After hearing Jesus’s strict view on divorce and remarriage, the disciples ask Jesus if it would be better not to marry at all than risk a divorce (Matt 19:10).
Was this a serious question? “Was this a serious suggestion, or were these words spoken with a wry smile which the printed word cannot convey?” (France, Matthew, 282). For some commentators, this is an unchivalrous, misogynist statement (Nolland, Matthew, 775). Does this question really say, “If women are that much trouble, why not just do without them?”
On the other hand, in the next pericope Jesus will tell a rich man to sell everything and follow him (19:21) and Peter will respond, “we have already left everything!” (19:27). There is a pattern, Jesus makes a statement about the rigor of being a disciple of Jesus and the disciples as a question for clarification, prompting further teaching from Jesus.
Remarkably, Jesus says “not everyone can accept this word” (v. 11). What is the word? It is possible this refers to Jesus’s view of marriage and divorce, but it might refer to the disciples’ statement that it might be better not to marry in the first place. Some of Jesus’s disciples will be “eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven” (v. 12)!
Matthew 19:12 is one of the most difficult lines in the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus says there are three kinds of eunuchs: by birth, those made by man, and those who are made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven. The verb (εὐνουχίζω) does refer to literal castration, whether from birth, accident or to serve a king as a eunuch (maybe Acts 8:27, the Ethiopian eunuch). The word came to be used for a person who was voluntarily celibate (BDAG 3).
But is there enough evidence to say the word was used for a voluntary celibate person in the first century? Some Essenes, perhaps Qumran community seems to have practiced celibacy, but they did not call themselves eunuchs. Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:25-38 says a great deal about the value of remaining unmarried, “because the time is short.” But he also recognizes not everyone can remain unmarried to devote themselves to ministry. He also recognizes this teaching is his own opinion rather than a direct commandment from the Lord (7:25). This verse seems to imply Paul did not know the “eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven” saying from Jesus. If he did, 1 Corinthians 7:25 would be the ideal place to mention it!
In fact, Jewish men were obligated to marry and have children. For example, in the Mishnah, “A man should not give up having sexual relations unless he has children” (m.Yeb. 6:6). There are many cases in which a Jewish man might refrain from sex. In Exodus 19:10-15 the people are to refrain from sex for three days before the Lord revealed himself at Sinai. For some in the Greco-Roman world, sexual abstinence meant the body retained its vital energy (Nolland, Matthew, 780, citing Galen). But the average person would have considered sex a normal part of life, those who refrained were doing so for some reason. In the Law, castration of both humans and animals is forbidden; Leviticus 22:24 may prohibit gelding horses. Josephus states it is forbidden to geld “men or any other animals” (Ant. 4.8:80).
Perhaps another way to understand a “eunuch the sake of the kingdom of heaven” in in the context of Matthew is to take the term as a reference to becoming the lowliest and most hated in society. “In all of ancient society eunuchs were as a whole among the most despised and scorned of human group (Petzke, “εὐνουχίζω,” EDNT 2:81). If this is the case, it is similar to “become like a child” (18:2-5) and may explain the reference to children in the next paragraph (19:13-15).
Jesus taught any sacrifice is worth making for the kingdom, including self-mutilation (18:6-9). If those verses can say “cut your hand off for the kingdom,” then it might not be surprising some would castrate themselves for the kingdom. Just as those verses are considered hyperbole, so too for becoming a eunuch.
Since this line is unique to Matthew, perhaps the “eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven” saying was important to Matthew’s community, like parabolic saying in Matthew 13:52, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” The true disciple must be willing to give everything he has to obtain this kingdom, because in the final day there will be a judgment that separates the true disciple from the false ones, everyone will be rewarded justly for their discipleship.