Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Faith of a Centurion


When he had entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, appealing to him, "Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly." And he said to him, "I will come and heal him." But the centurion replied, "Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, 'Go,' and he goes, and to another, 'Come,' and he comes, and to my servant, 'Do this,' and he does it." When Jesus heard this, he marveled and said to those who followed him, "Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." And to the centurion Jesus said, "Go; let it be done for you as you have believed." And the servant was healed at that very moment.

Matthew 8:5-13

After he had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. Now a centurion had a servant who was sick and at the point of death, who was highly valued by him. When the centurion heard about Jesus, he sent to him elders of the Jews, asking him to come and heal his servant. And when they came to Jesus, they pleaded with him earnestly, saying, "He is worthy to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation, and he is the one who built us our synagogue." And Jesus went with them. When he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends, saying to him, "Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. Therefore I did not presume to come to you. But say the word, and let my servant be healed. For I too am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me: and I say to one, 'Go,' and he goes; and to another, 'Come,' and he comes; and to my servant, 'Do this,' and he does it." When Jesus heard these things, he marveled at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, said, "I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith." And when those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the servant well.

Luke 7:1-10

In the original language, the importance of this story for LGBT Christians is much clearer. The Greek word used in Matthew's account to refer to the servant of the centurion is pais. In the language of the time, pais had three possible meanings depending upon the context in which it was used. It could mean "son or boy;" it could mean "servant," or it could mean a particular type of servant — one who was "his master's male lover." Often these lovers were younger than their masters, even teenagers.

To our modern minds, the idea of buying a teen lover seems repugnant. But we have to place this in the context of ancient cultural norms. In ancient times, commercial transactions were the predominant means of forming relationships. Under the law, the wife was viewed as the property of the husband, with a status just above that of slave. Moreover, in Jesus' day, a boy or girl was considered of marriageable age upon reaching his or her early teens. It was not uncommon for boys and girls to marry at age 14 or 15. Nor was it uncommon for an older man to marry a young girl. Fortunately civilization has advanced, but these were the norms in the culture of Jesus' day.

In that culture, if you were a gay man who wanted a male "spouse," you achieved this, like your heterosexual counterparts, through a commercial transaction — purchasing someone to serve that purpose. A servant purchased to serve this purpose was often called a pais.

The word boy in English offers a rough comparison. Like pais, the word boy can be used to refer to a male child. But in the slave South in the nineteenth century, boy was also often used to refer to male slaves. The term boy can also be used as a term of endearment. The term boy can be used in the same way, as in "my boy" or "my beau." In ancient Greek, pais had a similar range of meanings.

Thus, when this term was used, the listener had to consider the context of the statement to determine which meaning was intended. Some modern Christians may be tempted to simply declare by fiat that the Gospels could not possibly have used the term pais in the sense of male lover, end of discussion. But that would be yielding to prejudice. We must let the word of God speak for itself, even if it leads us to an uncomfortable destination.  And to be honest with you, the Greek noun pais is used in the New Testament 24 times and has a range of meanings that include "adolescent," "child" and "servant."  In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, it appears numerous times and it always refers to a "servant." There are no occurrences of the term anywhere in the Bible that can be interpreted a referring to the junior partner in a homosexual relationship. However, that does not mean that it is not used to refer to a homosexual relationship in the context of the centurion.

The Bible provides three key pieces of textual and circumstantial evidence. First, in the Luke passage, several additional Greek words are used to describe the one who is sick. Luke says this pais was the centurion's entimos doulos. The word doulos is a generic term for slave, and was never used in ancient Greek to describe a son/boy. Thus, Luke's account rules out the possibility the sick person was the centurion's son; his use of doulos makes clear this was a slave. However, Luke also takes care to indicate this was no ordinary slave. The word entimos means "honored." This was an "honored slave" (entimos doulos) who was his master's pais. Taken together, the three Greek words preclude the possibility the sick person was either the centurion's son or an ordinary slave, leaving only one viable option — he was his master's male lover. 

A second piece of evidence is found in verse 9 of Matthew's account. In the course of expressing his faith in Jesus' power to heal by simply speaking, the centurion says, "When I tell my slave to do something, he does it." By extension, the centurion concludes that Jesus is also able to issue a remote verbal command that must be carried out. When speaking here of his slaves, the centurion uses the word doulos. But when speaking of the one he is asking Jesus to heal, he uses only pais. In other words, when he is quoted in Matthew, the centurion uses pais only when referring to the sick person. He uses a different word, doulos, when speaking of his other slaves, as if to draw a distinction. (In Luke, it is others, not the centurion, who call the sick one an entimos doulos.) Again, the clear implication is that the sick man was no ordinary slave. And when pais was used to describe a servant who was not an ordinary slave, it meant only one thing — a slave who was the master's male lover.

The third piece of evidence is circumstantial. In the Gospels, we have many examples of people seeking healing for themselves or for family members. But this story is the only example of someone seeking healing for a slave. The actions described are made even more remarkable by the fact that this was a proud Roman centurion (the conqueror/oppressor) who was humbling himself and pleading with a Jewish rabbi (the conquered/oppressed) to heal his slave. The extraordinary lengths to which this man went to seek healing for his slave is much more understandable, from a psychological perspective, if the slave was his beloved companion.

Thus, all the textual and circumstantial evidence in the Gospels points in one direction. For objective observers, the conclusion is inescapable: In this story Jesus healed a man's male lover. When understood this way, the story takes on a whole new dimension.

Imagine how it may have happened. While stationed in Palestine, the centurion's pais becomes ill — experiencing some type of life-threatening paralysis. The centurion will stop at nothing to save him. Perhaps a friend tells him of rumors of Jesus' healing powers. Perhaps this friend also tells him Jesus is unusually open to foreigners, teaching his followers that they should love their enemies, even Roman soldiers. So the centurion decides to take a chance. Jesus was his only hope.

As he made his way to Jesus, he probably worried about the possibility that Jesus, like other Jewish rabbis, would take a dim view of his homosexual relationship. Perhaps he even considered lying. He could simply use the word duolos. That would have been accurate, as far as it went. But the centurion probably figured if Jesus was powerful enough to heal his lover, he was also powerful enough to see through any half-truths.

So the centurion approaches Jesus and bows before him. "Rabbi, my . . . ," the word gets caught in his throat. This is it — the moment of truth. Either Jesus will turn away in disgust, or something wonderful will happen. So, the centurion clears his throat and speaks again. "Rabbi, my pais — yes, my pais lies at home sick unto death." Then he pauses and waits for a second that must have seemed like an eternity. The crowd of good, God-fearing people surrounding Jesus probably became tense. This was like a gay man asking a televangelist to heal his lover. What would Jesus do?

Without hesitation, Jesus says, "Then I will come and heal him."

At this point, the centurion says there is no need for Jesus to travel to his home. He has faith that Jesus' word is sufficient. Jesus then turns to the good people standing around him — those who were already dumbfounded that he was willing to heal this man's male lover. To them, Jesus says in verse 10 of Matthew's account, "I have not found faith this great anywhere in Israel." In other words, Jesus holds up this gay centurion as an example of the type of faith others should aspire to.

Jesus didn't just tolerate this gay centurion. He said he was an example of faith — someone we all should strive to be like.

Then, just so the good, God-fearing people wouldn't miss his point, Jesus speaks again in verse 11: "I tell you, many will come from the east and the west [i.e., beyond the borders of Israel] to find a seat in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs [i.e., those considered likely to inherit heaven] will be thrown into outer darkness." By this statement Jesus affirmed that many others like this gay centurion — those who come from beyond the assumed boundaries of God's grace — are going to be admitted to the kingdom of heaven. And he also warned that many who think themselves the most likely to be admitted will be left out.

For most Christians, the debate over the sexuality of the centurion would be a non sequitur, but for LGBT Christians, it is quite significant.  First of all, Jesus did not care what the relationship was between the soldier and his servant.  Jesus saw someone in need, and he answered that need.  Second, Jesus did not condemn the soldier, nor did Matthew or Luke when writing about the soldier and his, quite possible, homosexual relationship with his servant.  They had the chance to condemn the obviously loving relationship, but they did not.  Jesus healed the servant, without comment on the relationship. If he felt it necessary to comment on the relationship, then why did he not do so?  I do not think that if early Christians condemned homosexuality, as so many claim, that Jesus, Matthew, or Luke would not have passed on the opportunity to comment on this. 

The most important lesson is not to get stuck on the superficial issues, such as sexual orientation.  I spent the majority of this post looking at the relationship to seek a connection with LGBT Christians, but it is really not the most important part of these passages.  The essential part is that the centurion relied on the most important issue that faces us and that is faith in Jesus Christ. The centurion believed that Jesus could heal his beloved, with just His word, the command that he be healed.  That is tremendous faith.  Jesus even said, "I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith." The Bible is very clear about faith.  Ephesians 2:8 says, "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God."

2 comments:

Jay M. said...

Eye-opening, Joe. I think you need your column in the NY Times, the Wa-Po, and a few other influential newspapers! Thank you for your research.

Peace <3
Jay

Adon said...

I too enjoyed your post...Adon