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(Read this series from its beginning here.)
Again, being a eunuch within a patriarchal society, whether by birth or not, made a man “non-normative.” “Normative” simply means that which the social majority has constructed as normal, or standard. It’s literally a social construct. The opposite of “normative,” academically speaking, is the word queer. Historically, “queer” has often been used in an offensive and negative sense as a slur toward someone who is non-normative, especially in matters of sexuality or gender. But in academia, the term “queer” carries no negative connotation. It simply refers to something that is non-normative or not of the majority. And today many people have reclaimed the term “queer” for themselves as a source of value and pride.
Similarly, in a world designed for right-handed people, left-handedness is non-normative. Left-handed people like my elder daughter might be labeled queer, then. Eunuchs in Hebrew society during the time of Moses were considered non-normative and therefore were not admitted to the assembly of the Lord. Maybe my left-handed daughter would have been excluded from the assembly as well!
Notice what Leviticus has to say about societal normativity:
The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and say: No one of your offspring throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer the food of his God. For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, one who is blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, or one who has a broken foot or a broken hand, or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a blemish in his eyes or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles […] that he may not profane my sanctuaries; for I am the LORD; I sanctify them. Thus Moses spoke to Aaron and to his sons and to all the people of Israel. (Leviticus 21:16-24)
All of this changes by the time we get to the book of Isaiah where we read the opposite:
Do not let the foreigner joined to the LORD say,“The LORD will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.” For thus says the LORD: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument, and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered. (Isaiah 56:3-8)
Here is the question I want you to consider. How can God give the eunuchs “an everlasting name” when, within a Hebrew context, that can only be accomplished by producing a long line of male children?
Let’s go back to our passage in Matthew:
His 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 accept this teaching, 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 others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can. (Matthew 19:10-12)
Who is Jesus referring to when he says, “There are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven”? He wasn’t referring to self-mutilation here. Instead, Jesus is referring to young Hebrew males who chose to abandon the patriarchal expectations of their society—taking a wife, having children, and propagating the nation of Israel through male offspring—to embrace a life of celibacy instead.
Who is Jesus referring to? He might have been referring to himself, including himself in the eunuchs’ community and saying, in effect, “I’m choosing to stand in solidarity with you, voluntarily becoming one of you!” Through him, the eunuchs would now have an everlasting name, a name that would never be cut off. Deuteronomy and Leviticus had excluded them, Isaiah had included them, and now Jesus’ was living in solidarity with them.
Celibacy is still considered “non-normative” in many of today’s heterocentric cultures. The cultural pressure for a single person to marry and have children is often immense. But according to Jesus, whether a person is a eunuch by birth, is made so by others, or has simply chosen to live a life of celibacy for the Kingdom’s sake, they have been made not merely acceptable, but holy, special, unique. They have been given a place at Jesus’ table.
For those who are not celibate, Jesus includes you too. No one is left out. Jesus says that choosing a life of celibacy, while non-normative, no longer holds negative connotations; after all, he was celibate, too. For those who chose celibacy for “the kingdom,” this choice was to be voluntary. Whether someone is heterosexual, gay, lesbian, or bisexual, a choice to be celibate should be one’s own choice, voluntarily. Paul goes so far as to say that celibacy is a spiritual gift (see 1 Corinthians 7:9).
In Matthew and the other gospels, Jesus stands in the prophetic lineage of Isaiah, calling for the radical inclusion of those once excluded by their sacred text.