It is a common myth that Jesus never encountered the issue of homosexuality in the Gospels. In fact he did. I have written before about Jesus’ teaching about sexual minorities (including LGBTs) here. But the most direct confrontation with homosexuality comes in Matthew 8 (with a parallel passage in Luke 7 and probably John 4):
MATHEW 8:5-13 (ESV)
5 When he entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, appealing to him, 6“Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.” 7And he said to him, “I will come and heal him.” 8But the centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but((10When 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. 11I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, 12 while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 13And 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.
To understand the context of the passage, verse 6 is key (emphasis mine):
καὶ λέγων, Κύριε, ὁ παῖς (pais) μου βέβληται ἐν τῇ οἰκίᾳ παραλυτικός, δεινῶς βασανιζόμενος.
In the most common English translations, we read this passage and have no idea the context of this encounter between the Roman centurion and Jesus. The key word is “pais”, which is often translated as “servant” or “boy”. However, most scholars believe that the term pais in the ancient world was a well-known idiom referring to a male concubine (often younger) and an explicitly homosexual relationship.
Kenneth J. Dover, noted authority on ancient Greece, in his book, Greek Homosexuality, tells us the younger partner in a homosexual relationship is called pais or paidika.
Dr. Robert Gagnon, arguably the foremost anti-gay scholar of our day, writes that pais can refer to a partner in a homosexual relationship. He writes:
“boy” (pais) could be used of any junior partner in a homosexual relationship, even one who was fullgrown.” Dr. Robert Gagnon (The Bible And Homosexual Practice, p. 163, footnote 6.)
In fact, the overwhelming historical evidence (and perhaps, the implication of Luke 7:2, which literally translates as “had much love for”) is that the Centurion and his “pais” were likely involved in a homosexual relationship that was very common in the ancient world. It is worth noting that this kind of relationship is one that today, we would almost universally condemn since it was between and older man and a young pubescent boy. However, these relationships were very common.
So how does Jesus confront this issue?
Does he refuse to heal the pais until the Centurion repents and breaks off the relationship? Does he lecture or judge the man?
He simply heals the pais and then publicly affirms the deep faith of this Roman Centurion.
Does this, then, count as a clear endorsement by Jesus of gay relationships? No, of course not. That would be stretching the text to say something it doesn’t. We must take the text as it is and then wrestle with it as it is presented. All we know is that the relationship was most likely a male-male relationship, Jesus would have been aware of this based on the self-description of the Centurion, and Jesus grants his request fully — and does so without any judgement or condemnation.
How we interpret the implication of this passage will certainly depend upon our pre-conceived biases. Some will argue that “pais” cannot mean “male concubine” in this passage, simply because it causes problems for their pre-determined understanding of Jesus. Others use this passage to argue for more than I think the passage allows. We must be careful to simply let it (and Jesus) speak for themselves.
For me, the meaning of pais in historical context is pretty clear and obvious. I also think that the juxtaposition of this passage in Matthew is powerful. In Matthew 7 we are warned against judgement, challenged to present our request to God directly (as the Centurion does),and then given the basic discipleship lessons of loving neighbor as self, a tree and its fruits, and the importance of trusting the Lordship of Jesus. Then, in chapter 8, we get the healing of the lepor (a picture of the radical and dangerous inclusivity of Jesus) and is healing of the pais and affirmation of the faith of the Centurion (Roman… aka not Jewish). This is a powerful section in the Gospels!
One last note… as I said, I don’t think that we can over-state this passage to suggest, for example, that this passage means Jesus endorses modern-day same-sex marriage. That is a more complicated issue in which this passage — along with many others — need to be considered before coming to a theological and Biblical conclusion. Also, we should not erroneously assume that this is the only (or one of two if you include the eunuchs passage) dealing with homosexuals. In fact, in 99% of the cases in the Gospels (and throughout the scriptures) people’s sexual orientation is simply not identified because it is irrelevant to the narrative. There is no logical reason to believe that there weren’t gays and lesbians
amongst the masses who followed Jesus, amongst those who were fed by him (in the story of the 5,000), amongst those who had life-changing encounters with Jesus, or even amongst the disciples. The text is simply silent on this issue… and generally, when the text is silent, we should be too.