Jesus on Procreation
A few months back, I shared a revelation I had while reflecting on Jesus’s discussion with the Pharisees about marriage and divorce. Jesus’s deliberate choice to quote from both Genesis 1:27 and Genesis 2:24 help us to understand his perspective on both same-sex marriage and what it means to be a man or a woman.
More recently, it has struck me that another of Jesus’ conversations also reveals something important about his perspective on marriage. This conversation was with the Sadducees – another of the Jewish groups in Jesus’s day. You can read it in Mark 12:18-27, Matthew 22:23-33 and Luke 20:27-40. It was a little detail in Luke’s account that stuck out to me recently.
The Sadducees were a group who didn’t believe in the resurrection – the truth that God’s people will be raised from the dead at the end of this age to spend eternity with him. So, they proposed a scenario that they thought proved the idea of resurrection to be absurd. They were trying to catch Jesus out.
The Sadducees ask Jesus to imagine a man who marries a woman but who dies before they have any children. In that scenario, following an Old Testament law designed to ensure the continuation of the family line and to secure an heir for the man who had died, one of his brothers would be expected to marry his widow and have a child on behalf of the deceased brother (Deuteronomy 25:5-10). The Sadducees share a hypothetical story in which brothers keep dying, each time with the next marrying the woman but none of them producing any children. If the resurrection is true, the Sadducees challenge Jesus, this woman will be married to seven men in the age to come. Surely that’s absurd? You can’t really believe in this resurrection idea?
But Jesus’s response is not to deny the truth of the resurrection but to explain why the Sadducees’ story doesn’t work. They had assumed that resurrection life will be just like life in the here and now. But that’s not the case, Jesus says. In particular, ‘those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage’ (Luke 20:35). Human marriages are a reality in this age, but not in the age to come. Marriages that exist now won’t exist then and those who are not married now won’t enter into marriages then. Marriage – and so also sex – are temporary. They are part of this age.
And why is this? There are probably multiple reasons, but Jesus offers one explanation explicitly: ‘for they cannot die anymore, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection’ (Luke 20:36). There’s no marriage because there’s no death. What’s the logic here? No death means no need for procreation which means no need for marriage and sex because sex and marriage are, in part, about procreation.
Notice what this shows us about Jesus’ understanding of marriage and sex. In part, they exist for the purpose of procreation. The rest of Scripture shows us that is not all they are about, but it is part of what they are about. Both Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 would suggest the same.
Recognising this helps us to further understand Jesus’s perspective on what marriage is. Marriage is meant to be a relationship that is be open to the possibility that God will bless it with the gift of children through the act of sex.1 This tells us that Jesus understood marriage as being a union of two people and only two people – only two people can be involved in the production of children through the natural means of sex. And it tells us that Jesus understood marriage as the union of a man and a woman – only that union-in-difference can result in a child through the act of sex.
I still sometimes hear it claimed that Jesus had nothing to say on the matter of same-sex marriage. In strict terms, it’s true to say he didn’t address the topic directly. And why would he in a Jewish cultural context where everyone recognised that same-sex unions fell outside of God’s parameters for marriage? But to admit Jesus didn’t address same-sex marriage directly isn’t the same as saying he didn’t communicate anything relevant to the matter and that we can’t know what he would say to us now. Jesus’s conversation with the Sadducees is another place where the words of Jesus himself help us to understand his view on what marriage really is.
1. Two things might come to our mind at this point – contraception and infertility. On the first, it’s helpful to remember the place of sex in marriage. Sex in marriage is not a series of one-night stands but part of a whole-self, whole-life union. It is this union which is to be orientated towards procreation, not every sex act within it. In practical terms, this probably means that while contraception for wise family planning is acceptable, the deliberate attempt to exclude procreation from a marriage through the consistent use of contraception probably doesn’t fit with God’s plan and vision for marriage. It seems every marriage should at some point leave open the possibility that God will bless it with the gift of biological children.
On infertility, it is sometimes asked whether an emphasis on procreation as a central purpose of marriage is insensitive to those who experience the deep pain of infertility. However, we should rather recognise that it is the affirmation of a God-designed link between marriage and procreation that explains and legitimises the pain of infertility. Affirming the marriage-procreation link should increase our understanding of and compassion for the pain of infertility and our commitment as church families to weep with those who weep and to be the kind of community where everyone gets to have a genuine experience of family.