What Jesus did and didn’t say about same-gender relationships is absolutely key to how we frame the conversation around sexual ethics today.
A common defense of lgbt relationships against religious bigotry is the insistence that Jesus says nothing about same-gender relationships in any of the Gospels.
This is technically true. It’s important to notice how unimportant to Jesus is one of the issues so many modern evangelicals choose as their hill to die on.
But there are several passages in the Gospels that shows us how Jesus treated those with nontraditional sexual relationships. One of them is the centurion and his “boy servant” in Luke chapter 7. The same event is also referred to in Matthew chapter 8, and the word the centurion uses to describe his servant is “pais,” which is widely acknowledged to mean the younger partner in a pederastic relationship, common for that time.
The barebones of the story are that the centurion asks for Jesus to heal his “servant,” and Jesus agrees, but before he can come there in person, the centurion insists that if he just spoke the word, his “boy” would be healed. Jesus is amazed, and declares “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”
The usual slew of sermons written about (or incorporating) this passage mainly emphasize the power of faith to heal. The centurion had so much faith, it’s often said, that he didn’t need Jesus to come in person, even though Jesus was about to.
And since we in the modern world are about two thousands years too late to invite the incarnate Jesus into our homes, it’s wonderful news that our faith without sight can be rewarded so powerfully and immediately.
The whole thing slurps easily into prosperity gospel (if you just ask hard enough, it’ll happen), and perpetuating the Christian bubbles that promote individual moral uprightness instead of awareness of larger systems of injustice.
But there’s more to the story if we look closer.
After speaking to great crowds, Jesus moves on to the city of Capernaum, where the centurion lives. From the second verse, we learn that the centurion’s “boy” was someone “whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death.” In other words, this was not a post-on-facebook, please-send-prayers kind of situation.
It was desperate, it was deep heartache, it was life-or-death.
In the next few verses, we learn that the centurion made his request through Jewish elders. These guys are not just acquaintances of the centurion; they appeal “earnestly” on his behalf, insisting that “He is worthy of having you do this for him, 5 for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.”
This tells me that the centurion was a great ally to the Jewish people. He built and sustained strong community with his Jewish neighbors, and directly invested his time and resources into supporting Jewish culture and religious practice. The Jewish elders said “he loves our people,” and he’s “worthy” of Jesus’ ministry of healing.
Sounds like a stellar candidate for divine miracles to me. If Jesus had a problem with helping anyone, it wouldn’t be this guy.
But then, why all the countermeasures? Why send other people, instead of going himself, when it’s clear the centurion knew right where Jesus was?
No particular answer is given, but something changes: the next verse says that when Jesus was “not far from the house,” the centurion interrupts Jesus’ journey with another message. This time, he sends “friends” to tell Jesus not to “trouble yourself” by coming any further. The reason he gives? “I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; 7 therefore I did not presume to come to you.”
Can you feel the shame? Obviously this man was worthy (and we know that Jesus would come regardless, because he specifically reaches out to the “unworthy”). But there was something that held the centurion back, that made him sure that if Jesus met him in person, entered his home, saw his “boy,” something would go wrong.
I want us to live in the space between the elders and the friends.
I can feel the centurion’s anxious spirit, the back-and-forth between taking the step of courage to invite this man into your home, and maintaining the distance you know will preserve your social standing (and perhaps safety). I’ve walked that balance myself countless times. I know the tug-of-war of coming out at the risk of losing valuable relationships. I know the frustrating fear I have to overcome every time I choose truth and love where it hurts.
For the centurion, Jesus was an orthodox Jewish rabbi, thoroughly Hebrew in culture and upbringing, with every reason to look down on his relationship with his servant. How impossible to invite someone you know disagrees with your lifestyle to pray over the very person whose involvement in your life is under scrutiny?
How much more powerful, then, is the healing that Jesus performs. How much greater the centurion’s faith. Perhaps this is why Jesus said he had never seen such faith even in Israel.
This matters because it reveals Jesus to be deeply, intimately, and passionately involved in the personal lives of those he ministered to. Jesus was not the shrug-your-shoulders, not-my-problem type. His silence was not neutrality. He was unequivocally for the centurion, in full knowledge of his same-gender relationship.
For this reason, I can feel that Jesus is unequivocally for me, and all other sga folks, in full knowledge of our relationships.
When we read Scripture, let’s spend time in the uncomfortable spaces where decisions are made. Let’s lean into the tension, and live and love in ways that honor the full depth of who we are.
And let’s stop pretending Jesus was neutral when it came to same-gender relationships. He wasn’t neutral: he stood up for the outcast, extended blessing to the marginalized, time and time again.