I’m not going to try to put words in Jesus’ mouth, to guess what he might have said, or tell you what he thought. Because I don’t know. And that’s been intriguing me lately. Why didn’t Jesus talk about sex? Christians today seem so eager to talk about sex – ok, well, eager to be known for their moralistic viewpoints about sex, abortion, masturbation, homosexuality, pre-marital sex, pornography, and same-sex marriage. By the way, Jesus addressed exactly ZERO of these topics himself, and if any of these ideas are are biblically influenced, they’re coming from Paul, another writer in the New Testament. But definitely not from Jesus himself.
So, why didn’t Jesus talk about sex? Let me throw out a couple of possibilities – and don’t worry, I’m a good lightening/smiting bolt distance away from you as you read this, so you’re safe. You can always clear your browser history if you’re worried, or scroll down a bit so the people looking over your shoulder at the office or coffee shop can’t see the title…
1. Jesus didn’t know what to say.
Personally, this is the least compelling for me. His possible lack of experience in this arena does not limit his ability to give sage advice, or at least mention it. He talked about plenty of things he didn’t experience first hand. Even if Jesus was completely asexual, surely he must have known that this was something his community dealt with? He spoke about lust, and famously dealt with an adulterer (more to come on that story). This line of thinking is only helpful in as much as it tells me that sexual intimacy is complicated and there’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ answer to these issues, so rather than wading into a long list of Do’s and Dont’s (which is much more Old Testament than he tended to be!), he just left it alone…
2. Jesus didn’t think it was important.
Again, I don’t think his head was so far in the clouds that he didn’t know this was an issue for people. Prostitution was around, adultery was around, he spoke once about lust… you can’t say it wasn’t before him. But maybe he thought it wasn’t worth mentioning? That an awakened, engaged life didn’t address it? Sexuality is inconsequential? It seems that Paul took this track – saying, in essence, if you have to be married, go for it, but otherwise just say single. Now that’s Paul, not Jesus, but maybe that’s where Paul got this idea? Interpreting Jesus’ silence as dismissive of sexuality and leaving it for other people to deal with.
3. Nobody was talking about it.
This could be true in a conversational and public preaching context, but the Torah and Talmud has all kinds of references to birth control, masturbation, and homosexual acts. (Interestingly, these three are only prohibited for men – the Pill, to date, is an acceptable form of birth control, and the Jewish texts make no mention of female masturbation or female homosexual acts.)
A few hundred years later, the Qur’an seems to be rather free about Muhammad’s sexuality and healthy appetite for desire. (Not unlike Solomon in the Jewish Bible.) Buddhism (a couple hundred years before Jesus), unsurprisingly, advocates a Middle Way – neither extreme puritanism, nor extreme permissiveness. One practitioner summed up the Buddha’s teaching in this way: Do not misuse the gift of your sexuality – do not use it to harm yourself or others. One of the precepts taken by lay Buddhists says, “I undertake the course of training in refraining from wrong-doing in respect to sensuality.”
Perhaps the most glaring evidence against this argument is that Jesus came face to face with a woman caught in adultery, and the crowd that was eager for her punishment. While sexuality may not have been part of the public discourse, there was obviously a cultural concern. Likewise, we know that Jesus shared meals with prostitutes. So, again, to say that it simply didn’t come up or that nobody talked about it seems incomplete.
4. Jesus did talk about it. And nobody listened.
Maybe he did talk about it. And maybe nobody wrote it down. Remember, we have Jesus’ words as they were captured by the people around him. Take, for example, the story of the woman caught in adultery from John 8. This piece of the Bible is what is called a “floating story” which means that it does not appear in the earliest manuscripts of John’s gospel (probably written between 90-100 CE) but was instead added in later, and became part of the ‘official’ text of the Bible when it was included in the Latin Vulgate in 382 which was held up in the Mid-1500s as the Council of Trent declared the Vulgate to be the authoritative and authentic text. (This ‘floating’ story was added in various places, though John 8 seems to be its final home since that’s where the Vulgate dropped it in.)
If you’re not familiar with the story, read it here, because it is as close as Jesus got to facing the question of sexuality head on.
Remember that the scribes and the Pharisees caught this woman in adultery – was she committing adultery alone? Where was the man she was with? Is he blameless in this encounter? Clearly the culture was sexist and eager for restrictive retribution. But Jesus spared her execution. His sympathy for this woman is outstanding.
It’s hard to ignore the male-dominated context in which this story takes place. The system seemed to be working for them. Their buddy got off scot-free and they were about to stone someone! Sounds like a rowdy Friday night.
The fact that this story is not in the most original manuscripts of John’s gospel, the fact that it took a couple hundred years to get it in, shows me that the (likely male) leaders of the time did not want this kind of forgiveness, sympathy, understanding, whatever you want to call it, to get out. Luckily, Jesus’ reputation for radical love was strong enough that somewhere along the line, this vital moment was inserted into the official record.
It has to make you wonder – what else got left out? What else was threatening and radical and got suppressed?
5. Jesus had bigger priorities.
Maybe he knew we’d have to get over issues like poverty and hunger and inequality before we really examined sexuality. He had enough on his plate with all of the corruption, class wars, and rigid religiosity, he didn’t want to add to an already packed agenda.
Which is why he reminds his first century followers – You will do greater things than these.
I don’t think he was talking about snake handling and stilling the sea (though if we could put some effort into slowing the effects of climate change, that would be just as heroic and miraculous) – I think he meant that the nature of the world is to grow and change and evolve, and its our call as people trying to live the way of Jesus in the world to continue to speak on behalf of love, inclusion, and generosity.
Now I know I promised I wouldn’t put words in Jesus’ mouth or try to guess what he would have said, but I lied. We don’t know for sure what he said or didn’t say, but I hope he would have said something like this: I think instead of giving us a laundry list of Do’s and Dont’s about where The Line is for sexuality, he’d bring us back to the principles of treating each other with kindness and respect, of being the first to move with forgiveness and understanding, of being known the world over for our love and inclusivity.
Can you picture him saying, “And they’ll know you are Christians by your abstinence.” “They’ll know you are Christians by your moral high ground.” “They’ll know you are Christians by your judgmentalism.” I can’t either.
I wish he’d said something. And I wish he’d said something compassionate, thoughtful, and progressive.
But regardless of what he did or didn’t say, we have to say something now. The issue of human sexuality is so rampant in our culture, so fraught for young people, so complicated as relationships continue to change – the conversation is everywhere. Just because Jesus didn’t talk about it doesn’t mean that we can’t.
We have to start by saying we don’t know what he said, and what we do know isn’t much. We have to say what the rest of the Bible does and does not say. And then we have to move forward, as people of faith, in wonder, humility, and love, trying to live in the way of Jesus, and join the conversation.