Saturday, February 27, 2010

For The Kingdom of Heaven's Sake

The nineteenth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew records a number of Christ's teachings relating to entrance into the kingdom of heaven. In each case, some of those who followed Him found His sayings to be hard to bear.

The Pharisees asked Jesus whether divorce was permissible, and Jesus told them that even though Moses had allowed a provision for divorcing a wife, God's desire was to have married couples stay together, just as He had created Adam and Eve and commanded them to remain together and to "cleave" to each other. He allowed for divorce in the case of adultery, but otherwise, He said, divorce was not part of the plan of God.

His disciples responded, in essence, "well, if it's that difficult to divorce a woman if you don't like her, maybe it's better to not get married at all." But Jesus made it clear that the general rule, however difficult, was that men and women should marry and stay married, "He that is able to receive it, let him receive it" (Matt 19:12). But while affirming the general rule, Christ allowed for an exception: some men, He said, were eunuchs, and weren't candidates for marriage in the traditional sense.

Eunuchs, men who had been castrated before puberty, often served as palace servants, advisers, or officials in Jesus' day. Rulers considered them ideal for such positions because, lacking the ability to have posterity, they wouldn't try to seize power and create their own dynasty. Denied the possibility of a normal marriage and sexual relations with a woman because of a condition forced upon them in childhood, without any choice on their part, these men seemed to fall outside the purview of the Adam-and-Eve story, and indeed all of religious law regulating marriage, divorce, and family life. In Jewish circles, eunuchs had no place. Unmarried men were considered loose cannons; since they were not bound by the civilizing influences of family life, they could not be trusted. Their community, in this respect, was much like our own, filled with a single-minded devotion to the nuclear family that gives rise to our oft-quoted accusation that an unmarried man beyond a certain age is a "menace to society."

But, as in so many other areas, Jesus didn't buy in to the stereotypes and expectations of His culture. He didn't feel threatened by those who didn't "fit the mold," whatever the reason. In fact, He identified three groups of people who, while beyond the pale of proper Jewish society, were not outside the reach of His love. “For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake.” (Matthew 19:12).

According to the law of Moses, eunuchs were categorically forbidden from entering the temple and participating in the rituals that bound the people to one another and to their God (Deuteronomy 23:1). But, despite their condition, they were not rejected by the Lord. As Isaiah had prophesied, “neither let the eunuch say, Behold, I am a dry tree. For thus saith the Lord unto the eunuchs that keep my sabbaths, and choose the things that please me, and take hold of my covenant; Even unto them will I give in mine house and within my walls a memorial and a name better than of sons and of daughters: I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off (Isaiah 56:3-5). Though they could not take part in the blessings of family life or in the ritual observances that God had commanded, He promised that those who lived a holy life, who obeyed His commandments even in their particular difficulties, would not be denied any blessing in His sight. Their memorial before the face of God would be better than the posterity they might have had. Their exaltation would be greater than the religious positions they had been denied. Those who were “eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake” would never be forgotten before God.

The first Gentile convert to Christianity, an Ethiopian, was such a man. He read the scriptures, and humbly asked Phillip to teach him about Christ. “And as they went on their way, they came unto a certain water: and the eunuch said, See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized?” (Acts 8:36). He was what you might call a “golden investigator,” a man who feared God, and knew that God had not forgotten him. In fact, the Lord sent an angel to instruct Phillip to go to a place in the desert where this man would be, as a sign to him and to the rest of us that the Lord will honor all who serve Him, whatever their race, nationality, or circumstance.

In our society, we lack this class of palace servants. So who are the eunuchs of our day? Some, the Lord said, were eunuchs “from their mother’s womb.” Perhaps these include those who suffer from birth defects, physical or mental handicaps that keep them from the activities and joys of normal life. Some, He said, are “made eunuchs of men.” Perhaps these include those who experienced childhood abuse and who still labor under its physical and emotional consequences, which shackle them and keep them from normal human intimacy. And finally, there are some “which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake.” Perhaps these include those who experience unwanted feelings of same-sex attraction, and who, with the kingdom of heaven in mind, deny themselves the companionship they crave in order to obey the God they worship, who lead lives of holy surrender in a society rife with misunderstanding, “relying wholly upon the merits of him who is mighty to save” (2 Nephi 31:19).

It is my testimony that the Lord still loves—nay, especially loves—those whom the world hates—the outcast, the downtrodden, the poor, the misfits, the lepers, the ones who live on the fringes of society, who are rejected by their fellows. He is their God and they are His children. In His house they are loved. In His house they are given an everlasting memorial and a great name.

They should also be given these things in our houses, if we are to be the Lord’s people. The Lord asks His people to take in the outcasts, not only in their soup kitchens and in their hospitals, but also in their homes and in their hearts. He asks us to embrace, not to ostracize. His arm is always stretched out in mercy, and He calls us to follow His example. His last acts in mortality were to heal a man who came to arrest Him, to reassure a thief who hung beside Him, and to plead for forgiveness for the men who killed Him.

Later in the same chapter, Matthew recounts that Jesus was approached by a rich young ruler, a righteous man who had kept all the commandments from his youth. His question was also about the kingdom of heaven, “what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?” (Matt. 19:16). He had kept all the commandments and had done nothing wrong—so Christ required only one thing of him, “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me” (v. 21). This the young man was unwilling to do. Perhaps he justified himself, the way we do when we’re unwilling to make a great sacrifice. Surely, he thought, a large endowment will do? I have a lot of money in my bank account—perhaps I could start a homeless shelter for the poor! If I just give away all my money, they’ll only use it to buy booze, right? I’m noble for holding onto my wealth—it means I have more to give away! Why should I give away all my money and join this band of poor people following the homeless, wandering preacher? What good will that do?

The nobleman went away sad, and Jesus observed, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (Matt 19:24). Many attempts have been made in Biblical scholarship to explain away this extreme statement of the Master, with little success. The disciples in His day, too, were shocked, as they had been over questions of marriage and divorce, and asked, “Who then can be saved?” (v. 25) Christ answered: “With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible” (v. 26). We know that God can accomplish even this, and we can be sure that if a camel passes through the eye of a needle, that camel is going to look very different on the other side. It’s the same way with us.

The more I get to know Jesus, the more He turns my life on its head and makes me question what I thought I knew. In His world, eunuchs have children, dead men talk, sinners are saved, camels walk through needles, poor men are made rich, and little children are the leaders. To bring about these great miracles, however, the sacrifice of all things is required, for “a religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things, never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation; for from the first existence of man, the faith necessary unto the enjoyment of life and salvation never could be obtained without the sacrifice of all earthly things” (Lectures on Faith 6:7). Some become poor in the world so that they can have treasure in heaven. Others become “eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake.” We each make sacred covenants in holy places that we will give the Lord all that we have, with the promise that “every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life” (Matt 19:29).

Christ literally gave everything to obey the God He loved, to our eternal benefit. He asks the same of us. It is my firm testimony that for the kingdom of heaven’s sake, any sacrifice is worthwhile.

“Blessed is he that keepeth my commandments, whether in life or in death; and he that is faithful in tribulation, the reward of the same is greater in the kingdom of heaven. Ye cannot behold with your natural eyes, for the present time, the design of your God concerning those things which shall come hereafter, and the glory which shall follow after much tribulation. For after much tribulation come the blessings. Wherefore the day cometh that ye shall be crowned with much glory; the hour is not yet, but is nigh at hand” (Doc. & Cov. 58:2-4).

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