What Jesus Really Said About Sins of the Flesh

I have often heard it said that our Lord did not care overmuch about sins of the flesh; for He was relentless in his attacks upon hypocrisy, pride, and avarice, but was so mild towards adulterers and fornicators that we might, extrapolating from that mildness, so far dispense Christians from the strictures of the sixth commandment as to ignore their sins, nay, even to make a virtue of them, so long as they commit them with sufficient sweetness and affection.

That interpretation cannot be supported by any commonsense reading of His words.

When the Pharisees, “tempting Him,” asked Him whether it was lawful for a man to put away his wife for any cause at all, Jesus astonished and dismayed them with his reply.  They were not asking Him whether divorce was allowable.  Of course it was.  They were asking Him on what grounds divorce was allowable.  They should have known better.  This same Jesus, after all, is He who said that a man who but looks at a woman with lust in his heart has already committed adultery with her.  It is insanity to try to turn that declaration inside out.  We cannot say that a man who commits adultery—the Greek word, like the Latin, suggests not the breaking of a vow, but the soiling of something that ought to be clean—is as pardonable as a man who turns a wolf’s eye towards the pretty lady; just as we cannot say that a man who kills his brother is as pardonable as a man who calls him a fool.  That would be counsel from a satanic sermon under the mountains.

As only Jesus can, because only He has the authority, He returns to the arche, somewhat feebly translated in English as “the beginning,” tempting us to suppose that He is talking about the early days: “Have ye not read, that He which made them at the beginning made them male and female?”  But the Greek arche—we must think of the first words of Genesis, and of the trumpet blare that opens the Gospel of John—means much more than a start.  It suggests a governing principle, an underlying reality.  In the beginning, at the heart of human existence, we are made male and female, for one another.  “For this cause,” says Jesus, quoting Genesis again, “shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh.”  The man leaves one marriage, as the child of a father and mother, to enter another marriage, to become with his wife the new and glorious thing in the world, one flesh, in the unitive and procreative act of intercourse.

 

Now, the Greek is mia sarx, a single flesh; not one-in-flesh, or united-by-flesh, but a single fleshly being.  No one who considers divorce a possibility can speak in such a way, no more than he could imagine a person walking and talking while cloven in two.  In other words, the moral scandal that there shall be no divorce rests upon the ontological scandal, that man and woman are for one another and in a special way complete one another in marriage.  Nor is this the only occasion in the gospels when the word sarx gives scandal.  We should recall the words of John, that the logos or speaking-to that was in the beginning, that is, at the heart of all things, sarx egeneto, became flesh; and the scandalous words he reports of Jesus, that His flesh, sarx, is true meat.  To say that Jesus is not our bread from heaven is to deny that He is the Word-made-Flesh, God with God from the beginning; it is the same, to deny that He has the authority to reveal to us why we are male and female, and to forbid us to sunder that one flesh by divorce or to mock it by fornication.

But the Pharisees persist.  They ask the “reasonable” question.  Why did Moses command—note the verb—that the man give his wife a bill of divorce?  Jesus does not accept that verb.  Moses permitted it pros ten sklerokardian hymon, “on account of your sclerocardia”!  The word sounds as if it described an illness, and sure enough it does—the hardness of a heart that does not truly love God.  Jesus did not say, “Moses allowed it because he felt sorry for you,” or, “Moses permitted it because your hearts would only find true love after a divorce.”  Jesus evinces no sympathy for the man who wants to put away his woman; and again He brings us back before the fall: “From the beginning it was not so.”

Can He possibly make the Pharisees, and His own disciples, more uncomfortable, more uncertain about the respectable, decent, broadminded, tolerant sclerocardia of their day?  Yes, He can.  “Whosoever shall put away his woman,” Greek gynaika; whereupon Jesus must clarify that He is not speaking of the splitting up of fornicators, who are bad enough already, “and marry another, commits adultery”—has befouled himself; and so too the man who marries that woman.

The disciples are abashed.  “If the case”—Greek aitia, the same word used by the Pharisees for cause, above—“of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry.”  Honest men, these disciples.  They resist the teaching of Jesus, because they acknowledge that their own hearts are pretty hard.  They feel that sclerocardia.  Jesus’ response, again, makes matters more difficult, not less.  He does not say, “Try your best, and if you fail, the Father will wink and let you pass.”  No, the Lord follows His proscription of divorce with the mysterious implicit parable of those who make themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven.  Some men are born eunuchs from the womb; it is a misfortune of nature.  Some men are made eunuchs; it is a crime.  But some men make themselves eunuchs for heaven—how are we to understand that?

A common interpretation is that Jesus is recommending celibacy, though not for everybody.  I won’t dispute that, but I should like to suggest an additional interpretation, and one that would bind in one coherent whole the beginning of the dispute with what happens right afterwards.  For we are in the company of one kind of eunuch all the time.  So was Jesus, when the conversation about marriage ended, or seemed to have ended.  People brought little children to Him, that He might bless them and pray for them, and when the disciples rebuked the people—mothers, I’d guess—Jesus rebuked them in turn and told them to let the little children come to Him, “for of such is the kingdom of heaven.”

We are to make ourselves like little children, if we wish to dwell in our Father’s kingdom.  We are to make ourselves eunuchs, for the sake of the kingdom.  If we remember that Jesus never humiliates, but humbles us in order that we may be exalted, we may conclude that we are to be like children so that we may be more like Christ; and eunuchs, so to speak, that we may the more fully participate in the power of the Father.  But when we suffer from sclerocardia, that adult disease, we say, “I simply must put this woman of mine away!”  And we say, “I cannot possibly abstain from intercourse, and kindly do not expect me to confine my desires to one person!”  And, “I must cleave this flesh in two!”  And, “I must do what the body urges!”  For that too underlies the chagrin of the disciples.  If we cannot divorce, is it not dangerous to marry?  But if we do not marry, how can we make it from day to day without provision for the flesh, and the lusts thereof?

Such are the thoughts that roil in the hearts of decent, respectable, reasonable people.  But Jesus in this scene has two things in mind, and those two things belong together.  He has in mind the innocent beginning—the arche, man and woman made for one another, for the one-flesh, before our fall into the idolatry of sin; and the (relatively) innocent creatures toddling about Him.  Might a man put away his wife for any cause at all?  Or a woman put away her husband?  No; the created nature of man and woman forbids it.  As evidence, behold the little children.

Now, if anybody can derive from this scene the conclusion that Jesus blesses semi-monogamy, fornication with semi-commitment, niceness in bed, serial seriousness, soft porneia, or any other honey-brushed swoggle of old hardhearted lust, I claim then that we might as easily say that He recommends paying homage to Satan, so long as it be done with finesse and consideration for the tender feelings of your neighbor.  It cannot be.

Indeed, He is calling us to a life of genuine, innocent, full-hearted, and dynamic love.  He is calling us to have hearts of flesh.

Editor’s note: The image above entitled “Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon before Papal Legates at Blackfriars, 1529” was painted by Frank O. Salisbury in 1910.

Anthony Esolen

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Anthony Esolen is Professor and Writer in Residence at Northeast Catholic College in Warner, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Tan Books, 2016); Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017); and Nostalgia (Regnery, 2018).

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