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What Jesus really said about sex

Symon Hill

Remember the verse where Christ told men not to objectify women? Or stood up for intersex people? Symon Hill combs the 'upside-down Bible' for radical guidance on sexuality, gender equality and other issues.

 

Jesus said relatively little about sexuality, relationships and families, at least when compared to his numerous comments about poverty and power. Some of his teachings are relevant to sexuality because they are relevant to all areas of life. The call to love God and our neighbour, for example, applies to our sexual behaviour as much as to any other.

Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to think that Jesus said nothing about sex. Some of his comments specifically concerned sexuality, marriage, adultery and families. Let's take a brief look at a few important passages.

One of Jesus' most well-known comments on sex is found in the Sermon on the Mount. Conventional translations render it as something like, "Everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart".1 Scholars such as William Loader offer "married woman" as an alternative translation.2

 

FEMINIST JESUS

I have explored this passage in many settings. One of the most interesting was at the annual Bisexual Convention (BiCon) in 2014. I was delighted by how many people turned up to the workshop. Very few were Christians and most were unfamiliar with the Bible. This passage divided them immediately.

On the one hand were those who found it liberating. Somebody described it as "quite feminist". They saw Jesus telling men not to objectify women. He seemed to be attacking sexism and sexual harassment. Then there were those who found it judgemental. For them, this was about attempts to control people's emotions, to condemn sexual feelings and to be negative about sex.

Some say this teaching is impossible to follow because it refers to an instinctive feeling. Let's look at the context. Shortly before making this statement, Jesus compared anger with murder. But the gospels show Jesus himself being angry. It therefore seems likely that he was referring to anger that was deliberately cultivated, anger you dwell on and wilfully maintain. If this is the case, then "lust" is likewise about deliberate intention; not instinctive feelings but developed desires.

In Jesus' culture, women were often blamed for tempting men into lust (the idea that men are more sexual than women is a relatively recent one). Aspects of this tendency continue. Research a few years ago found that over a quarter of British adults believe a woman who wears "sexy or revealing clothing" is partly to blame if she is raped.3

Jesus told men who hoped for sex with a married woman that they could not blame her for their feelings. They must take responsibility for how they deal with their sexual desires.

 

JESUS' DYSFUNCTIONAL FAMILY

In recent years, there has been spate of books proposing conspiracy theories about Jesus, most notably Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. It claims that Jesus married Mary Magdalene. With no evidence to back up suchclaims, their supporters resort to theories of largescale cover-ups.

If early Christians tried to cover up facts about Jesus' family, they didn't make a good job of it. The Bible already contains embarrassing stories about Jesus. This is especially true when it comes to Jesus' relationship with his family.

Early on in the gospels, we find Jesus declining to meet his mother and brothers, who have just accused him of being mad. He insists that "whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother."4

In John's Gospel, we find Jesus responding rudely to his mother when she asks him to sort out problems at a raucous wedding.5 Luke tells us that a woman called out a blessing on the womb that carried Jesus, but Jesus replied "Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it".6

 

NON-BIOLOGICAL CLAN

If you're feeling rather sorry for Mary, then there is good news near the end of John's Gospel. When Jesus knows he is about to die, he encourages his mother and one of his disciples to look after each other.7 At that moment, Jesus appears to have shown more care for his family. Yet Mary was not the disciple's biological mother. Thus, Jesus was undermining biological notions of family even as he promoted other types of family.

The gospels give the impression that Jesus travelled around with his friends and followers while he was preaching and teaching. Some clearly left their families to follow him. To those wedded to social norms, this behaviour would have seemed all the more shocking because of the mixture of genders, ages and social backgrounds. They were all each other's brother and sister and mother.

They were not, however, each other's father. The word "father" carried a rather different meaning in Jesus' culture. Wives and children were to a large extent the property of the male head of the family. The Roman emperor was described as the "father" of everyone in the empire.

The father is the one in charge. Jesus used the title for God alone, saying, "Call no-one your father on earth, for you have one father, the one in heaven".8 This was a subversive statement in a society built on family structures, to say nothing of depriving the emperor of one of his titles.

 

REDEFINING MARRIAGE

One passage of Jesus' teaching has become a favourite for "family values" groups who oppose same-sex marriage. They declare that the Bible has defined marriage and we cannot "redefine" it.

The passage (Matthew 19, 3-15) tells of Pharisees who ask Jesus if a man may divorce his wife on any grounds. Jesus quotes lines from Genesis about a man and a woman being joined together and says that a man who divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery.

We tend to speak as if "marriage" and "divorce" have always carried the same meaning. In reality, they have varied widely across times and cultures.

In Jesus' society, divorce was something a man did to a woman. This is far from modern ideas of divorce by mutual agreement. Jesus was challenging easy divorce rules that allowed a man to throw out his wife on a whim.

The passage reads rather differently if we use an alternative translation: "Is it lawful for a man to abandon his wife?" Some see Jesus as an advocate of the rights of women threatened with divorce. Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, a pioneer of feminist New Testament scholarship, believes that Jesus' comment about "male and female" was about emphasising equality. Marriage was for both of them.9

In this passage, we see the Pharisees asking why the law of Moses allowed them to dismiss their wives. Jesus says this was allowed because they were so hard-hearted. Thus, Jesus challenged marriage and divorce as understood in his society. He was not being anti-Jewish; rather, he was reminding his listeners of what the Hebrew Bible reveals about God's intentions for humanity.

It is ironic that this text is often quoted by supporters of "traditional" families - because here we find Jesus redefining marriage.

 

OUTSIDERS WELCOME

Immediately after these comments, Jesus says, "Not everyone can accept this teaching but only those to whom it is given." He then goes on to talk about three sorts of eunuchs - those who were born that way, those who were castrated and those who castrate themselves for "the kingdom of heaven".

It won't wash to claim that by "eunuchs" Jesus just meant "unmarried people". The negative connotations associated with the word mean that Jesus would have chosen it only for a good reason. Intersex people (formerly known as hermaphrodites) have long welcomed this comment.

There are many theories about Jesus' meaning. Biblical scholar William Countryman argues that Jesus' foregoing comments on marriage had removed men's power and made them "eunuchs".10 Halvor Moxnes suggests that Jesus' followers were accused of being "eunuchs" because they had left their families, and Jesus was defending them. 11

While we do not have space to explore these theories, we can say that Jesus spoke positively about a group of people who were marginalised because they did not fit into norms of gender and sexuality. He also implied that opting out of such norms could be done for the sake of the kingdom.

Immediately afterwards, Jesus is shown treating children with respect and saying the kingdom belongs to "such as these". Children were the least important people, the property of their fathers. By the end of this passage, Jesus has turned the family upside-down.

Perhaps if Jesus' words about respecting children were quoted as often as biblical texts that appear to condemn homosexuality, churches might have a rather different record on child abuse.

 

SEX IN THE KINGDOM

Eunuchs and children are not the only ones whose sexuality links them to the kingdom. Jesus later tells the Pharisees that "tax-collectors and sex workers are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you".12 Christians tend to think that he meant penitent sex workers who have given up sex work. This is rather inconsistent if we assume that the tax-collectors who followed him were still in their jobs. I got a rather different reaction when I showed this passage to current sex workers, who were often surprised but pleased by Jesus' words.

Another confusing teaching crops up in an argument between Jesus and the Sadducees. He tells them that in the age to come people will not marry because "they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection".13

It is often assumed that this means people will not have sex. But angels, in much of the literature of the time, were not sexless beings. "Like angels" is a very unclear phrase. It could be a reference to status. It could mean that people will have sex without being married. It might mean they will have sex but not reproduce, although there are scholarly objections to this idea too. Whatever this passage means, it is no basis for thinking that there is no sex in God's kingdom.

 

ON SEXUAL ETHICS

Jesus' teachings are not easy to classify. Jesus undermined hierarchical marriages, replaced biological families with egalitarian communities, challenged assumptions about women's sexual guilt and championed sexual outsiders. This does not fit easily with the views of the "family values" lobby.

It would be equally mistaken to equate Jesus' teaching with a modern "anything goes" approach to sexuality. Jesus seems to have placed a high value on marriage, emphasised intentions as well as actions and encouraged people to take responsibility for how they handle their sexual feelings. He also seems to have linked certain sexual practices and lifestyles with the kingdom of God, although his meaning is not always clear.

Jesus continues to be awkward. He won't fit into boxes. Instead, Jesus calls us to think, reflect, study and pray as we seek God's guidance on issues of sex and relationships. With churches divided over samesex marriage and mired in sexual abuse scandals, it's alarming that we do not spend more time exploring the teachings of Jesus on these issues. Perhaps it's about time we started.

 

1 Matthew 5, 28 (NRSV)

2 William Loader, Sexuality and the Jesus Tradition (William B. Eerdmans, 2005)

3 Amnesty International press release, 'New poll finds a third of people believe women who flirt partially responsible for being raped', 21 November 2005

4 Mark 3,35

5 John 2, 4

6 Luke 11, 28 (NRSV)

7 John 19, 26-27

8 Matthew 23, 9 (NRSV)

9 Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A feminist theological reconstruction of Christian origins (SCM Press, 1983)

10 William Countryman, Dirt, Greed and Sex: Sexual ethics in the New Testament and their implications for today (SCM Press, 2011)

11 Halvor Moxnes, Putting Jesus In His Place: A radical vision of household and kingdom (Westminster John Knox Press, 2003)

12 Matthew 21, 31 13 Luke 20, 36

 

Symon Hill explores this further in The Upside-Down Bible: What Jesus really said about money, sex and violence, published by DLT.