[This is a manuscript for a sermon I gave recently. I have not updated this blog in a while, and I figured this may be a good place for it. I hope it’s of encouragement to you!]
10 The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” 11 But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. 12 For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, 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 the one who is able to receive this receive it.”
I wonder how many of you remember what happened to the planet Pluto in 2006? According to NASA in 2006, Pluto was declared “no longer a planet” given that it only meets two out of the three criteria for being a planet. These criteria are as follows:
- It is in orbit around the Sun
- It has sufficient mass to assume a nearly round shape
- It has “cleared the neighborhood” around its orbit.
Pluto meets all the criteria except the last one which basically just means that because there are so many other little entities like Pluto which share the neighborhood of their orbit around the sun.
So Pluto as of 2006 was declared a “dwarf-planet” for this reason—along with all these other smaller celestial bodies in the Kuiper Belt on the outskirts of our solar system.
I bring this to mind for you all as we talk about singleness, because it can often feel like a single person both in culture and within the Church, that we are somewhat like “dwarf-planets”. We still orbit the same sun, but we don’t fit all the criteria for being a “real” planet. And we sort of just exist on the outskirts of the solar system.
As silly as an illustration as this may be, the reality for many of us, is that Church and culture at large generally don’t know what to do with single people. We often just wait for them to get married rather than attempt to be proactive about their lives as they currently are.
Jesus just before this passage has been confronted by the Pharisees about the ethics of no-fault divorce- whether it should ever be allowed or not. Jesus tells them that frivolous divorce is adultery. He affirms a very high standard for marital ethics, and Jesus’ disciples who were with him are the ones who respond to Jesus in exacerbation when they say, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry!”
It was no small thing in this culture to remain unmarried. It was almost unanimous across Jewish thought that marriage was a blessing and to be single and without progeny was a curse. These words have much more weight than they might to us, and there would be tremendous material and financial cost to not marrying but also an existential cost to not have one’s name carried on.
Interestingly, Jesus paints singleness in a very good light despite singleness having a very dark backdrop.
So there are two things this passage does with regard to singleness which we are going to look at:
- Implicitly, it does not minimize the sadness of the single life and 2) explicitly, it shows us the surprising specialty of the single life.
THE SADNESS OF THE SINGLE LIFE
As I mentioned, the disciples are aware that singleness is likely a scorned category in that Jewish culture. To give up marriage would be to put yourself at significant risk, and to not marry would be to give up your future. It was often viewed as a misfortune, a curse, or a tremendous tragedy.
We see some rare examples of unmarried individuals in the Old Testament such as Jeremiah and perhaps Daniel, but it’s clear that Jeremiah’s singleness should be viewed almost as a curse where Daniel himself (many contest) was likely a court eunuch. In the Old Testament singleness was painted as an exception… and not a good one at that.
Jesus’s response to the disciples would’ve been heard as highly unusual for a variety of reasons (as we will see), but one of those reasons is that he actually agrees to what the disciples have said. He does not give them cheap solutions to the difficulty of marriage. He maintains a high standard. But not only that he agrees that perhaps it is better to not marry and he uses a despised and marginalized cultural figure into the conversation. He begins talking about the eunuch and three types of eunuchs. Before I jump into these categories though, I want to take a long pause and decorate the background of what Jesus is about to say.
The eunuch was a despised figure. We can even see this in the Bible, like in Deut 23:1. The eunuch was someone who was not allowed to enter into the assembly of the LORD. He was excluded from the full rights and privileges of citizenship. And the eunuch was bereft of much or any independence. They were almost entirely dependent upon their master or king. And for someone to have been made a eunuch would’ve implied a loss of humanity. They were likely those who were made that way through slavery or conquest. The eunuch indeed was a tragic figure.
I watched a very strange film recently starring Collin Farrell called “The Lobster”. It’s a biting and heavy-handed dark political commentary about a world where all of those in society who are not “paired up” for any reason are sent to a compound for 30 days to find a suitable mate. However, after these 30 days are up, and if one has not found a potential mate, they are turned into an animal of their choosing and released into the wild.
It’s all intentionally absurd, but the film does help demonstrate that the world does not really know what to do with people who are not paired up. There’s a lot of people in the hotel. There are widows, socially awkward people, physically handicapped people, you name it. As they stay in the hotel they must eat alone, they must play only single player games like golf, and they must live alone. But once they match up they are given new privileges. They get to eat with one another, play together, they get to sleep together, and they get to finally move back into civilization.
In other words, these dwarf-planets get to become real planets but only once they are married.
Like the eunuch figure who remained outside of the Assembly, who was a mocked and scorned figure, unmarried, without offspring or hope for their future, the modern single person often feels some of this anguish today.
We live in an obviously hyper-sexualized and post-Freudian culture which has made it next to impossible to conceive of a happy life without sexual fulfillment. We also assume to be sexually chaste is to be miserably alone. And our churches have often bought into this very idea. It’s easy for us to pity single women in our congregations for not being married. And it’s just as easy to shame or be suspicious of men who are single in our congregations.
There is a deep frustration to being single in our culture, especially in this individualistic age. Many wonder if they will be taken care of in their old age. They wonder if they will be missed after they are dead. They wonder if they will be able to get a ride to the airport. What might it look like for us as a church to come around single people? To help console this sadness without automatically trying to get them in a relationship?
Perhaps this might mean inviting single people over for holidays. Maybe it’s letting them sit with your family at church. Maybe it is inviting them into your Covid-pod.
There is a great sadness to prolonged or permanent singleness. We do not have to downplay the reality of it. We can step into it. We have a Savior who knows what it was like to be on the margins. He knows what it is like to be treated as sub-human. He knows what it is like to be alone. The great fears that many of us have about life and the end of it, Jesus himself experienced. Jesus died alone. He died without physical offspring. He died as a man cursed. And he did it so that all might be brought into the family. As the musician Sufjan Steven’s once wrote:
“You gave your body to the lonely
They took your clothes
You gave up a wife and a family
You gave your ghost
To be alone with me
You went up on a tree.”
I love the tension here. Jesus is alone with us, and he does not necessarily take our loneliness away from us. So take heart, friends.
Interestingly, Jesus does not simply provide commiseration for those on the outside. But there is something quite surprising perhaps even subversive about what Jesus says to his disciples about the nature of singleness.
I put you on hold a while back, and wanted to give some background behind what Jesus was about to say next. So let’s move into this because there is not just a sadness to the single life, but there is a surprising significance found in the single life that Jesus now explains.
THE SURPRISING SIGNIFICANCE OF THE SINGLE LIFE
Jesus gives three categories of eunuchs. First there is the eunuch from birth (often called a congenital eunuch). Then there is the man-made eunuchs- the kinds you might find as slaves or in a King’s court. Both of these two categories would’ve been widely known and understood in antiquity. Jesus is using two literal examples of types of eunuchs, but he moves into a third category which would have utterly confounded those hearing his words for the first time.
Jesus’s third category is of those who deliberately and intentionally make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Given all we know now about eunuchs, Jesus is saying two rather remarkable things. First, he is saying that the eunuch and the unmarried are worthy of dignity. They are living viable lives. One must not be married to be legitimate. And second, he is saying that one might even consider becoming a eunuch for the sake of his kingdom.
What does he mean by this?
Likely Jesus is saying that there have been and will be those who willfully choose to make themselves wholeheartedly committed to the Kingdom in which Jesus inaugurated. He is not saying that one should literally make himself or herself a eunuch… Jesus is speaking metaphorically about all of those who decide to remain unmarried for his sake.
Interestingly, one of the reasons that kings often would often include eunuchs in their courts and entrust them with quite a lot was because they could trust that there would be no attempt to usurp them or any attempt to sleep with his concubine. Eunuchs had no livelihood or security outside of the one they served. So Jesus is likely saying here that there are some who willfully have decided to be as such for his Kingdom’s sake.
Stanley Hauerwas notes the extreme implication of Jesus’ words in much better terms than I ever could. He says, “And we must remember that the ‘sacrifice’ made by the single is not that of ‘giving up sex,’ but the much more significant sacrifice of giving up heirs. There can be no more radical act than this, as it is the clearest institutional expression that one’s future is not guaranteed by the family, but by the church. The church, the harbinger of the Kingdom of God, is now the source of our primary loyalty.”
Perhaps you’ve heard the story of Joan of Arc. Joan was born during France and England’s Hundred Years’ War in the early 15th century. She was born in a small town in France, a daughter of poor farmers. Joan was a pious girl, deeply committed to the catholic faith. After a devastating blow to the French throne from the English, French supporters saw a chance for Charles VII to return the crown to a French monarch. It was during this time that Joan of Arc began having mystical visions of St. Michael and St. Catherine who encouraged her to save France and to ask Charles’ permission to expel the English and install him as the true king.
Joan responded to this call. And as part of this call, she took a vow of chastity, denying her father’s attempt for her marriage and a different trajectory for her life, and ultimately found favor from Charles. After Joan had led several French assaults and achieving almost miraculous victory, her reputation grew all across French forces. And she eventually helped Charles take the throne.
However, Joan was eventually captured by the English and was put on trial for heresy. King Charles distanced himself from Joan and allowed her to stand trial alone. On May 29, 1431, at the age of 19, Joan of Arc was announced guilty of heresy, and was burned at the stake.
King Charles ordered an investigation which ultimately found Joan of Arc to be innocent of those charges and she was deemed innocent and designated a martyr. And as of the last century she was canonized as a saint in the catholic church.
Joan of Arc, demonstrates this sort of Kingdom loyalty and zeal. She demonstrated something of Jesus’s words by her very life. She laid down a future marriage, and a future life for something far greater than herself – giving herself unto this fundamental loyalty. Even being let down by her country and being slandered and killed for the sake of her calling.
The early twentieth century writer, who you may know, GK Chesterton wrote a decent bit about Joan of Arc. But there is one sentence of his that has always stuck with me which seems to really catch to what Jesus is saying here in these verses about sexual ethics and chastity, he wrote: “Virtue is not the absence of vices or the avoidance of moral dangers; virtue is vivid and separate thing…Chastity does not mean abstention from sexual wrong; it means something flaming, like Joan of Arc.”
He’s saying that, we often view chastity as the absence of bad rather than something positively good. And Jesus is saying the same! (Which again would’ve been completely shocking for his disciples.) The willing eunuch is not simply one who is incapable of marriage (and thus divorce), but he is one who is capable of tremendous good insofar as his or her loyalty is wrapped up in the kingdom. And this goes for the single person as well. Singleness and chastity are positively good things insofar as they are connected to service of the Church and Kingdom of Jesus.
However, we need to distinguish between the singleness Jesus has in mind versus the singleness our culture often implies.
The word “singleness” is not in this text. So we must be careful even in attempting to read our understanding of singleness back into this text. This willingness to remain unmarried is not for the sake of autonomy or sexual fulfillment. It is not a form of singleness for the sake of not feeling tied down. Rather, this is singleness that finds its meaning and telos in the work of the Kingdom and the King himself.
This passage implies that there are many of us who are single for a variety of reasons. Some are single because of variables outside of our control (sexual orientation, no option to marry, etc.). Some are single because of things done to us (cultural influences, abuse, or trauma perhaps). And finally some of us are single because we simply feel called to be single. And sometimes these overlap. Frankly, there are those of us who will never marry because of physical or mental limitations, trauma, orientation, or simply because we do not feel called to. Thankfully, Jesus has cast a wide net here. He’s not content with letting the least of us fall through the cracks.
We often live as though sex and romance is a divine right, but it is not. And we have bought into the Freudian trap of thinking that a life without sex is a pathetic life. But it is not. We are not promised sex and romance in this life or even a good marriage. And that is okay. There is something better. Your singleness whether begrudgingly or willingly can be found to be a wonderful and blessed and special thing for the sake of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ.
What might it look like for us in this room who are married begin to enable this call for others? To support them and celebrate them in this? What might it look like to center our marriages and singleness all around the singular aim of Kingdom advantage? Rather than self-preservation or self-fulfillment?
In 1 Corinthians 7 Paul informs that each of us have gifts. Both marriage and singleness are gifts because both are very difficult but very beautiful things when used properly for the sake of the Kingdom. Both of these are only truly and properly “gifts” when we keep the Kingdom in focus. Singleness is empty without a proper end in mind. And marriage can easily become self-obsessed without that end.
My friend Wesley Hill said it well when he noted that both singleness and marriage are both for the sake of training in holiness and preparation for the life to come. Both, used properly are for the sake of discipleship. Jesus does not deny that Christian marriage (as HE intends it) is very difficult, and he does not deny that, Christian singleness, the alternative, will be any less difficult. Wes says that singleness “is one more way in which we begin to unlearn selfishness, to embrace a kind of spiritual martyrdom, and find our desires redirected toward the city of God. Singleness [and not just marriage] is about holy dying, about the sanctifying transformation of desire and belonging.”
Singleness and marriage are both about sanctification and service. But we often make them about self-expression or fulfillment. We are called to die to ourselves in both callings. Maybe that looks like opening up the busyness of our lives for each other. Opening up our homes to one another and attempting to live closer to each other. Maybe it looks like not moving away for the sake of career or progress, but sticking close to community.
I spent three years living with a very special family in Connecticut before I moved here to St. Louis, and their gifts of hospitality were truly remarkable. As a single person, I felt cared for and loved as I ate with them every night and shared holidays with them. But one of the most beautiful things about this time was that I did not ever feel like a charity-case. They consistently treated me with respect knowing that I had much to offer them as well. There was a tremendous dignity in that communication to me, and then perhaps more than any other have I tasted what it was like for the callings of singleness and marriage to be in wonderful cooperation.
With all this said, I want to conclude with some words from the Prophet Isaiah who prophecies here about Zion’s future restoration. And the hope for the faithful eunuch of the Lord:
Hear these words from Chapter 56:
“let not the eunuch say,
“Behold, I am a dry tree.”
4 For thus says the Lord:
“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
5 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.”
This passage is remarkable and one of my favorite in all of Scripture. It’s a word of consolation to the eunuch. The eunuch knew he was not welcome in the Assembly, and this prophecy of Isaiah about Zion’s restoration would have had one thinking “surely, I will not have a place in that future to come.”
But Isaiah shocks, just as Jesus shocks, he tells them that for those eunuchs who are faithful for those who hold fast to his covenant, they will be brought into the Lord’s house. And not just that. They will be given a name better than sons and daughters. They will be given a name that is everlasting. One that will not end.
This is a hope that was looked forward to. And it’s one we see fully realized in the inauguration of Jesus’ eternal kingdom. It’s in Jesus that we see the foreigner and the marginalized brought in and given tremendous dignity and respect. But it’s in Jesus we see one who was cut off so that we may be brought into this eternal kingdom. Jesus died an outcast. He died without physical heirs so that we all might be brought into this eternal kingdom and be a sort of spiritual progeny. Jesus died so that we would have hope. That we would not be turned away from this home and future in his kingdom.
In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, your singleness is tremendously valuable. And your LORD is with you in all the sadness and dignity of this high calling.
There is a name better than “sons and daughters” and it is in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.