COMMENTARY ON THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
[Translated from Greek into German by Hermann Vogt (in Origen, Der Kommentar zum Evangelium nach Mattaeus, Part 2, Stuttgart, 1990, pp. 91-97) and from German into English by me, with a review of the original Greek.]
15.1-5 (regarding Matthew 19:12)
For there are eunuchs who were born so from their mother's womb...
to: Let him who can grasp it, grasp it. [Matthew 19:12]
Before we present the interpretation that seems true to us, we would like to present two possible false interpretations of this verse and to refute them as far as we are able; insofar as we have grasped the true intent of this passage, while guarding against any mistakes in what we have to say, we ought to arrive in this way at an improvement of life; this is how we intend to approach the present text.
For many have believed that, as a result of the two physical eunuchizations, the third eunuchization must also be physical, and have dared to eunuchize themselves, in analogy to the first eunuchizations, out of a fear of God, to be sure, but nonetheless mistakenly, and have drawn reproach, and perhaps even scandal, upon themselves, not only among them who stand apart from the faith, but also among them who can understand any human action better than those [actions] that produce suffering and physical mutilation (out of an imagined fear of God or excessive love of abstinence) or better than that person who, no matter what else he may undergo, submits himself to such an action. The others, however, and there are not many of them, have understood the text as follows, because they have not examined the sequence of the words: They assumed that the Savior also self-evidently meant the first two eunuchizations in a physical sense, as if he were not hinting at something beyond the sensual; but, they said, the third was no longer meant literally, but rather they felt that the third phrase described eunuchization by the Word, namely, when in view of the kingdom of heaven one has cut out this type of lustfulness by means of the sharp-cutting Word and thus has scorned the haughtiness of the body so that it can no longer defeat a soul that has cut out lust by the Word.
But one must know that the former, who only love the letter of the gospel and do not consider that Jesus was also saying this in a parable and that it is said in the spirit, have understood what is said in this passage with greater logical consistency than those who concede that only the first two eunuchizations are meant physically, because they have been consistent in equating the third type to the first two types and therefore do not violate the internal logical consistency of the three phrases; but their violation is necessarily the fact that they have overlooked the basic rule of what is said herein. For if the first two types are meant physically, then it follows that the third type is also physical. The second group has given a healthy meaning to the third type, by saying that it means the cutting out of passion from the soul through the Word. But they have not recognized that it would fit with such an interpretation to interpret the first two eunuchizations allegorically just like the third, or else to equate the third completely to the first two. But if it is appropriate in other sayings, not only in the Old, but also in the New Testament, to say: "The letter kills, but the spirit makes alive" [2 Corinthians 3:6], then this must be granted for the meaning of this verse as well. For if the letter was preserved in the case of the first two eunuchizations, then you could say that it killed those who understood the third type in accordance with the first two, and had the audacity to say that they had eunuchized themselves in the same way as the first two eunuchizations (as if they believed that because of the phrase for the kingdom of heaven's sake they were following the word of the Lord).
But if one would like to have other examples for the fact that the New
Testament contains dead letters, then let him hear for example how the
Savior said to the apostles: "When I sent you out without bags and purses
and sandals, were you lacking anything?" And then follows: "But they said:
No nothing! So Jesus said to them: But now, whoever has a bag, he should
take it along, and likewise whoever has a purse; and whoever does not have
one, should sell his clothes and buy a sword" [Luke 22:35-36]. Now if,
because Jesus said this, someone does not look at the intention of what
was said and, say, sells his visible clothing and buys a man-killing sword,
he will die because he has taken such a sword and acted against the will
of Jesus, because he interpreted his word falsely; he may even die "by
the sword" [Matthew 26:52]. But this is not the time to interpret what
kind of sword this is. But even if one does not examine what Jesus intended
when he ordered them: "Greet no one on the road!" [Luke 10:4] and therefore,
as if in imitation of the apostolic lifestyle, were not to greet anyone
on the road, he would likely seem inhuman to those who saw him. If they
blamed his behavior on the Word, for the sake of which he seemed to be
acting this way, then they would be led to hate the Word of God, as if
it made those who acted according to it savage and inhuman. And the one
who did not greet anyone on the road would bear the blame for this, and
suffer death on the pretext of the letter, because the letter is killing
him. And if someone were to tear out his right eye as if it bore the blame
for his poor sight, or the right hand of his body, or the right foot in
the physical sense, he would likely suffer along with those who are killed
by the letter, because he himself has remained at the level of the letter,
although he should have risen to the level of the spirit of what was said.
Others of those who came before us have not had any qualms about providing in their writings an occasion for a few to dare to suffer the third eunuchization on the pretext of the kingdom of heaven, namely in a manner that corresponds to the first two.
We, on the other hand, have indeed at some time understood Christ (the
Word of God) "according to the flesh" [2 Corinthians 5:16] and according
to the letter, but now we no longer do so and we no longer take pleasure
in the view of those who perform the third type of eunuchization on themselves
on the pretext of the kingdom of heaven. Nor would we take any more time
to refute the one who wants to interpret the third eunuchization physically
just like the first two, if we had not actually seen those who had dared
to do it, and if we had not encountered those who were capable of moving
a (believing, but irrational) soul that was warmed up (for the good) to
do such a rash act. But Sextus says in the Sentences, a book that many
considered to be tested by time: "Cast out any part of the body that would
cause you not to live abstinently. For it is better to live abstinently
without this part than ruinously with it." [Sextus, Sentences 13]. And
again he gives occasion to the same kind of action when he says further
on in this book: "We can see that people cut off and throw away parts of
themselves in order to keep the rest of their body healthy; how much better
is it to do so for the sake of abstinence?" [Sextus, Sentences 273]. Even
Philo, in many of his writings on the Law of Moses, which are esteemed
by reasonable men, says the following in the book that he titled: The Worse
Loves to Attack the Better: "It is better to eunuchize oneself than to
lust for unlawful cohabitation."
But one must not believe them, because they have not understood the meaning of the holy scriptures in this case. For if self control is also included among the fruits "of the Spirit" [Galatians 5:22], along with love and joy and patience and the other virtues, then one must rather emphasize self control as a fruit and preserve the body made male by God, instead of risking something else, by which one would violate the instruction that, even taken literally, is very useful: "You must not destroy the appearance of your beard!" [Leviticus 19:27]. In order to deter people who are indeed warmed to the faith, but are still too new, and to whom one must concede that they have a love of abstinence, but one that is "not based on knowledge" [Romans 10:2], the following sentence is also suited: "When people fight with one another, one with his brother" etc., up to "then your eye should know no mercy for her" [Deuteronomy 25:11-12]. For if a hand that has grabbed the testicles of a man is cut off, why not also he who submitted himself to such a danger out of ignorance of the path that leads to abstinence? Thus whoever plans to take such a rash step, should consider what he will have to suffer from those who, while relying on the word: "No one crushed or cut off shall enter the congregation of the Lord!" and counting him among the ones who are cut off, will scorn him. And here I am not even talking about what a person may suffer temporarily from the fact that the seed is obstructed, which (as the students of the physicians say) drops from the head to the male organ and while dropping through the arteries brings forth on the cheeks due to its natural heat the hairs that grow around the chins of males. These hairs are also taken away from those who think they have to eunuchize themselves physically for the kingdom of heaven's sake. But what will they suffer except that occasionally their heads become heavy from such substance or dizziness harms their understanding and confuses their imagination so that they picture unnatural things? But before I come to the interpretation of this verse, it has yet to be said that Marcion, if he had acted with a little consistency, when he prohibited allegorical interpretations of the scripture, would have rejected these verses too as having not been said by the Savior; he would have had to consider that one would either have to accept (if one says that the Savior said this) that the one who has become a believer should dare to subject himself obediently to such things, or else, if it is not right to risk something like that, because it gives a bad reputation to the Word, one would not be able to believe that these words come from the Savior unless they could be interpreted allegorically.
But we wish to preserve the consistency of the three eunuchizations, and we agree with the figurative interpretation of the third and will also say the same regarding the first two. Eunuchs in the metaphorical sense might well now include those who live in sexual abstinence and who do not indulge in such debauchery [2 Corinthians 12:21] and impurities or similar things. Among those who live abstinently in this regard, however, there are, in my opinion, three different groups. The first are so because of their nature; to them the word should be applicable: There are eunuchs who are born so from their mother's womb. The others may well, for rational reasons, practice asceticism and have turned toward abstinence from the enjoyment of love and from any lack of restraint in these matters; but this intention and asceticism and (so to speak) good performance was not generated in them by the Word of God, but rather by human words, whether of those who practice philosophy among the Greeks, or of the heretics who "prohibit marriage and demand abstinence from certain foods" [1 Timothy 4:3]. These ones appear to me to be meant when it says: "There are eunuchs who have been eunuchized by human beings". But it deserves our assent when someone takes in hand the living and efficacious Word, sharper cutting "than any double-edged sword" [Hebrews 4:12], and "the sword of the Spirit" (as the apostle calls it) [Ephesians 6:17] and cuts out the passion of the soul, without, however, laying a hand on the body, and does so because he understands the kingdom of heaven and understands that in order to inherit the kindom of heaven it is of the greatest assistance to cut passion out of his soul through the Word. It is to such persons, and not as those people think who interpret the verse literally, that the saying is applicable: There are eunuchs who have eunuchized themselves for the kingdom of heaven's sake.
But it is a great power to grasp the eunuchization of the soul through
the Word, which not all can grasp, but only they to whom it is given. But
it is given to all those who ask God for the rational sword and who use
it as appropriate to eunuchize themselves for the kingdom of heaven's sake.
But if, along with their higher interpretation which has gradually become clear to us, it is necessary to cite stories from the Bible, then we will present the following: There are eunuchs of the Pharaoh who do not produce anything good, who were eunuchized in order to bring him his wine and food; but there are also people of God, who are eunuchs in order to rebuild demolished Jerusalem. The former are written about in Genesis [Genesis 40]; an example of the second kind, however, is the one about whom it is written in the second book of Ezra that he says: "And I was a eunuch of the king. And it occurred in the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of king Artaxerxes" etc., up to "I found grace in the eyes of the king and he sent me on a mission" [Nehemiah 1:11 - 2:6]. When you come upon the second book of Ezra, you will find the entire text and consider why the eunuch is holy who was made the leader in the rebuilding of the temple of God. For the children of the Hebrews say that Daniel and his three companions Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael were eunuchized in Babylon and thus was fulfilled what Isaiah said to Hezekiah: "They will take from your seed and make of them eunuchs in the house of the king of Babylon" [Isaiah 39:7]. They say that Isaiah also spoke the prophecy about them: "The foreigner who submits to the Lord should not say: The Lord will separate me from His people" etc. up to "better than sons and daughters" [Isaiah 56:3-5]. It is good, where it pertains to the secret meaning of the verse, not to produce children in Babylon, but rather to be without progeny in Babylon like Daniel, so that we, once we have received of the divine spirit (like Daniel and his companions), will give birth to visions and prophecies. But one must know that no small number of arguments to prove that the three eunuchizations are to be understood physically will be found by anyone who would like to prove that and would agree with those who have been mentioned before who teach this in their writings. But we did not want to present these arguments in order not to provide an occasion - simply by presenting these sayings as an exercise and offering a solution for each - for those, who do not grasp the saying on eunuchism the way Jesus intends it, to understand the word "grasp" in a different meaning than is necessary, i.e, to understand it physically, even though it is necessary that one who lives and moves in the spirit [Galatians 5:25] should be convinced that the three eunuchizations are also meant spiritually.