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Jesus and Homosexuality | Matthew 8:5-13

The Centurion and His ‘Boy’

When he entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, appealing to him and saying, “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible distress.” And he said to him, “I will come and cure him.” The centurion answered, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also 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 slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” When Jesus heard him, he was amazed and said to those who followed him, “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” And to the centurion Jesus said, “Go; let it be done for you according to your faith.” And the servant was healed in that hour.
Matthew 8:5-13

Regardless of one’s faith perspective, it is undeniable that the authors of the Gospels sought to present to their readers an image of Jesus of Nazareth as a truly radical Jewish teacher. He is understood in the texts to be a charismatic prophetic figure in the tradition of John the Baptist and the prophet Elijah. Yet, right at the core of his message — and something we find in everything he preaches — is a particularly striking reading of the Torah:

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Matthew 22:37–40

What is often missed by the casual reader is that this command to love one’s neighbour is not the second commandment. According to Exodus 20:4 and Deuteronomy 5:8 the second commandment forbids the making of graven images of God. In his recitation of the commandments Jesus is referencing the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:5), ‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.’ In this, however, there is no instruction to love one’s neighbour. What Jesus is doing is providing his interlocutors with something like a summation of the Law; if we love other people then we are not likely to do them wrong. We must keep this principle in mind, then, when we consider Jesus’ interactions with the people he encounters in the Gospels.

The commandment to love is indeed a radical interpretation of Torah, and time and again it leads — even by today’s standards — to unexpected and often shocking outcomes. In his conversations with the poor we see his compassion and his preferential option for those excluded from polite society. He speaks to women. In fact, many of those in his inner circle are women. He makes time for the sick and those suffering from contagious diseases. The Jesus presented to us in the Gospels is most attracted to those on the margins and those rejected by first century Jewish society (Luke 5:31). Not only does he associate with prostitutes, he dines with them. They too, among other ‘sinners,’ become part of the group that follows him from place to place.

In this radical behaviour, in this principle of love, we can perceive what the first Christians began to understand as the Incarnation; that Jesus, as ‘God made man (qua a human being),’ saw in other people the image and likeness of the God who created them. Following the teaching of the Church Father St Athanasius; Αὐτὸς γὰρ ἐνηνθρώπισεν, ἵνα ἡμεῖς θεοποιηθῶμεν, Jesus’ human encounters with other people were in a powerful sense God reaching out to God. This love was both indiscriminate and unconditional, and the practice of indiscriminate and unconditional love is shocking.

This must then be the lens through which we read Jesus’ meeting with the Roman centurion in Matthew 8. First century Judaea was a province of the Roman Empire held in the iron grip of a brutal military occupation. We know from the Gospels that many of those who followed Jesus hoped he was the Jewish messiah; a man who would restore the independent statehood of the Jewish nation. Ultimately, he was executed by the Roman authorities for treason — for setting himself up as the ‘king of the Jews,’ and for refusing to accept Roman rule. The Jewish authorities in Jerusalem genuinely feared he would cause a rebellion that would result in the destruction of the country. So, Jesus’ encounter with this high ranking Roman soldier — a foreigner, a gentile, and an enemy of the Jewish people — is shocking enough. But, Jesus being Jesus, things are about to get more unsettling.

This centurion has come to Jesus, who was known to be a healer, to ask him to save the life of his servant who is paralysed and in terrible distress. Without a second thought, Jesus says: ‘I will come and cure him.’ But there is something else going on in this passage, something quite invisible to those reading in translation. The centurion’s ‘servant’ is a slave, but he is not an ordinary slave (δοῦλος in Greeek). In Matthew’s Gospel he is described as a παῖς (‘a boy’). Now, Judaea is in the eastern or Hellenised — Greek speaking — part of the Roman Empire, and Jesus clearly understands the Greek language and would have been well aware of ‘pagan’ sexual practices. Jesus would have known perfectly well what a παῖς was — a male sex slave.

Generations of Christian conservatives have gone to extraordinary lengths to paper over this inconvenient text, pointing to lexicons and dictionaries that define the term παῖς so narrowly as to render it mute. And to a point they are not entirely wrong. The word παῖς is ‘a servant,’ ‘a child,’ ‘a young male slave,’ and ‘a boy.’ Every language presents us with ambiguity, for sure. But this is where context is important. In a military context the role of the παῖς was well defined in the first century. Plutarch, writing in the second half of the first century (at about the same time as the Gospels), wrote of the same sex romantic relationships of the sacred fighting bands of brothers in his Life of Pelopidas. The ‘boy’ in these pairings of warrior-lovers was a παῖς. Four centuries before this Plato wrote of the same lover-παῖς relationships in his Symposium:

If a state or an army could be formed only of lovers and their beloved [παῖς], how could any company hope for greater things than these, despising infamy and rivalling each other in honour? Even a few of them, fighting side by side, might well conquer the world.

Given that the Gospels were written in Greek and within the Hellenised or Greek-speaking world, the nuance of the term παῖς in a military context would not have been lost on the author of Matthew. Luke 7:1-10, in relating the same story, uses the word δοῦλος — thus avoiding the obvious problem. But even in this the centurion describes his δοῦλος as ἔντιμος (‘dear’ or ‘precious’). This slave is the young male servant who the centurion loves.

This is the one occasion in the Gospels where Jesus is given the floor to address the question of homosexuality — something apparently forbidden by Jewish Law (Leviticus 18:22), and his response is just not what we might expect. Rather than quoting Leviticus, which itself may not mean what we think it means, Jesus responds with astonishment: ‘Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith.’ He recognises the humility and courage of the Roman officer. This foreigner was the conqueror. He would have seen the Jews of Judaea as culturally inferior to him. He certainly would not have expected a Jewish radical preacher to give him the time of day, and yet Jesus does. Without the slightest hint of condemnation, Jesus points to this Roman as an example of faith and sends him away with the assurance his beloved servant had been healed.


Published by Jason Michael

Scottish journalist and blogger living in Dublin, Ireland. Postgraduate in Sociology, Academic Fellowship (History of World War I) and lecturer in Biblical Studies.

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