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Nurture, Nature, Choice
The Biblical Perspective of Jesus in Matthew 19
Genesis 1:27 “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” - and -
Deuteronomy 22: 5 “A woman must not wear men’s clothing, nor a man wear women’s clothing, for the LORD your God detests anyone who does this.”
For years, these two scripture verses have been thorns in the side of the transgender community. A diligent study of these verses, and a close association with the issues they raise, can lead to a deeper understanding beyond the surface, however for most in the western church, these scriptures raise eyebrows and even deep concerns. (There is a lot going on here, and it will take more then just a few sentences to unpack this.)
You may be surprised to learn that these same verses were discussed and debated in regards to gender identity and issues of social norms even back in the time of Jesus, and apparently before!
On the surface, these verses sound pretty straightforward don’t they? But wait, these verses are not stand-a-lone thoughts. As with every other scripture, we should ask, “What is the context? Who is the audience. What about the other verses around them?”
The most damning of the two (as it is applied to the transgender community) is the verse in Deuteronomy 22:5. It is important to note that this verse is sandwiched between many other verses. Some refer to the treatment of found objects; what to do with a lost ox or donkey; gathering of eggs; and safety features for roofing. Some have to do with not mixing things together: two kinds of cloth; two kinds of seeds; and yoking an ox and a donkey together. Another verse refers to the mandate to wear tassels on your clothing. Most of these verses are viewed as very specific to the times back then and not readily applicable today. Even so, it is amazing how some Bible readers paruse these verses in Deuteronomy, picking and choosing for themselves which verse they should follow and which are culturally irrelevant. These verses are treated as if they were a smorgasbord of rules, some we choose while others are harder to stomach. (See sidebar**)
Regardless, this verse (Deut. 22:5) is often picked out of the group and used to make a case against those who would act outside of cultural norms in terms of dress. This part of Deuteronomy contains a large amount of verses concerning marriage as well., most of it in fact talks about marriage and divorce. Although the verse about wearing clothing of the opposite gender may seem unconnected to the verses concerning marriage apparently there is a relevant connection that both the Pharisees and Jesus were aware of. Jesus discussed this connection in Matthew 19.
Although it is obvious from scripture that many of the concerns and issues raised in Old Testament times are outside of our modern experience, the idea that a link exists between marriage, gender, social function and expectations is still very much alive today, as we have seen recently in the California news. (ie: Who can be legally married?) Although controversial today, the issue of gender roles, marriage, gender identity, and gender-based cultural opportunities was even more rigid in the time of Christ, and so questioning it much more controversial.
A casual reading of Deuteronomy 22:5 appears straight forward. However, this verse about men wearing women’s clothing and women wearing men’s clothing may have had more to do with deception in warfare, then much to do with someone’s gender identity. Some men pretended to be women to avoid detection as soldiers.
What is clear in the reading is the idea that taking on a role not culturally aligned to one’s gender was unacceptable. The divisions of duties in society were along strict the gender lines. (This we will look at later in more detail.)
Marriage, Gender Roles and Gender Identity
A discussion of the issue of gender variance would, in Jesus’ day, have include the passages about marriage found in Deuteronomy 22 and 24, as well as the verse in Genesis 1:27. It states, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”
Again, this looks cut and dry. We are born as we are in the image of God; so don’t mess with His perfect creation.
However, chronologically speaking, a few significant things happen after this event. One of them being the “fall.” Man and woman were both turned out of the garden, and sin began to take hold of us. All that has transpired since is off the mark of God’s perfect creation. The Bible records our attempts at getting “back to the garden” including genocidal wars on the part of Israel, ridged food preparation laws, and other wonderful ideas such as stoning would-be virgins. I think this illustrates just how far we are living off the mark, and more importantly how impossible it is for the “garden” to be revisited. Even though the attempt may be worthwhile, the reality of what we have created as a result of the “fall” cannot be ig-nored.
In ancient times your gender and your role in society was rigidly linked. Princes became Kings. Mothers taught daughters to be wives. Carpenters taught their sons the trade. And men and women were to marry, to procreate and raise children. It was assumed that if you were a man you would take a wife (at least one).
In light of this, those who were born without a specific gender or with both genders required a special consideration. Those who did not fully identify with their birth sex or gender and desired not to be in the role of father or mother, husband or wife, presented a real problem. This “problem” was an issue back then as well as now. Jesus, as part of his teaching in Matthew 19 cites the same two Biblical references that are being cited today. What we would today call the transgender issue was apparently addressed, discussed, and argued with strong opinions back then as well.
It is difficult to know how often Jesus discussed this issue, or what its significance was in the community as a whole. This issue was, at least, important enough to make it into scripture and addressed in the teachings of Jesus.
The Pharisees Set a Trap
In Matthew 19 we find the Pharisees once again approaching Jesus with the intent to trip him up. They ask, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”
It is reasonable to suppose that this is not the first conversation they have had with Jesus concerning this issue. The Pharisees are alluding to passages concerning marriage in Deuteronomy 22 that state, “She shall continue to be his wife; he must not divorce her as long as he lives.”
They must of thought this was a trap because this verse does not jell with the scripture in Deuteronomy 24, “When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes be-cause he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out from his house...”
I doubt Jesus was unaware of were they were going with this, but addresses the issue of male and female as it relates to marriage. Continuing in Matthew 19, Jesus says, “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.”
He is citing the verse found in Genesis 1:27 which states the condition before the fall.
(Matthew 19 continues) “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”
They have him now -- or so they think. Either way He answers they have a ready argument. However Jesus replies in a way that is unexpected and again pushes the limits of their cultural reality. He sees where the Pharisees are going.
(Matthew 19 continues) Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.”
This was unexpected. Jesus addresses the surface issue and closes the door on the issue they were intending to trap him in. He once again addresses the intent of the person instead of their actions. Jesus focuses in on the intent of the relationship and refuses to get caught up in the issue of legality. His answer has an air of authority behind it that has caught even the disciples by surprise. And I can see the Pharisees off to the side wondering at first how to answer this teacher, and as they are pon-dering what to say next, the disciples take up the argument for them. They must have smiled as the disciples join in, apparently taking the side of the Pharisees.
(Matthew 19 continues) The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”
They knew that Jesus was not in favor of divorce. Prodding Jesus to say He was against divorce was not much of a trap in itself. Besides, how is pointing out scriptures that may contradict each other a trap for Jesus? If this wasn’t the ultimate objective of the Pharisees, then what was? In this debate, Jesus found himself on the opposite side to both the Pharisees and the disciples.
Jesus the Radical
Jesus often challenged the notions of cultural, gender and social class lines in his actions and teachings. It is safe to imagine that this sort of teaching did not sit well with the Pharisees. A close look at Jesus’ final answer to the question of divorce gives a clear indication as to what the Pharisees had in mind by steering Jesus into the theological neighborhood of marriage, gender roles and gender identity. Jesus could of stayed on the strict issue of divorce by citing other Old Testament Laws concerning the appropriate time and place to divorce but he decides to cut to the chase instead. He addresses the issue of gender identity as it relates to marriage, an issue that rocks the very foundation of who we are as people. It is apparent that the subject of people caught between genders has been raised before, and so Jesus knows were this is going. He exercises His authority as a respected teacher and jumps ahead (like He often does) to the real issue, making a very emphatic statement. He realizes most in his culture, including his disciples, will not be able to understand what He is about to say.
(Matthew 19 continues) Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. (The ability to understand what He is about to say goes against the current cultural grain and must come through revelation.) For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”
Wow! Nature, nurture, choice. The word eunuch* (see sidebar) was used to describe those males who were not able to, or apparently unwilling to, marry and raise children in the traditional sense. (The words transgender or inter-sexed were not available then, but the word "saris" included those who functioned as eunuchs, or lived outside of their male gender role, even though they had functioning genitalia.*) If the term eunuch referred only to those who had non-functioning genitalia, then why the words, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given?” It would not take a special faith to understand that some men had genitals that did not function. For that mater, why discuss eunuchs at all when talking about divorce? These people would not have been married anyway so why drag them into a discussion about marriage? It is obvious that Jesus is making a statement about the male gender role and the validity of living outside of that role. Jesus may have held unpopular or untraditional views concerning male and female gender roles, but why are the Pharisees so interested in getting Jesus to talk about this subject?
The Pharisees were very practiced in the creation of Biblical argument. The hot topic of nature, nurture and choice was one that could be used against Jesus to drive a wedge between him and his disciples. Jesus tried to make others understand his insights but was limited to the understanding and the culture of the day. The Pharisees knew how Jesus felt about this issue and his radical thoughts were not shared by many.
Jesus is saying that born that way, made that way and chosen to be that way are equally valid reasons for a person to be outside of cultural gender. This by itself is radical. It goes beyond even the current debate of "nature vs nurture." Jesus expands the debate to include "choice." This third possibility of “choice,” even today, is the one condition that both sides of the issue agree is invalid. Both sides see "choice" as a deal breaker and the argument has been focused (for at least 2,000 years) on biology vs environment. In response to this, not only does Jesus validate the idea of choice as a reason equal to nature and nurture, but goes on to elevate it above the others with this statement: "...and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven.” WOW! Even in today’s modern society, the idea we can choose a gender role outside of the norm (for ourselves) is very radical and not at all popular. That to "choose" to do so could be for heavenly reasons is very radical indeed. It was this “trap” that the Pharisees wanted him to step in. Rather than fleeing this unpopular opinion, Jesus states His position clearly, and ends with “The one who can accept this should accept it.”
Many of his teachings fell on seemingly deaf ears, because those listening had no point of reference to understand what he was saying. Many of Jesus’ teachings confused even those closest to Him on a regular basis. According to a quick accounting there are over two dozen references found in the gospels that refer to a “lack of understanding” on the part of those who were listening to the teachings of Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Is this not the reason you are mistaken, that you do not understand the Scriptures or the power of God?”
Next time you are arguing for the rights of the transgender community, remember even Jesus had difficulty convincing someone who did not have the life experience, perspective or insight necessary for understanding.
Jesus accepted those who were honest and truthful about who they are. He allowed for and embraced those who were living outside the cultural gender norms. Think this is the only incident that alludes to gender roles? Read the account of the Last Supper in Mark 14. (I’m surprised to see any reference to gender issues in Scripture considering how uncomfortable this issue makes people.)
Mark 14 reads, “On the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, when it was customary to sacrifice the Passover lamb, Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Where do you want us to go and make preparations for you to eat the Passover?”
So he sent two of his disciples, telling them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him. Say to the owner of the house he enters, ‘The Teacher asks: Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ He will show you a large upper room, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.”
Why were the disciples only told to follow a man? Which man? Why say that he was carrying water? What would be the significance of that action? How many men would be drawing water? Not many, for the work of drawing water was that of a woman. The women often would go to draw water and take the opportunity to visit about their days. This was not unlike a beauty parlor experience. However, here was a man in the role of a woman employed by someone who obviously was OK with the gender bending. From the scripture it is reasonable to guess that this was not the homeowner's first encounter with Jesus. This person obviously knew Jesus would be coming by and had already prepared the room for him and his crew. Jesus chose this home to eat the most important meal of his ministry. The home of someone who was coloring outside the gender lines.
Still not convinced? Then let me just say, “The one who can accept this should accept it.”