So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” Genesis 1.27-28.
How many commandments are there? Most church-goers would probably answer “Ten,” but any Jew of Jesus’ day would have answered “613” for that is the number of specific commandments of God found in the Old Testament scriptures. And the first of the 613 is the one in this morning’s reading: “Be fruitful and multiply,” which explains why marriage and procreation (the two were inseparable in Jewish thought) were a must for every Jewish male.
This had a kind of knock-on effect so far as Jewish females were concerned. Parents wanted the best of males for their daughters so they had usually betrothed them by the age of twelve because, once an unbetrothed girl reached the age of twelve and a half, she could refuse to marry any man her parents chose for her. And while men married a little later, any man unbetrothed by the age of twenty was viewed with curiosity, suspicion and disdain. “What is wrong with him? Why is he being disobedient to the commandment? Don’t parents want him for their son-in-law? Are girls refusing him? And if so, why?”
Once a man was married, of course, his married state needed no mention except in some other connection because of its very normality. Thus we only know that Peter was married because when Jesus went to Peter’s house he healed Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever (Matthew 8.14). So some of the other disciples may have been married too though, because they were probably all under the age of twenty and some may have been as young as fifteen, most of them would probably have still been single (see my post “The Temple Tax” 6 September 2008). However, that still leaves us with a question concerning Jesus himself. As he was “about thirty years of age” (Luke 3.23) why was he not married?
The answer is probably that Jesus was thought to be illegitimate. “‘Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?'” say the townsfolk of Nazareth in Mark 6.3. “And,” the text goes on, “they took offence at him.” Note the “son of Mary” rather than “son of Joseph”. I think it is true to say that this is the only time in Scripture where a Jewish male is identified by reference to his mother, not his father; and the reason is plain. Everyone in Nazareth knew that Joseph was not Jesus’ father … and as for that story about an angel and the Holy Spirit! Well, I ask you!!!
Of course, Joseph had married Mary before her child was born, so Jesus was not officially illegitimate, but he was nevertheless tainted by illegitimacy enough for no parents to want him as their son-in-law — even if he had been willing to marry. But surely, in the light of what I have said earlier about the commandment in Genesis, if Jesus wanted to “fulfil all righteousness” (Matthew 3.15) he must have been willing to marry and must even have sought marriage?
Not so. Jesus once said this: “For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it” (Matthew 19.12). A eunuch is, of course, a castrated man who is physically unable to “be fruitful and multiply,” and such a person naturally stood blameless in his inability to obey this particular commandment of God; but by his new teaching Jesus was (shockingly) saying that it was equally blameless to live as if one were a eunuch so long as one did so for the sake of God’s kingdom. The implication was that he had chosen that celibate road and was thus justifying his own unmarried state.
Not that Jesus remained “unfruitful.” By being the grain of wheat that fell into the ground and died, he did not “remain alone” but “produced much fruit.” (John 12.24). In his resurrection, he was the firstfruits of the plentiful harvest (Luke 10.2; 1 Corinthians 15.20) and he is still engaged in “bringing many sons to glory” (Hebrews 2.10). In doing so he continues to fulfil even the first of those 613 commandments that were held binding on him as a Jewish “son of the law.”