crosses to bear" and it's painful, but God has the power to turn it to good.  And some people choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of God. 

But still, someone might argue, "You still can have sex, Chris.  I'm struggling here with these desires and if I am going to follow the way of righteousness in Christ, I don't get to."  I can only tell you what a counselor once told me: consider this a "thorn in the flesh" and thank God for it.  What?  Be thankful for my OCD?  My depression?  My struggles with lust, greed, pride, anger, arrogance, ad infinitum?  Be thankful for my homosexual desires--desires which are contrary to the law of God?  How can that be?  

Think of it like a two-sided coin: the thorn is there and it hurts, but God can use it for good for the sake of his kingdom, which is of greater importance than our individual lives.  Remember Jesus, and how he suffered? 
In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence.  Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered (Hebrews 5:7-8).  
Jesus, too, suffered in in furnace of temptation in agony.  You're in good company.   Unresolved here is the dire need for human companionship, and in our isolationist, fragmented society, this is a difficult thing.  However, in many countries around the world where missionaries are needed, community and companionship are saturated in the culture.  Perhaps you were born this way: for the sake of the kingdom of God.  Go in peace and serve the Lord.

Here is the HuffPo story.

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