The Gay Centurion

In Catholic tradition, Longinus is the name given to the Roman centurion at the crucifixion who pierced Christ’s side with his spear.  Some writers, like Paul Halsall of the LGBT Catholic Handbook, also identify him with the centurion who asked Jesus to heal his “beloved boy”, who was ill. It is this second person that I am interested in here.  In this persona, he is one of my personal favourites, as his story shows clearly how the Lord himself is completely not hostile to a clearly gay relationship, and also because we hear a clear reminder of this every time we attend Mass – if only we have ears to hear.

It may be that you do not recall any Gospel stories about a gay centurion and his male lover, but that is because cautious or prudish translators have softened the words of the text, and because the word “gay” is not really appropriate for the historical context. You are more likely to know as the story as the familiar one of the Roman centurion and his “servant” – But this is a poor translation. Matthew uses the word “doulos”, which means slave, not a mere servant.  Luke uses quite a different word, “pais”, which can mean servant boy – but more usually has the sense of a man’s younger male lover – or “boyfriend”.

Whichever of the two words or their senses was intended by the authors, the conclusions we should draw are the same. If “pais”  was intended here to indicate a lover, the conclusion is obvious.  If the intended meaning was either “slave ” or “servant” – the conclusion does not significantly change. To see this, let us consider the cultural context. For three centuries before Christ, the Jews had been under foreign military occupation, first by the Greeks (which is why demotic Greek had become lingua franca across the region, and was the language of the New Testament), then by Romans. These military overlords were about as well liked as any other military invaders anywhere – which is not at all.  The Jews hated them – but will have been quite familiar with Greek and Roman cultural (and sexual) practices.

First, consider the sense as “slave”. It is important to know that as a soldier on foreign service,, the centurion will not have been married: Roman soldiers on active service were not permitted to marry.  It is also important to know that for Romans, the crucial distinctions in sexuality were not about male or female, or about homosexuality or heterosexuality, but between higher or lower status.   Roman men would have expected to make sexual use of their slaves, especially if as here they were unmarried.  Far from home, this is likely to have been a sexual relationship, which could easily have developed also as an emotional one. And if the sense was not “slave”, but the softer “servant”, much the same conclusion follows. Roman citizens expected to take their sexual satisfaction from anyone of lower status  under their control – including the “freedmen”, or former slaves who had been released. In the words of the well known Roman aphorism:

“For a Roman citizen, to give sexual service is a disgrace; to a freedman, a duty; and to a slave, an obligation”.

So, if we are talking here about a male lover, a sexual relationship is obvious.  If it is a servant boy or a slave, it is entirely probable.  But even if this is purely an arrangement about domestic service,  the conclusion does not change:   All those present and hearing the Centurion’s request would have been familiar with Roman sexual practice. For the Jewish bystanders, as for Jesus himself, there will have been an assumption that a homoerotic sexual relationship was at least possible, even probable. But this did not in any way affect Jesus’s willingness to go tot he centurion’s house – even though this in itself would have horrified traditional Jews.

The lessons we draw from this story are two-fold:  one, that Christ was not one bit disturbed by this approach from a man for help in having his (probable) male lover healed, but instead was immediately ready to go to the couple’s home.  (This of course, is entirely consistent with the rest of the Gospels. It is totally characteristic of Christ that he should be happy to talk, eat or drink with anybody, including those that were shunned or resented by mainstream Jewish society.) All those who argue that we are not welcome in God’s house have completely misunderstood Scripture – as He would be completely comfortable in ours.

The second lesson is the standard one usually drawn from the story, of the importance of trust in God.   The Centurion after putting his request makes it clear that it is not necessary for Jesus to actually go to his home, for all he needs is God’s word, and his servant will be healed.  Faith in Jesus in God is enough to achieve healing. This is especially important to us as gay men, lesbians or other sexual minorities. Whatever the hostility we may experience at the hands of a hostile church, we know that God will not reject us.  Further, in turning to Him in our pain of rejection, we know we can find healing.

Where is the echo in the Mass?

Right at the key moment, immediately before the Communion

:”Lord, I am  not worthy to receive you.  Say but the word, and my soul shall be healed.”

This is an obvious echo of the words of the centurion, when Jesus was about to set off for his home:

“Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof.  just say the word, and my boy will be healed.”

Also see:

Jack Clark Robinson:  Jesus, the Centurion, and his Lover

Bible Abuse : The Centurion

Would Jesus Discriminate?:  Jesus Affirmed a Gay Couple

LGBT Catholic Handbook: Calendar of LGBT Sainsts

 

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