The Non-normative Jesus

eunuchicon

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)

This week I want to consider Jesus’ words to his disciples in Matthew 19. But to understand why these words are relevant, we have to go all the way back to a seemingly bizarre statement Moses makes in the book of Deuteronomy. When you see the connection between Deuteronomy 23 and Matthew 19, you will be blown away, just as I was.

“No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD.” (Deuteronomy 23:1)

I’ll bet you didn’t think we would be looking at this verse in this week’s eSight! But this verse is not random, and it’s not marginal. When we explore this verse together with Jesus’ words in Matthew 19, a new and beautiful understanding of Jesus begins to emerge.

The “assembly of the Lord” refers to when Israel assembled for religious ceremonies. Eunuchs (men who had been castrated or were otherwise unable to reproduce) were considered non-normative within this society. Among the Hebrews, the carrying on of a man’s name through his male offspring was the only way to ensure that his name and nation would endure forever. Passing that name down through generations was the ancient Hebrews’ idea of eternal life.

What about the women? When it came to reproduction, ancient Hebrew culture considered the woman little more than an incubation chamber for the baby that was being passed down from the male. I know, I know, extremely patriarchal! At this stage they didn’t have the faintest idea about the zygote being the combination of the female ovum and the male sperm. For the Hebrew, the male seed contained everything needed for a human to be produced. All that was required was the fertile soil (the woman) for the seed to planted in and to grow. It’s no wonder that many women in this culture were treated like dirt!

Being a eunuch within Hebrew society, by birth or otherwise, placed a man in the “non-normative” category. “Normative” simply refers to that which has been established by the majority in a society as normal, or standard. The opposite of “normative,” academically speaking, is the word queer. Today, “queer” too often is used in an offensive and negative sense, typically as a slur toward someone who is non-normative in matters of sexuality or gender. But in an academic sense, the term “queer” carries no negative connotation. It simply refers to something that is non-normative or non-majoritive. For example, in a world designed for right-handed people, left-handedness (a trait my eldest daughter possesses) is non-normative. In matters of dexterity, left-handed people might labeled as dexterously queer. All of this is to say that 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 Moses has to say about normativity in this passage from Leviticus.

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)

What’s fascinating is to observe in the book of Isaiah how God begins to change everything, moving Israel further along a trajectory from where they have been toward what we are about to discover in Jesus.

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 consider. How is God going to give the eunuchs an everlasting name when that, within a Hebrew context, can only be accomplished by producing a long line of male children?

Let’s listen in on a private conversation Jesus had with his disciples and see if we can find the answer.

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”? In this context, voluntarily becoming a eunuch did not refer to self-mutilation. 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 had done this? Who is Jesus referring to? He was standing right in front of them! Jesus is referring to HIMSELF! He included himself in the eunuchs’ “tribe,” saying, in effect, “I’m choosing to stand in solidarity with you, voluntarily becoming one of you!” The eunuchs would now have an everlasting name, a name that would never be cut off. Moses had excluded them, but now they were being made holy by Jesus’ solidarity with them.

Celibacy is still considered “non-normative” in many of today’s hetero-normative 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 alongside everyone else by virtue of Jesus’ embrace of them…by Jesus’ becoming one of them.

As a side note for those who are non-celibate, you’re included, too. No one is left out.  Jesus is quick to say that choosing a life of celibacy, while still non-normative, no longer holds negative connotations; after all, Jesus was celibate, too. Celibacy is to be strictly voluntary, according to Jesus. Further, only those who have been given the spiritual gift of celibacy are called to be celibate. For those who have not been given this gift, Paul would say, “if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.” (1 Corinthians 7:9)

But let’s get back to this non-normative eunuch, Jesus, who, standing in the prophetic lineage of Isaiah, calls for the radical inclusion of those once excluded under Moses.

Radical inclusion is a trend in Jesus’ ministry. Speaking to Israel, Jesus announces that the favor of God is now available for the Greeks as well. (Luke 4:25-29) Addressing the Jews, Jesus calls for the inclusion of the Romans. (Matthew 5:43-48) With the Pharisees, Jesus calls for the inclusion of Jews not living according to the Torah (i.e., “sinners,” Luke 19:7-9). Addressing the rich and healthy (wealth and health being socially constructed indications of “God’s favor” in Jesus’ day), Jesus calls for the inclusion of the poor, the blind, and the lame. (Luke 14:13-14; cf. Luke 6:20, 24) Addressing men within a patriarchal society (and women with a Stockholm-syndrome like support of partriarchy), Jesus calls for the inclusion of women. (Luke 10:39-41) Jesus calls to all who are benefiting from society’s arrangements to make room for those who are being oppressed. It was this radically inclusive nature of Jesus’ kingdom that led his early followers who were circumcised to begin including the uncircumcised among them as well. (Acts 10:47)

What I want you to ponder this week is what it must have meant for those non-normative eunuchs of Jesus’ day to be embraced by Jesus, to be called His new “tribe.” Just imagine it:  after years of being excluded from the “assembly of God,” they were not merely accepted by their long-awaited Messiah; he had actually chosen to live as one of them. This is the non-normative Jesus, choosing the life of a eunuch as a Hebrew male and Rabbi who refused to marry and have children. This non-normative Jesus chose to stand in solidarity with a group considered non-normative in his day. What did it mean to them that Jesus, through his identification with them, could give them a name that would now last forever?

It is no accident that the first individual conversion story Luke records in the Book of Acts is that of an Ethiopian eunuch. Luke purposely chooses to tell the conversion story of a person who, under Mosaic law, would have been excluded from the Hebrews’ religious assemblies. Luke knows exactly what he is communicating when he begins the many individual conversion narratives of Jesus’ Kingdom with Philip’s baptism of a eunuch.

He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. (Acts 8:38)

Societies today, ours included, can still be divided into the normative/majoritive and the non-normative/non-majoritive. There will always be a majority and a minority. (Again, think of my left-handed daughter.) But when those considered “normative” fail to recognize those considered “non-normative” as their brothers and sisters in Christ, every bit as deserving of a place at Jesus’ table, something monstrously un-Jesus-like is being perpetuated — something that looks very different from the example we are given in the non-normative Jesus. When normativity is wedded to exclusivity it produces hierarchical privilege for the normative and, by definition, an oppressed minority composed of anyone non-normative. When the preservation of normativity is the Moral concern, rather than the deeper non-objectification, non-dehumanization, and anti-degradation of those who are considered non-normative as the Ethical concern, in the name of “standing up for what is right,” the non-normative minority will always be objectified, dehumanized and degraded, becoming themselves the recipients of attempts at being purged from society by the normative majority. This is exactly the opposite of what we see the non-normative Jesus doing with the eunuchs of his day.

HeartGroup Application

1. The early followers of Jesus embraced the radically inclusive nature of Jesus’ kingdom.  I’d like you to spend time this week with Jesus, contemplating Paul’s words in Acts 17:24-31.

“The God who made the world and everything in it, this God who is sovereign of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is this God served by human hands, as though God needed anything, since this God gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor God made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and God allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for this God and perhaps grope for this God and find this God—though indeed this God is not far from every one of us. For ‘In God we [all] live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are God’s offspring.’ Since we [all] are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.  While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now God commands all people everywhere to [rethink everything we have assumed about God, ourselves and the world around us], because this God has fixed a day on which [the injustice, oppression and violence of this world will be put to right] in justice by a man whom this God has appointed, and of this God has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

2. As you contemplate this passage, journal what Jesus reveals to you through these words.

3. Share with your HeartGroup what Jesus shows you this upcoming week.

Till the only world that remains is a world where Jesus’ love reigns. Keep loving like the sun shines and the rain falls, restoring one human heart at a time.

I love each and every one of you. And remember, whether in today’s world you are considered normative or considered non-normative, God loves you, too.

I’ll see you next week.