St Luke 7: 1 – 10
After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. 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.
When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, ‘He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.’ And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, ‘Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, “Go”, and he goes, and to another, “Come”, and he comes, and to my slave, “Do this”, and the slave does it.’ 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.’ When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.
This passage troubles me as it’s not clear in the Greek who the sick person is for the Centurion. The Greek text doesn’t use the word for “slave” but the word “boy”. This latter term might have meant slave, probably didn’t mean son, but might have meant a younger same sex lover – a type of relationship we’d now recoil from and report to the authorities. The Romans had very different sexual mores than we do – same sex love between women was utterly despised, yet sexual relationships between men were accepted if there was a power or social imbalance. A Roman citizen might have relations with his wife, his slaves or prostitutes (of either sex), or with young males before they were deemed to be adults.
If the Centurion was asking Jesus to heal his younger lover this passage is all the more remarkable than if he was asking for a slave to be healed – but still troubling to modern sensibilities. If the boy was a slave shouldn’t Jesus have told the Centurion to free him and ensure he was enabled to make an independent living? If he was a same sex lover, albeit in a pattern which was common in the ancient world, then Jesus is remarkable for not telling the Centurion off but for praising his faith to the crowd.
This passage is troubling as:
- the pattern of relationship that might be seen here is one that we’d now see as abusive and dangerous.
- if the boy was a slave then what hope might there have been for a fulfilled life for him?
- I don’t know what was going on and I like to have all the answers!
- one on the outside – an agent of the occupying power, a slave holder, or abusive (in our eyes) boyfriend, is praised by Jesus for having faith.
Maybe it’s Jesus who troubles me?
at times you trouble me;
you welcome people I’d rather not have in my manse,
you talk to oppressors and collaborators,
and accept folk who make me squirm.
Yet I really believe I’m inclusive.
You trouble me Lord!
Help me to see things as you do,
to love as you do,
and only to judge with love and grace –
as I hope that’s how you will judge me. Amen.