When the law appeared to promote the opposite of what God intended when it was made, then Jesus argued that it was important that people not follow that law.. If Jesus believed this to be true about Scripture, is it any surprise that he would have applied these ideas to his own teachings? Or that Paul would have done so?
In my recent and controversial book Saying No to God: A Radical Approach to Reading the Bible Faithfully, I explore the radical and shockingly orthodox idea that the Bible teaches us that God doesn’t want us to always agree with Scripture… or God.
While the idea of saying no to Scripture or God as a result of faithful obedience is a concept that has challenged many, applying that to Jesus specifically causes even more surprise for others.
If there’s anything that modern Christians learn in their time spent in Church and listening to evangelists, even the most misled or ignorant, is that Jesus is God and that as such, his words have eternal life and must be obeyed and adhered to. As such, many Christians try desperately to learn all that they can about Jesus’ words and teachings, seeking to accept them all.
In fact, for a number of conservative believers (especially those who are fundamentalist), following Jesus’ teachings is so incredibly important that one’s very salvation may depend on their application and understanding of them.
And for some progressive believers who have grown exhausted of the organized religion that has created the formal church, they have uplifted the teachings of Jesus above the rest of Scripture. Such “Red Letter” Christians utilize the words of Jesus as a canon within the canon.
ACCEPT IT… IF YOU CAN
Given these current dynamics, it is with the most interest that we should note a curious and odd comment that Jesus is said to have mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew.
Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only to those whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can. (Matthew 19:11-12, NRSV)
As typically happens, almost all readers focus on the content of the controversial teaching, while ignoring something far more controversial: the framework itself!
Here, in this unique passage, Jesus introduces and ends his teaching with a careful note: this teaching is optional. In other words, whether you can or cannot accept this will not interfere with your ability to be a disciple.
To put it even more straightforward language: feel free to ignore this. If you do, it just means that you aren’t ready or even capable of accepting it.
It’s a shocking statement coming from the person who Christians believe is the incarnation of God on earth.
And what is even more surprising? Jesus was right.
The Gospel of Matthew is the single only source for this teaching both within and outside the canon. Every other gospel, including those that are apocryphal, ignored this teaching and never reproduced it.
Indeed, had Matthew ignored it as well, we wouldn’t even know Jesus had ever taught about eunuchs, nor that he considered some teachings optional for discipleship.
But this raises another important question: if Jesus could say it on the occasion of this specific teaching, is it possible that he used this sort of preface and conclusion to other teachings of his?
Was this, in short, common for Jesus? And if Matthew only records it here for this one teaching, does it mean possibly that the other gospels have simply removed such statements from other things Jesus taught?
DON’T LOOK TO JESUS FOR AN ANSWER
While any answer to that question might be speculative, there is supporting evidence that points in this direction.
In the Gospel of Luke (and also found independently in the Gospel of Thomas), Jesus is said to have been approached by someone having a dispute with his brother about the proper …
Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” (Luke 12:13-14, NRSV)
A man said to him, “Tell my brothers to divide my father’s possessions with me.” He said to him, “O man, who has made me a divider?” He turned to his disciples and said, “I am not a divider, am I?” (Thomas 72)
The issue that the brother has brought to Jesus is a biblical one. He wants Jesus, as an authoritative religious figure (a rabbi), to inform his brother(s) that they are acting contrary to Scripture and to correct them.
What makes this surprising is that Jesus argues that he shouldn’t be used in this way, as a final authority in the debate over Scripture, precisely because he is not their “judge or arbitrator,” or “a divider” (which carries the same meaning).
Jesus, the revelation of God in the flesh, refuses to settle a biblical dispute. Instead, the implicit advice Jesus appears to give is this: figure it out yourself.
This is similar to a story or parable told in the Jewish Talmud (written a few hundred years after Jesus, but reflecting ideas much earlier). In that ancient tale, the rabbis are having a dispute about some instructions within the Torah, and when one of them calls on God to provide the answer, God actually answers.
Instead of being happy, the other rabbis tell God to remain out of the dispute because, as they put it: you gave the Torah to those on earth (it is no longer in Heaven), so it our human responsibility to make sense of it on our own (without a third party denying us our ability to reason).
When one of the rabbis has Elijah the prophet visit him in a dream later, he asks Elijah whether God was upset about that. Elijah smiles and reports that God was overjoyed that his children understood his desire.
ARE JESUS’ TEACHINGS… OPTIONAL?
If Jesus prefaces some teachings by warning that it may not be possible for some people to accept them, and if he on other occasions was remembered for teaching people not to look at him as an authoritative referee for Scripture, does this mean that Jesus’ teachings are optional?
If this is true, how does one figure out what is optional versus what is authoritative?
Luckily for us, the New Testament gives us the earliest example of how this was handled by the earliest Christians.
In the letters of Paul, specifically the first directed to the Corinthians, he faced an interesting challenge. Jesus’ public teachings forbidding divorce were well known, but the new Gentile Christian converts faced new problems that appeared to make Jesus’ teachings cause more harm than good.
What happened when someone converted and their spouse was upset with the decision and wanted a divorce? Were they to follow the teaching of Jesus and forbid to consent to the divorce? If they did, they would cause their spouse further pain and further remove peace from the household. Or should they go against Jesus’ teaching and in doing so, promote further peace?
What was Paul to do? Well, he argued that Jesus’ teachings should be changed and modified based on the circumstances.
To the married I give this command – not I but the Lord – that the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does separate, let her remain unmarried or else by reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife).
To the rest I say – I and not the Lord – that if any believer has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. And if any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him… But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so; in such a case the brother or sister is not bound. It is to peace that God has called you. (1 Corinthians 7:10-13, 15, NRSV)
What Paul has done here is specified that although Jesus taught something, and although he is saying this based on his own opinion, it is nonetheless something which aligns with Jesus, even as it departs from what Jesus has explicitly taught.
For Paul, the way to modify or ignore what Jesus said was by looking at the trajectory of Jesus’ overall teachings and using that as a judge for how to evaluate their place in each new context.
In this case, because Jesus’ goal was believed by Paul to be to promote peace, there was a need to honor the Spirit of Christ by modifying the stringent rule which the Historical Jesus gave.
According to Paul, because of the different circumstances and contest they found themselves in, they were no longer “bound” by the rule Jesus gave (at least, not in the way that he gave it for his own specific context).
In truth, this way of reasoning was in line with how Jesus himself taught. For Jesus had during his own lifetime taught that the Sabbath laws and Temple laws should be ignored if they ever began to hurt those practicing them, rather than uplifting them.
Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.” (Mark 2:27, NRSV)
In other words, Jesus himself taught that the law of God in the Torah was only to be obeyed and followed based on the trajectory it was intended to direct people toward (their wellbeing and flourishing).
When the law appeared to promote the opposite of what God intended when it was made, then Jesus argued that it was important that people not follow that law, for in doing so, they were in fact promoting sin by allowing God’s good intentions to reap negative consequences.
If Jesus believed this to be true about Scripture, is it any surprise that he would have applied these ideas to his own teachings? Or that Paul would have done so?
Thus, against all popular expectations, we learn from Jesus himself and the New Testament that there are indeed times in which Jesus’ teachings can and should be ignored.
But there is a bit of a paradox to it all, as we’ve discovered: the only way to do this properly is to follow Jesus’ teachings about using the trajectory of the divine intention to determine when circumstances have caused a law or teaching to become unhealthy.
Thus, it is by Jesus’ own teachings that we come to learn how to evaluate and discern when to apply or ignore those same teachings.
It is Jesus who interprets Jesus. All Paul did was follow that principle.
By ignoring Jesus’ teaching on divorce to promote peace, he was a better disciple of Jesus than someone who would have simply quoted Jesus’ teaching and told others to obey it.
So in truth, it’s not so much about our freedom to ignore Jesus, but rather quite the opposite: our necessity to become better disciples of Jesus, paying closer attention to the principles that undergird his continuing spirit filled will, rather than puppets who merely echo his historical words.
Matthew J. Korpman is the author of Saying No to God: A Radical Approach to Reading the Bible Faithfully (Quoir, 2019). Pursuing doctoral work in Biblical Studies, he is a graduate of Yale Divinity School (MAR in Second Temple Judaism) and La Sierra University, where he completed four degrees in fields such as Religious Studies, Philosophy and Archaeology. He is an active member of the Seventh-day Adventist church whose research interests range from the Apocrypha to the Apocalypse.