By Gregory Coles. This blog post is adapted from an excerpt of Greg’s new book No Longer Strangers. Used with permission
I am not, in the physiological sense of the word, a eunuch. And yet, based on the amount of sex I’m currently having and the number of biological offspring I expect to leave behind when I die, the distinction between me and a eunuch sometimes feels negligible.
I am, as far as I can tell, precisely the kind of person Jesus has in view when he says in Matthew 19, “There are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” I seem to fit that third category rather well: the people who live a sexless and childless life, not because they have no other options, but because they truly believe that the kingdom of heaven is worth every ounce of their devotion.
For people of Jesus’ day, one of the great tragedies of a eunuch’s life was that he would never have the opportunity to become a biological parent. His bloodline would end the day he died, leaving no one behind to carry on his legacy or to prove that his time on Earth had mattered. Unmarried women of that era faced the same fear. So did every married couple unable to conceive children together for any reason. To be without offspring was to go unremembered.
Embodied: The Latest from Preston Sprinkle
Perhaps it’s fitting that Jesus’ next act in Matthew 19—just after describing people who, like Jesus himself, live as eunuchs by choice—is to place his hands on and pray for the little children who are brought to him. Jesus doesn’t withdraw from the lives of children simply because he’s not the one parenting them. On the contrary, Jesus declares children central to the kingdom of heaven. He invests in them, takes them seriously, invites them to follow in his footsteps of passionate love for God and neighbor.
For Jesus’ disciples, biological parenting isn’t meant to be the only way we leave a legacy or build a family. It’s not even meant to be the primary way we leave a legacy or build a family. Jesus treats the family of God as something much more substantial than just a pretty metaphor. It is a concrete claim, a literal state of being. Those who follow God together are family to one another.
At the end of Matthew 19, Jesus promises that the people who give up the usual trappings of home and spouse and children for the sake of the gospel will receive a hundred times as much in return. In short, he is promising us the family of God. He is promising us to one another. If this promise doesn’t sound like good news—if the family of God sounds like a cheap substitute for a spouse and a picket fence and two-and-a-quarter children—perhaps it’s because we in the church have failed to really live like family to one another.
Here’s another of my favorite biblical promises for single people, this time from the book of Isaiah:
And let no eunuch complain, “I am only a dry tree.” For this is what the Lord says: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant—to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will endure forever.”
To be clear, I’m not saying that those of us who remain single, or those couples unable to conceive biological kids, can’t still become parents. On the contrary, fostering and adoption are beautiful and necessary modes of parenting that are open to us all—even the celibates. My point is, rather, that every follower of Jesus is called to leave a legacy, to partake in the family of God, to participate in the lives of those younger than us, regardless of whether we ever become parents in a biological or legal sense.
When I think of the family God provides, I think of Grant and Max Henning. They’re 14 and 11 now, but when I met them, they were 6 and 3. Here’s the kind of children Grant and Max are: Once we were all eating blizzards at Dairy Queen when I mentioned that I had recently learned the scientific name for an ice cream headache: sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia. Grant, who was nine at the time, set down his spoon and pulled a pen out of his pocket (because, obviously, he travelled with pens in his pocket). “What was that again? Can you spell it for me?”
He scrawled the words on a napkin and spent the rest of the evening practicing them. The following Sunday at church, when I asked five-year-old Max how his morning was going, he answered triumphantly: “Pretty good, because I don’t have sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia.”
These are my kind of children.
One evening when I was over at their house, Grant informed me, “Max and I can’t decide if you’re more like a brother or a weird uncle.”
Max chimed in, “Uncle Greg doesn’t sound quite right. But you’d be a really old older brother.”
Whatever the nature of my relationship with Grant and Max, I don’t have a name for it either. All I know is that the part of my heart they’ve taken up residence in is a part I didn’t know existed before I met them. I’ve watched them grow taller across seven years of hugs, from the days when Max’s arms still wrapped around my legs to the moment Grant’s tousled hair could tickle the underside of my chin. I’ve watched them lose teeth and regain teeth, witnessed their first pairs of glasses, and affixed their ever-changing school pictures to my fridge door with magnets. I’ve watched their personalities mature, seen them become more thoroughly themselves.
And once in a while, by some outrageous unearned privilege, I’ve seen traces of evidence that my brother-uncle presence in their lives has mattered.
Grant has been known to lecture people on the pluralization of neuter nouns in ancient Greek, explaining why the preferred plural of the English word phenomenon is phenomena rather than phenomenons. “When people say I’m weird,” Grant tells me, “I take it as a compliment.” Our mutual friends will sometimes come to me shaking their heads after a conversation with Grant and murmur, “It’s obvious the two of you hang out a lot.”
Max can tell you the difference between sanguine (meaning cheerfully optimistic) and sanguinary (meaning bloodthirsty), and he knows about the ancient medical theory of the Four Humors that caused these two words to share a common root. For a period of several months, I would greet him by asking whether he was feeling more sanguine or sanguinary that day. “Sanguinary!” he would declare, then lunge at me with bared teeth and pretend to bite my arm.
Their mom once asked them, “Do you remember a time before we knew Greg?”
Grant squinted hard and said, “A little bit. But not really.”
Max shook his head definitively. “I don’t. Greg’s always been part of the family.”
There’s no way of knowing for certain what our friendship will look like in future years. Perhaps as the boys grow into teenagerhood and adulthood, they’ll stop calling me “Crookshanks,” and perhaps they’ll grow tired of hearing me call them “Groozlenut” and “Swellmack.” But every minute I spend with them, every fond hug and fist bump, feels like proof that Jesus told the truth. Proof that the unearned and undeserved family God gives his disciples can still be better than any other family we might have tried to eke out for ourselves.