Proper 4C / Ordinary 9C / Pentecost +2
June 2, 2013
1 Kings 18:20-39
(In case you missed it, my first Big, Gay Sermon is here.)
When engaging in New Testament exegesis (trans.: “interpretation of religious texts”), a good tip is to look for the weird things that stick out. Chances are, they are sticking out for a reason.
Our Gospel reading for this week is Luke’s retelling of a healing miracle. The protagonist in this passage is a centurion of the Roman army … but the centurion is not the one who is healed. When Jesus enters Capernaum (after He gives the Disciples the Beatitudes), He receives word from the centurion in question: “A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to Him, asking Him to come and heal his slave.” (Luke 7:2-3).
Now, here is the weird thing: Why would a Roman centurion (a man of high status) care so much about a slave that he would stoop to asking a lowly itinerant Jew from Galilee (who did not have a reputation as a friend of Rome) to come and heal that slave? Slaves were property. If one gets sick and dies, you get a new one. If that slave is highly valued, you might be depressed for a while and possibly put out by finding a replacement – but you wouldn’t normally move heaven and earth to get a slave healed (particularly if you were a centurion, who were not exactly known for their sentimentality). And if the centurion is the protagonist of this story, why is he not the one being healed?
Here is another tip for New Testament exegesis: When in doubt, go back to the Greek. In verses 2 and 3 of this passage, when the narrator (Luke) refers to the slave, he uses the word doulos, which is the masculine form for “slave” (a female slave is doula). However, in verse 7, when the centurion is speaking to Jesus about his slave (by way of his friends), saying “But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed,” the centurion uses the word pais. Why the shift in terminology here?
Rick Brentlinger (“The Centurion and Pais“) has pointed out that the term pais had a very specific meaning in Greek literature and culture. Greek writers from Plato to Plutarch used the term thus: “The junior partner in homosexual eros is called pais (or of course, paidika) (Dover, Kenneth. 1997. Greek Homosexuality. pp.85).
OH. Well, that’s a horse of a different color, isn’t it? No matter what any of us may think of the subject of Greek homosexuality, we have to keep in mind that a First Century Greek audience (like Luke’s) would have heard the word “pais” and their eyebrows would have shot up a few inches. They would have gotten it, regardless of whether or not we want to.
This understanding of the word “pais” radically shifts the context for the centurion’s plea and Jesus’ response. When the centurion says to Jesus (through his friends) that “I am not worthy to have you come under my roof” (vv.6), it may well be because the centurion is aware of the negative treatment of male homosexuality under Jewish law. So the centurion sends his friends, asking Jesus to simply “say the word” (at a distance) to heal his pais.
Jesus’ response is also telling in this context: “When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed Him, He said, ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith'” (vv.9). Commentator John Petty points out that “Quite often, thaumazo [“amazed”] is used to express the emotions of others as they witness the mighty deeds of Jesus. Here, however, it is Jesus who marveled and was amazed and was astonished” (Lectionary Blogging: Pentecost 2; Luke 7:1-10). I don’t think that Jesus was astonished in the centurion’s faith in Jesus, because He was used to astonishing crowds (such as the Feeding of the 5,000 and countless other miracles). Maybe it’s possible that the public revelation of the centurion’s faithfulness to his pais – such that he is willing to beg a Jewish preacher to heal him, if at a distance – was so unusual that Jesus was the one left astonished. So astonished, in fact, that He would say that he had never seen such a thing in all of Israel (and, most likely, He hadn’t).
When we are faithful to those we consentingly love – even those that society tells us we shouldn’t love – and profess that faith publicly, we amaze people, we amaze God, and (most importantly) we invite God’s healing. The passage ends with “When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health” (vv.10). It takes enormous courage to live out our truth, even in the face of religious institutions that may be hostile to it. It also takes humility to accept whatever consequences this public revelation may have – the centurion may well have been publicly spurned and humiliated by Jesus in front of his friends. But it is only with truth and faith that we – and our relationships – can be healed. A closeted relationship is a relationship that suffers the sickness of shame in darkness. That relationship can only fully flower in God’s light through truth and integrity. Let’s go out and amaze some people, shall we? Happy Pride Month!