Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Homosexuality and the Christian, Part 4: The Teaching of Jesus

Christian advocates of committed homosexual relationships — all, of course, oppose random, let alone wanton, profligate homosexual behavior as they do heterosexual activity of the same kind — have ready answers for the Old Testament's prima facie condemnation of all same-sex eroticism: the texts don't really deal with the issue (Sodom and Gomorrah); the prohibitions are obsolete, rendered redundant by the liberating word of the New Testament (the Holiness Code); the text has "covered up" actual traces of divinely-blessed homosexual relationships (David and Jonathan).  In previous posts (here and here), I have attempted to answer such revisionist arguments.

In theological argumentation the trump card is usually considered to be Jesus.  This is especially the case if one can determine what our Lord actually said and meant about a disputed matter (the odd exception, of course, is the old-fashioned dispensationalism in which I was raised, which often marginalized "hard sayings" of Jesus on the grounds that he was speaking to Israel, not the church, thus implicitly relegating Jesus to a secondary authority for ethics behind Paul).  And it is here that homosexual advocates think they have something on which to hang their hat.  For, you see, Jesus says nothing about homosexuality in any of the four canonical Gospels.  The implication they draw from this fact might surprise neophyte Bible students who have an undifferentiated view of biblical authority: Jesus, so it is claimed, wasn't overly concerned about homosexual behavior; indeed, he probably wouldn't have had a problem with it at all if engaged within the confines of a loving, committed relationship. 

I believe such a conclusion betrays both faulty logic and shallow exegesis of numerous Gospel texts.  For example, it is likewise a fact that Jesus is nowhere recorded to have said anything about the issue of circumcision.  Indeed, I have used this fact as Exhibit A against the supposition of an earlier generation of Jesus scholars that the Gospels reflect the concerns of the early church rather than those of the historical Jesus.  For it is an undisputed fact that the issue of the circumcision of Gentile converts was the most important and defining issue in the first generation after Easter (see, e.g., Acts 15 and the primary evidence of Paul's [most likely] earliest letter, Galatians).  Jesus, however, said nothing about it. Why?  As Sherlock Holmes would have said, "Elementary, my dear fellow."  In the context of Jesus' ministry to Galilean and Judean Jews, this was a non-issue.  Circumcision, as all Jews knew, was the sign of God's covenant with Abraham (Genesis 17), and in the Maccabean/Hasmonean era it had become the boundary marker par excellence of Jewish identity vis-a-vis the Gentiles under whose rule they chafed (cf. 1 Maccabees 1:11-15; 2:46; Josephus, Antiquities 13.257-58; Tacitus, Hist. 5.5.2).  Jesus, like all his Jewish interlocutors, had been circumcised (Luke 2:21-39) and hence had no reason for which to wax eloquent, let alone prophetic, on the matter.

This has obvious relevance to the matter of Jesus' apparent silence regarding homosexuality.   As with homosexuality, so also with regard to incest and bestiality, two other Levitical prohibitions.  I would argue that Jesus' silence speaks, not of tacit approval, but of mutually assumed disapproval.  For Jews, homosexual activity was considered a distinctly Gentile sin.  Note, for example, the Letter of Aristeas, a document (probably) to be dated to the late 2nd century BCE.  This letter extols the Torah as surrounding the Jews with "unbroken palisades and iron walls" designed to "prevent [their] mixing with aany of the other peoples in any matter, being thus kept pure in body and soul" (Ep. Arist. 139).  As an example the author cites the following:
The majority of other men defile themselves in their relationships, thereby committing a serious offense, and lands and whole cities take pride in it: they not only procure the males, they also defile mothers and daughters.  We are quite separated from these practices. (Ep. Arist. 152)
Such a peculiarly Gentile sin was deemed by the first century Jewish historian Josephus to be both "unnatural" (Against Apion 2.273, 275) and worthy of death (Antiquities 3.275).  Indeed, there is no evidence of any Jewish tolerance for, let alone approval of, homosexual relations.  The "zeal for God" Paul attributed to the Jews (Romans 10:2) was, as he knew from personal experience, a zeal for the Torah which, as we have argued, does not speak with any ambiguity on the matter.

Not only have pro-homosexual advocates latched on precipitantly to the unstable argument from Jesuanic silence, they also have failed to notice other indications in the Gospels that at least implicitly signal Jesus' disapproval of such activity.  Three texts are especially relevant in this regard.

The first of these is Mark 7:21-23.  Here, in contrast to the Pharisees' concern to adhere scrupulously to the Levitical food laws of Leviticus 11 and 17, Jesus points inwardly to the true source of defilement:
For from within, out of the human heart, come evil ideas, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, evil, deceit, debauchery, envy, slander, pride, and folly. All these evils come from within and defile a person. (NET Bible)
I have highlighted the term "sexual immorality" because it is the translation of the Greek term porneai (porneiai).  This term is famously, though inaccurately, translated "fornication" in the KJV, but is instead a catch-all, general term designating "unlawful sexual intercourse" per se (BDAG 854), which in the Old Testament, Jewish perspective, would have included homosexual relations as well as prohibited heterosexual ones.  In certain contexts the meaning of the term can be delimited (e.g., in Matthew 5:32, where "adultery" is almost certainly intended), but such delimitations must be argued rather than assumed.  In quasi-traditional vice lists, as here in Mark 7, no such contextual limitation is arguable.

The second text is Matthew 5:27-28:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to desire her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (NET Bible)
At first sight this team seems to be irrelevant, since Jesus is speaking about adultery rather than homosexual relations.  The relevance becomes apparent upon just a moment's reflection, however.  In verses 21-48, Jesus presents six "antitheses" as case studies of how he had come to "fulfill" the Torah rather than to abolish it (5:17).  Some of these logia actually involve abrogation of the Old Covenant stipulations (e.g., divorce [5:31-32] and the lex talionis [5:38-42]).  But note the trajectory of this abrogation.  Jesus emphatically does not say that we have now developed our moral bearings to the point where we can simply throw off the shackles of the Old Covenant's restrictive prohibitions .  On the contrary, Jesus consistently intensifies the Law, pointing to its interior logic that would be worked out in the lives of the people whose hearts are transformed by the New Covenant gift of the Spirit.  In this case, Jesus interprets the seventh commandment against adultery in light of the hermeneutically more foundational tenth commandment against lust.  This intensification is followed through in other areas as well, most notably divorce, and renders implausible any attempt to claim Jesus' authority for the mitigation of the Torah's absolute prohibition of homosexual behavior.

The third, and most important text, is Mark 10:2-12:
Then some Pharisees came, and to test him  they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them,  “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.”  But Jesus said to them, “He wrote this commandment for you because of your hard hearts.  But from the beginning of creation he made them male and female.  For this reason a man will leave his father and mother, and the two will become one flesh.  So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” In the house once again, the disciples asked him about this. So he told them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” (NET Bible)
In this famous pericope, Jesus responds to a request to provide a legal ruling in a matter of some dispute among first century Pharisees, viz., divorce.  In the course of his answer, he opens a window into what we might call "the hermeneutic of the new covenant."  According to Jesus, the Law of Moses with which the Pharisees were obsessed had only a provisional, temporary authority, with much of it designed merely to control sinful tendencies and abuses caused by human "hardness of heart" (sklhrokarda).  The kingdom of God, which Jesus was inaugurating, was in the business of curing that hardness of heart and, hence, of bringing about the human flourishing God had intended when he created men and women to be his image.  As a result, the Mosaic code is effectively "trumped" by the creation ordinances laid down by God before the "Fall," which introduced the hardness of heart Jesus came to rectify.

Of note here is the essential logical connection Jesus makes between the two quotations from Genesis 1:27 and 2:24.  Indeed, the general statement in Genesis 1 that God created humankind ("Adam") as "male and female" is understood as finding its necessary expression in the sexual union ("one flesh") articulated in Genesis 2.  The relevance of these texts for Jesus' argument is clearly expressed by Dick France:

The threefold pattern of Gn. 2:24 ... , leaving parents, union with wife, and man and woman becoming [one flesh], provides the essential basis for marriage, and its relevance to divorce is that the imagery of a single 'flesh' could hardly be more clearly designed to express that which is permanent and indivisible.  It lifts marriage from being a mere contract of mutual convenience to an 'ontological' status.  It is not merely that 'one flesh' should not be separated; it cannot.  Jesus' comment that [they are no longer two] underlines this concept: they are no longer two independent beings who may choose to go their own way, but a single indivisible unit. (R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark [NIGTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans/Carlisle: Paternoster, 2002] 392)
The implications for the issue of "same sex marriage" and, indeed, homosexual eroticism are likewise clear.  Jesus, based on the "first principles" articulated in the Torah's creation narratives, sets forth their male-female paradigm as definitive for the ordering of human sexual relationships.  It is not just that he presupposed heterosexuality as the operative principle, true as that is.  It is more specifically that God created human beings with the specific intent that as males and females they would together, as one flesh, carry out God's creational design as his image bearers.  Just as polygamy/polyamory and "serial monogamy" defy God's intent by rendering the "one flesh" relationship null and void, so do homosexual unions defy this design by virtue of uniting people who are, by God's design, uncomplementary.  Indeed, Jesus' words clearly indicate that the creational "marriage ordinance" is the foundation on which all sexual standards in the Bible find their inherent logic.  Once again, one is free to disagree with Jesus on this point.  But we all should have the integrity not to claim for him a "tolerance" he demonstrably would not have recognized.

One further thing: As clear as I believe Jesus' teachings are on this point, we must once again note the observation that he does not explicitly discuss the matter of homosexual conduct, let alone "homosexuality" per se.  At the same time, he says much about adultery, divorce, and other matters on which "evangelical" Christians are, if not countenancing, increasingly softening their stance and/or public voice.  Divorce and adultery are, after all, no less a part of the church's life than homosexual practice.  But — and here's the point — they are more common.  And it is a besetting temptation to preach hard against those sins one is less likely to commit and hence views as commonly committed by "others."  As a result — and I have seen this in practice — it becomes very easy to preach against homosexuality in such a way that shows no compassion or concern for people who struggle with same-sex attachment.  Once again Jesus is most helpful here, for it is our Lord who points to the root of all sexual sin in his brutal equation of lust with adultery.  Preach against homosexual conduct?  Certainly, if one wants to be faithful to Scripture.  But, if one does so, let the preacher do so with consistency, proportionality, and with a healthy dose of the humility caused by the recognition of one's own weakness and experience of the mercy and grace of God. 

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