What follows is the text of the sermon that I first preached about 5 years ago, on Jesus and homosexuality. Given all that is being posted on the internet about same-sex marriages, I've decided to re-post it as a blog entry.
In the past Christians have supported slavery, women not having the vote, bans on inter-racial marriage, and a whole host of other practices that we would consider unacceptable. In doing so, they have often quoted scripture in support of their position. Today we look back and we wonder how they could have been so wrong. What we should do is ask ourselves, ‘Do we ever do the same and use scripture to support our own prejudices?’ Christ Episcopal Church is open and affirming to all people regardless of their sexuality, but that is not so for all churches. Many are, in fact, actively opposing the acceptance of homosexual people, and produce a whole string of biblical quotations to support their position. All those texts, without exception, are subject to other interpretations. I’m not going to go into that now, but I do want to turn to today’s gospel reading (Luke 7.1-10) and the parallel story in Matthew (Matthew 8.5-13).
I was first alerted to the significance of this story, by a New Testament scholar at Cambridge who had grown up in India. His family had servants. They were kind and generous employers who cared about their servants’ welfare, but as he read this story he felt that the centurion’s concern for his “slave” went beyond what would be normal. Now, throughout the New Testament the Greek word used for a slave or servant is “doulos”, but in the Matthew account of this story the centurion does not use that word. Instead he uses “pais”. Later when talking about other servants, he uses “doulos”. Matthew, in particular, appears to be at pains to point out a difference between this slave and others.
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.” When this term was used, the listener would know from the context of the statement which meaning was intended. Some modern christians may simply declare that the Gospels could not possibly have used “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 to an uncomfortable conclusion. The 2 gospel passages taken together provide 3 key pieces of textual and circumstantial evidence that “pais” here does indeed mean “male lover”. 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”. Doulos is a generic term for slave, and was never used in ancient Greek to describe a son or boy. So, 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 3 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.
So having said all of that let me now read you part of the Matthew version of this story:
When he had entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, appealing to him, “Lord, my servant (pais) is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.”
He has said it out loud. Jesus has heard it. His disciples have heard it. All the on-lookers have heard it. He has asked Jesus to come and heal his sick homosexual lover!
And what happens next?
And he (Jesus) said to him, “I will come and heal him.”
What he does not say is as significant as what he said. Imagine what some conservative Christian ministers might have said. “Depart from me, you sinner.” “Repent of your evil ways.” “You are a curse and an abomination in the sight of God.” And you can imagine more colourful versions, along the same lines. No, Jesus does not condemn. He does not even challenge the centurion about his lifestyle. He simply says, “I will come and heal him.”
Let me continue the story:
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 (doulos), ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard this, he marvelled and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith.”
Not only does Jesus not condemn this man for his homosexuality, he goes on to commend him for his faith, and does so in very strong terms, commending him above all the people of Israel.
We often hear conservative christians quote the scriptures to condemn homosexual people, but never do I hear them explain this story, except to say that the word used is “slave”. In doing so they ignore (distort?) what the original Greek texts actually say, and it is to the discredit of more liberally-minded christians that we do not challenge that more. This gospel story shows me that in being an open and affirming church we are doing what Jesus would have done, and did do.
(If people want to explore this more deeply I recommend they look at www.wouldjesusdiscriminate.org If anyone wants to debate it with me you are welcome to e-mail me or do so publicly on my facebook page. I cannot, though, guarantee to respond quickly to all.)
Hugh James, July1, 2015