This is a tough teaching. Is Jesus denying the option of divorce? It doesn’t sound like it. If Jesus wanted to outlaw divorce he could have simply said, “But I say to you, you shall not divorce.” He didn’t say this, but instead claims that a divorced woman is still bound to her husband so that she cannot remarry without committing adultery, which we know is a capital offense.
Two rival schools dominated rabbinic thought in Jesus’ time: the conservative school of Shammai and the more liberal school of Hillel. More often than not, Jesus follows the position of Hillel, but in this case he sides with Shammai who argues against divorce in all cases but that of sexual misconduct.
The Pharisaic debate focuses on Deuteronomy 24:1 where divorce is allowed if a man finds “something objectionable” regarding his wife. The question is, What is objectionable? For Hillel is could be almost anything, for Shammai it refers only to sexual misconduct.
Jesus is drawn into this debate in Matthew 19:3 where the Pharisees ask him, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” The key phrase is “for any cause.” The Pharisees of Hillel’s school say a man can divorce “for any cause,” while the Pharisees of Shammai’s school say only the one cause, sexual misconduct. The Pharisees are asking Jesus to identify with one school or the other. Jesus, again, sides with Shammai. The difference between these two teachings (Matthew 5 and 19) is that in the first he focuses on the woman, in the second on the man saying that any man who divorces his wife (except in the case of sexual misconduct) and marries another woman is himself an adulterer.
The two teachings together are consistent and fair: both the woman and the man become adulterers if either remarries after divorce. But Jesus goes even further in his second teaching arguing that, “What therefore God has joined together, let no one separate,” (Matthew 19:6). Here Jesus sounds like he is opposed to divorce under any circumstances, perhaps taking up the teaching of God in Malachi, “For I hate divorce, says the Lord” (Malachi 2:16). When the Pharisees ask him why then, if divorce is to be outlawed completely, God allows it in the case of sexual misconduct, Jesus says God is bowing to human hard-heartedness (Matthew 19:8).
Given that Jesus generally sides with the School of Hillel in matters of Jewish law, even his disciples are shocked by his pro-Shammai stringency. They say to him, “'If such is the case of 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).
Jesus is not anti-marriage, but he is uniquely pro-eunuch. In Leviticus 21:20 and Deuteronomy 23:1 we are told that eunuchs cannot marry, become priests, or legislators. My holding up the eunuch as his ideal, Jesus is calling his followers to opt out of the social, religious, and legal systems that define the Judaism of his day. Jesus is calling to an elect that can achieve a status above householder, priest, and rabbi. This is an incredibly radical and new idea that reaches far beyond the issue of mere celibacy that troubled the apostles.
While I am intrigued by this hint of a higher state, and why Jesus chooses the term eunuch to reflect it, I admit to not knowing what to make of this call to become a eunuch for the kingdom of heaven. I would love to hear your take on this, Mike.