In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decisions striking down the substance of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and California’s Proposition 8, Jesus’ opinion—or lack thereof—on homosexuality has received renewed attention. In a crass fundraising email running the risk of violating the Second Commandment, Mike Huckabee wrote, “My immediate thoughts on the SCOTUS ruling that determined that same sex marriage is okay: ‘Jesus wept,’” while social media ran rampant with memes of Catholic comedian Stephen Colbert’s words from a show in early May 2012: “And I right now would like to read to you what the Jesus said about homosexuality. I’d like to, except he never said anything about it.”
Colbert’s claim is common, and it’s effective because it’s true: Jesus did not directly address the matter. But it does not follow that Jesus’ words and example have no relevance for marriage, sex, and family, nor that modern Christians should approve of gay marriage. A few observations:
First, Jesus was a Jew who inherited Jewish Scripture and tradition. Jesus did not drop out of the sky to bring a brand new set of moral teachings de novo. If he did, perhaps his apparent lack of attention to sex and sexuality would be striking. But the Jesus of the Gospels—especially Matthew, the First Gospel in so many significant ways—is a conservative Jew, as was in all likelihood the so-called historical Jesus behind the Gospels. And whether we’re talking about the historical Jesus or the Jesus of the Gospels, Jesus stands well within the breadth of Jewish tradition. Thus, it’s not true that things Jesus doesn’t spend an inordinate amount of time on or doesn’t mention are unimportant. Rather, we should assume that those things in Jewish tradition which Jesus doesn’t overturn or reinterpret are assumed. Sure, Jesus doesn’t outright forbid homosexual practices in the Gospels. But he doesn’t have to, because Jesus’ Judaism did.
Assuming that religion is a matter of prohibitions, in debates over sexuality people often assume that Jesus came simply to forbid certain behaviors, and if he didn’t forbid something, it’s therefore licit. The principle would be “Scripture permits anything not expressly forbidden.” But why assume that hermeneutical posture? One could also assume that if Jesus didn’t positively affirm something, it ought not be done: “Scripture forbids anything not expressly enjoined.” The fundamental problem consists in assuming that Jesus came simply, or chiefly, to condemn or approve of certain behaviors, as if the Gospels could be reduced to a mere rulebook for life, a code of ethics. Thinking this way rips the richness of the Gospels to shreds and leaves us with a boring bourgeois Jesus easily exploited by Western bourgeois liberals. We’d do better to read Kant on the metaphysics of morals and have more fun enduring his difficult German than to consider such a tedious Christ.
Second, relative to other positions ancient and modern, Jesus maintains a radical position on marriage, rooting his view in creation. In his teaching on marriage in Matthew 19, Jesus ups the ante over his Jewish contemporaries. Rabbi Shammai taught that a man could divorce his wife only for adultery. Rabbi Hillel on the other hand taught a man could divorce his wife for many reasons. And later, Rabbi Akiva famously taught that a man could divorce his wife for any reason, “even if he find one fairer than she.” In Matthew 19, Jesus is asked whether a man can divorce his wife for “any cause.” Jesus replies:
Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female [Genesis 1:27], and said, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” [Genesis 2:24]? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.
Hence the Catholic belief that religious divorce is a metaphysical impossibility given the indissolubility of the sacrament of marriage, and the historic Protestant unease with divorce, until recently.
Jesus’ teaching is rooted in creation, a category incumbent upon us all, lest we wish to be Gnostics. Jesus alludes to Genesis 1 and quotes from Genesis 2, and when the Pharisees then ask him to explain just what Moses meant in Deuteronomy 24:1ff when he commanded one to give a wife a certificate of divorce when putting her away, Jesus doubles down on Genesis:
For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning [Genesis 1:1] it was not so.
“From the beginning it was not so.” Jesus’ teaching is rooted in Genesis, as Genesis 1 and 2 are foundational for marriage. Moses’ concession in the “second law” of Deuteronomy is part of a law code constraining and restraining a reckless and recalcitrant people, and thus Jesus can leapfrog over it back to Genesis 1-2 now that he himself has brought the power to do the demanding things he himself as God on earth demands; he is Emmanuel, God with us (Matthew 1:23) and has promised that he is with the Church always, even to the consummation of the age (Matthew 28:20). Because he is “with us,” we are empowered to live out marriage as Christ intends.
Third, in adverting to the creation accounts of Genesis 1-2, Jesus intends marriage to be fecund. In alluding to Genesis 1:27 and quoting Genesis 2:24, is Jesus evoking all of Genesis 1-2? Many biblical scholars now see biblical allusions and quotations as exercises in metalepsis, a term employed by literary critic John Hollander in The Figure of Echo and adopted and adapted for biblical studies by Richard Hays in Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul. Metalepsis basically means that when the reader of Scripture encounters an allusion or quotation, the reader should call to mind not only what is mentioned by the source text but indeed the whole background context of a quotation or allusion.
So, when Jesus adverts to Genesis 1:27 and 2:24, he’s likely adverting to the entirety of Genesis 1-2 as pertains to marriage. And in doing so he’s adverting to the very first command in Scripture, “Be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28). Marriage, then, isn’t merely a moral union of compatible soulmates but a real union meant to be fecund, meant ideally to issue forth issue—that is, children. This Jesus affirms. And thus the sort of sexuality same-sex marriage supporters support misses Jesus’ mark.
Fourth, interpretation isn’t arithmetic. Many claim that marriage, sex, and family are relatively minor themes in Jesus’ teaching. Even were that true, it wouldn’t mean that Jesus’ teaching on the matter could be ignored. Jesus’ teaching is a symphony of truth, and in any complex and beautiful musical composition, every single note from every single instrument matters, from first violin to the triangle. The parts make up the whole.
But in point of fact sex isn’t a mere minor theme in Jesus’ teaching. Interpretation is not arithmetic. One cannot simply count up verses wherein topics X and Y are mentioned, find X mentioned more often, and dismiss Y. Verses are artificial in any event; the system most modern Bibles use was first employed in 1560 in the Geneva Bible. Further, interpretation by arithmetic must necessarily ignore the nuances of Jesus’ words on a given subject in a given context. Indeed, interpretation by arithmetic is not interpretation at all.
Positively, good interpretation involves paying attention not to quantity but to quality, as it were. One must know how something fits into the Scriptural narrative and have a sense of its gravity. Now, Jesus gives his teaching in Matthew, the First Gospel. Whatever one makes of the modern solution to the synoptic problem (how the Gospels are related in literary terms as sources for one another), the Church has held that Matthew is the “First Gospel,” not merely because it was traditionally thought to have been written first, but because it is considered the richest Gospel in many ways. As a Gospel of fulfillment, it is fitting that Matthew begins the New Testament, which fulfills the Old Testament. Further, it presents Jesus’ teaching clearly and substantively; the Church has found it readily useful in teaching and preaching. Moreover, all the major elements of Christian confession are found there—the Incarnation in the Virgin Birth, Jesus’ sacrificial crucifixion, the resurrection. For these and other reasons, Matthew has been reckoned the First Gospel in importance by most Christians in most times and places, whether Catholic or Mennonite. Thus it is no little thing that Jesus addresses marriage in Matthew in particular. There are no minor themes in the Church’s First Gospel.
In the same way, Jesus here goes straight to Genesis 1-2, weighty chapters opening the grand biblical narrative which deal with anthropology: what human beings fundamentally are as male and female and what marriage is.
Now, Jesus’ coming means that much of the Old Testament is no longer of direct relevance to Christians; thanks to Jesus, Paul, and James (at the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15), bacon double cheeseburgers with milkshakes are on the menu for us. But while the early Christians (under the aegis of the Holy Spirit, Scripture, tradition, and Jesus’ own revelation) decided that things of the Mosaic law that separated Jew and Gentile—kosher eating, Sabbath keeping, circumcision—were no longer binding and indeed inappropriate since the Church is one body with Jew and Gentile on equal footing (cf. Eph. 2:14-15: “For he himself is our peace, who has made us both [Jew and Gentile] one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two”), Jesus and the early Church didn’t overturn traditional Jewish sexual morality.
We’ve seen how Jesus intensifies it in Matthew 19 vis-À-vis other Jewish teachers. Consider also Acts 15, where the question of whether Gentile Christians are obliged to keep the law of Moses comes to a head: the early Church under the leadership of St. James decides Gentile Christians do not need to obey the Mosaic law in its entirety, but they are indeed required to avoid four things:
Therefore my [=St. James] judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. (Acts 15:19-20)
Jesus and the early Christians double down on traditional Jewish sexual morality. The rest of the Mosaic law is not binding on Christians—think of how radical that would be for Jews such as the apostles were!—but the prohibition on “sexual immorality” remains. (Interesting here too is the link between idolatry and sexual immorality, the precise link Paul makes in Romans 1.) Revisionist hermeneutics notwithstanding, the prohibition on “sexual immorality” precludes the sort of sexuality some are selling as somehow compatible with following Jesus.
Bottom line: Much of the Old Testament is no longer directly applicable for Christians; we read it through the lens of Jesus and the New Testament. But Jesus affirms Genesis 1-2 in a way more radical than his contemporaries, and the early Church affirms traditional sexual morality.
Concluding pastoral postscript: I’m friends and acquaintances with gays and ex-gays and some who are confused who have been trusting enough to confide in me, and so I’m sensitive to the existential dimensions of these questions. In the above, I’ve passionately addressed certain interpretive issues; the pastoral questions remain, and we need to remember that our gay friends and brothers and sisters are dear people beloved by God for whom also Christ died, even when their desires result in a contortion of Christian teaching. We all stand under the judgment and salvation of the Cross, beggars all.