By Professor Deirdre Good
Every community has to have rules and communities around Jesus are no exception. Keeping God’s commandments, namely, the law (Torah), is a hallmark of Matthew’s community. “Don’t think that I have come to destroy the law and the prophets,” Jesus says in Matthew 5:17, “I have come not to destroy but to fulfil them.”
Being in a community means being obedient to God. At the heart of Psalm 18, verses 30-31 explain that God’s way is perfect and that God is a shield for all who take refuge in him. Keeping the commandments of God is a way of being obedient to God. In addition, early followers of Jesus practised giving away possessions.
Matthew’s 19th chapter occurs in a section of the gospel in which a community, having been formed around Jesus, begins to regulate itself. Praying the Lord’s Prayer with Jesus (Matthew 6) has already identified community members as siblings addressing God as Heavenly Father. Chapter 18 identifies both membership and mechanisms for discipline in the community in the case of a brother or sister sinning against a community member while chapter 19 seeks to regulate divorce in a context of marriage and children.
Jesus elsewhere prohibits divorce (Mark 10). But in Matthew 19, we hear teaching on divorce which moderates Mark 10 and lets us see that Jesus’ teaching on divorce was not univocal. Characters in the narrative include Matthew’s Pharisees who question Jesus on a controversial topic and Matthew’s disciples who seek to understand Jesus’ teaching. Topics in the narrative fall under the rubric of Jesus’ instruction to disciples about entering the Kingdom of Heaven by keeping the commandments and include divorce, eunuchs, and children.
Responding to Matthew’s Pharisees, Jesus proposes to tighten up divorce legislation and permit it only in one (unclear) circumstance. Whatever Jesus meant, the disciples didn’t hear it as a concession, and they reflects that it would be better not to marry. So Jesus teaches that there is indeed a select group of disciples who do not marry: those who have made themselves eunuchs for the Kingdom. In the world of Jesus there were eunuchs in Hellenistic courts and Isaiah 56, written after the exile, included eunuchs in a Torah observant community.
How does your Christian community regulate itself?
Are there ever circumstances in which someone might be exiled from a community?
How does your Christian community reflect diversity including unmarried people?
O God, you have bound us together in a common life. Help us, in the midst of our struggles for justice and truth, to confront one another without hatred or bitterness, and to work together with mutual forbearance and respect; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.