Monday, September 22, 2008

Mat 8.5-13: The Healing of the Centurion's Servant: an interpretation.

Following on from the previous post I made a remark in the comments about the story of the Centurion and his servant possibly being a story about a gay relationship. Questions of Identity took me up on this and wondered whether that might be an abuse of Scripture, hence today's post. I'll leave you to decide for yourselves. I am indebted to the theology of Canon Jeffrey John for this thought provoking interpretation.

A first century Jewish reader of this Gospel story would have had their suspicions about the relationship between the Centurion and his servant, as being more than professional. The word Matthew uses for sick "servant" is "pais" which can also mean boy or son. Luke uses both "pais" and "doulos", the regular word for slave.

Homosexuality was portrayed by the Jews as a Gentile thing and the charge of homosexual practice, especially directed at the occupying forces, formed a part of conventional ant-Roman polemic in contemporary literature. The charge was well founded and there is plenty of evidence about Roman military life to back it up. Domestic servants were often kept by Officers on this basis and some relationships proved famously durable, (the Emeror Hadrian and Antinous being perhaps the best known couple). In this story the Centurion's deep concern and the statement in Luke's version that the "servant was very dear to him", would greatly stengthen a contemporary reader's suspicion.

The probability that the relationship was homosexual would not have escaped Jesus, Matthew or Luke and in view of Jesus systematic inclusion of so many other categories of person who were marginalised and declared to be "unclean" or "abominable" under Levitical rules, it is a real question whether we are meant to see Jesus deliberately including homosexuals here as another category of the despised. Certainly there is no sign of anything but approval from Jesus, nor any hint of "Go and sin no more" after his servant was restored to him.

Part of the disgust that many Jews would have felt for this Centurion and his request is the disgust that many heterosexual men feel for the homosexual, but with Jesus the disgust does not appear and the relationship, whatever it is, is restored. If such acceptance on Jesus part is part of the lesson of this passage it has never been learned by the church. Disgust and prejudice are still prevalent in the church and attemts are even made to exorcise homosexuals. The truth is that demonic forces in the genuinely Biblical sense are often at work within the church.

Comment: I don't expect that everyone will necessarily accept this interpretation, but I include it because Jeffrey John, who is a first-rate theologian and Biblical scholar has used some compelling arguments to suggest that we should think beyond the generally accepted interpretation - and in the end that is what the various understandings are, someone's interpretation. Who is to say which is the right one unless we say in the same breath that the Holy Spirit no longer teaches and inspires us into new understandings?

Those who work for change suffer resistance,
so make us strong.
Those who do new things sometimes feel afraid,
so make us brave.
Those who challenge the world as it is arouse anger,
so grant us inner peace.
Those who live joyfully are envied,
so make us generous.
Those who try to love encounter hate,
so make us steadfast in you.

(The St. Hilda Community)