A eunuch for Jesus?

There is a curious conversation recorded in Matthew 19 which is often overlooked, although it is the follow up to some oft-quoted teaching on divorce.

You’ll recall that the disciples asked Jesus where he stood on divorce, and when he says you can’t get divorced except if your spouse has committed adultery, the exasperated disciples exclaim  “It’s better not to get married then!”

And Jesus says “Duh!”

OK we don’t generally translate it that way, but in effect Jesus says “Of course it is, though some of you are going to find this hard to hear.”  And then he starts to talk about eunuchs, how some are born that way, others have been castrated, and some choose to live as eunuchs.  As he did.

If you know anything about the culture of ancient Israel, you’ll know how important it was to be married and have children, so that your name could be preserved and your land passed on.  To be a eunuch was a curse.  They weren’t even allowed in the national assemblies (Deuteronomy 23:1).  Why does Jesus suddenly start commending them?  It’s so un-Jewish.

I believe he is drawing on a wider middle eastern tradition of giving powerful roles to eunuchs, because they were trustworthy. The Assyrians were the first of several early empires (as you will remember from the Old Testament) which took some of the best young men from countries they conquered to serve the king.  This most notably occurred to Daniel and his friends.  What the Bible for obvious reasons doesn’t mention is that these men would be castrated.

The purpose was that these eunuchs could be trusted with power, authority and finance, because they couldn’t start their own dynasty, so there was no point in them overthrowing the king.  Also, without children to support them in their old age, they relied on pensions from the royal household to care for them.  As a result, eunuchs like Daniel, and the Ethiopian treasurer, achieved high office and were often renowned for their loyal dedication to the king.  As well as being trusted with the harem, they often became the king’s bodyguard or personal servants as well as being top civil servants.  Sometimes they even acted as regents for an underage king.  In fact being a eunuch was often synonymous with exercising power.

We can see this reflected in the Bible.  The Hebrew word which is translated eunuch in Isaiah 53:5 is saris.  This word is also translated in other contexts as official, chief officer, or chamberlain.  Potiphar, for example, is described as a saris (Genesis 39:1), even though he has a wife.  So is the man in charge of the Jerusalem defence force (Jeremiah 52:25) – and it’s unlikely that he was literally a eunuch as they seldom had command of the military.

So Jesus makes a powerful link between those who choose not to be married with the great court officials of the day.  Far from being cast aside and neglected, we find ourselves with a powerful vocation, devoting our time and energy not to managing a household and raising children but to serving the King.  Some of us, Jesus concedes, have little choice in the matter.  Life’s circumstances have forced us down this road.  Few of us have chosen singleness, but all of us have the opportunity to embrace it, even if only for a while.

Seen in that context, isn’t it exciting that Jesus holds out to every single mission worker the honour of being a eunuch for the King of Kings!