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’ opinionor lack
thereofon 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
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
a Jew who inherited Jewish Scripture and tradition. Jesus
did not drop out of the sky to bring a brand new set of moral
he did, perhaps his apparent lack of attention to sex and sexuality
would be striking. But the Jesus of the Gospelsespecially Matthew,
the First Gospel in so many significant waysis 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.
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.
relative to other positions ancient and modern, Jesus
maintains a radical position on marriage, rooting his view 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:
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.
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.
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:
your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but
from the beginning [Genesis 1:1] it was not so.
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.
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
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.
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 issuethat is, children.
This Jesus affirms. And thus the sort of sexuality same-sex marriage
supporters support misses Jesus' mark.
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.
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.
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 therethe 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.
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.
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 Gentilekosher eating, Sabbath keeping, circumcisionwere
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
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:
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)
and the early Christians double down on traditional Jewish sexual
morality. The rest of the Mosaic law is not binding on
Christiansthink 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
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
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.