Sermon - 2nd June 2013
The Roman centurion and his boy
Scripture - Luke 7:1-10
Rev Andy Braunston
[An audio version of this sermon is available. Please go to Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
Today’s passage, and it’s parallel in St Matthew chapter 8, is one of the most famous healing stories that we read about Jesus. Yet it is a story that we don’t think too deeply about – after all why should we? The meaning is clear and straight forward isn’t it? The Roman Centurion is a God-fearer, that is a gentile who worshipped at the Synagogue. One of his servants was ill; he’d heard that Jesus was a healer. He had faith that Jesus would heal his servant; Jesus does. Simple. However, such a reading ignores some of the meanings hidden in the text and much of the context. When we consider these, this becomes an explosive passage.
Problems of Context
The Gospels were written in an age quite different from our own and for a context quite different from Jesus’ own context. The Gospel writers gathered their sources and tailored them for their audiences. It is thought that Matthew’s Gospel was written for a Jewish audience, and Luke’s for a Gentile one. By the time they were written the Christian Church was scatted throughout the Roman empire in small congregations meeting in people’s homes. But they describe events in a Roman province some 30 – 40 years before they were written down. By the time they were written, Israel had been overrun by the Romans after a revolt, the Temple destroyed, and Jewish life forever changed. Things had changed. The writers, like us now, wrote without explaining things that were obvious to them.
Recently a friend sent me an email saying that he had been googling and had found an article online that would interest me. He sent me the article via a private message on Facebook. 15 years ago that last sentence would have made no sense at all. Facebook and Google didn’t exist as companies, let alone 'googling' existing as a verb. Emails were around but not many people used them. In 30, 40, 60 years time that sentence might not make any sense either. Technology moves so fast. But the sentence makes perfect sense to us now. I don’t need to explain that Google is an internet company resistant to paying it’s tax, that 'googling' is another way of saying that we look things up on the Internet, that Facebook is a social networking site. We sort of know – though I’m not even going to try and define the Internet!
So when we read the story of the Roman centurion we have to try and spot the stuff which made perfect sense to the writer and those who originally heard the story but which may not make much sense to us now – or which we think makes sense to us but we don’t think deeply about. The word I’m going to reflect on is the Greek word 'pais'. It’s translated in various different ways – sometimes in different ways in the same version of the Bible. It can be translated as 'servant', 'slave', 'son', or 'boy'. The meaning changes with each translation, and some translations are more nuanced than others.
Servant or Slave?
I don’t claim to be a Roman historian, but I have never heard of Romans having servants. The Queen has servants. The Prime Minister has servants. Servants are people who are paid to serve – we may think of a butler, a maid, a housekeeper or a cook. We may think of those who served the nobility in Upstairs Downstairs or in Downton Abbey. We may feel a bit sorry for them in terms of the hours they had to work, but jobs 'in service' were highly regarded by working class people. When my grandmother left school at the tender age of 14 she thought she was lucky to get a job 'in service' for some women who lived in her village. (Interestingly it was a job for a female couple who lived quietly in a little village in Kent between the wars). But the Romans didn’t have servants – they had slaves.
Slaves were people who were owned by others. They may have been born into slavery; captured and sold into slavery; be defeated prisoners of war; or, in the earliest years of Rome, might have become a slave because of debt. They may have been manual labourers, cooks, domestic or agricultural workers or they may have been teachers or secretaries to the elite. They were sexually vulnerable – prostitutes, of either gender, were slaves. A Roman master had absolute power over his slaves – the power to beat, rape or kill them.
The Roman economy was founded on slaves. Of course a master had to feed, house and clothe his slaves. If he was a good master he would look after them when they were ill. He might free them when he died, or beforehand if he was feeling generous. Of course he might also free them if they became ill and infirm. Slaves were cheaper than servants. Slaves were more useful than servants. Romans had slaves not servants.
So one possible meaning of the word 'pais' in our passage today is 'slave'. Most English Bibles have the word as 'servant' in verse 2 and 'slave' in verse 8. The NRSV is consistent and uses slave for both.
Some scholars think the term means 'son' and point out that in some places in the Gospels Jesus is referred to as God’s 'Pais' – meaning 'Son'. Others point out that the word is sometimes very ambiguous sexually and means 'boy' in the sense of a younger male sexual partner.
We don’t know which of these meanings is the one that Matthew intended. We don’t know which of these meanings his original hearers would have understood. But the context of the passage radically changes depending on the meaning one puts on it.
If the lad was a slave, then it is striking that Jesus doesn’t criticise the centurion for keeping a slave. Jews didn’t keep slaves. This centurion was in sympathy with Judaism so Jesus could, presumably, have urged him to free the slave. If the lad was his son, then it makes sense that the centurion was concerned about him: but very few scholars seem to believe that this is the case and Matthew could have made it much clearer that this was a father/son relationship. If the lad was a servant, then the context doesn’t make much sense as Romans didn’t have servants. If the lad was a younger sexual partner of the older man, then we have another host of problems to ponder.
We know that Roman patterns of sexual relationships were very different from our own. Romans didn’t seem to think of people as having an orientation in the way that we think of heterosexual, bisexual and gay folks. Instead Romans were very preoccupied with the sexual activity and the role that was played. Roman citizens always had to be dominant in sex: to be perceived to be like a woman was deeply shaming. A Roman citizen could have sexual relationships with his wife, with prostitutes and slaves (of either gender), provided that in these relationships he was always dominant. This was accepted as normal and, whilst there is some evidence that these rules weren’t always followed, it seems that the rules always had to appear to be followed.
Now if the centurion was concerned over his boy because he was in love with the lad, then it is striking that Jesus didn’t condemn him nor the relationship – just as Jesus didn’t condemn the centurion for having a slave. Maybe these things were just accepted as normal by Jesus in his own culture, even if we wouldn’t accept either slavery nor such a superficially imbalanced relationship as being normal nor acceptable now.
When we look at a passage in the Bible and we put it in context we see that we look at a world which is both different and similar to our own. The differences and similarities can affect how we use the passage now, what sense we make of it, and what sense we make of the people it describes.
Problems of Authority
This work of stepping between two worlds leads us to consider what authority the Bible has for us. After all, if it is difficult to make a neat fit between the world of the Bible and our own then we will have problems transferring some of its teaching to make sense in our own world. This has been something Christians have grappled with from the start.
When the first Christians called Jesus “Christ” rather than “Messiah”, they were trying to make sense of Jesus in a way that Gentiles – who understood the word “Christ” – could comprehend. When the Church adopted a governing structure drawn from the Roman world, it was an attempt to understand their own context and make sense of biblical revelation in the midst of it. We try and do the same thing today.
We have to work hard to hear God’s word speaking to us through a medium written for a culture very different to our own. We have to make sense of the cultures we see in the Bible and cope with the things they saw as normal – mental illness ascribed to demons, slavery as being an accepted fact of life, divorce laws designed to cater for men not women, gender roles which make many of us now wince.
So the traditional view of this passage being about the centurion’s faith is the one we’re most used to. It’s a fine understanding – the centurion clearly had faith, Jesus was clearly impressed by it and by him, and Jesus healed the centurion’s lad.
But there is more going on here:
- In an age of slavery it would have been touching to see that a master was concerned about his slave – to the extent of seeking out a healer.
- In an age of empire it is interesting that the oppressor finds healing for his slave from the oppressed.
- In an age of sexual brutalization it is redeeming to see love at work in a relationship characterised by dominating abusive patriarchal roles.
The way in which we read this passage can have profound consequences. A slave reading it might despair that Jesus didn’t free the slave. A contemporary gay person reading it might find within it a sense that Jesus blessed a gay couple.
Fred, a newcomer at MCC, is an asylum seeker from Uganda. He fled Uganda after the ministry of education struck him off as a teacher for being gay – he has the evidence of this but the Home Office, of course, refuse to believe the letter is genuine.
In his screening interview with the Home Office he was asked about his faith and, oddly, how he could justify being gay and Christian. He responded by saying that he understood the Roman centurion and the slave to be lovers. He was refused asylum, in part, because of his interpretation of this passage! The Home Office functionary clearly thinks that correct Biblical exegesis is required to enter the UK!
His court case is on Wednesday and I will be giving evidence on this point - which should be rather surreal.
Many LGBT Christians have, in recent, years used this passage to try and show that Jesus blessed a gay couple. Many see it as incredibly affirming to see themselves in the Scripture. I don’t know if it is as simple as this. The fact that the lad is described as a “boy” in some translations shows that the word 'pais' has connotations of a younger man. I’m not comfortable as a 21st century person with relationships between teenagers and older men and women – yet I also recognise that Mary would have been around the age of 13 when she was preparing to marry Joseph.
I think the passage is interesting but I am uneasy about making a direct link between Jesus not commenting on the nature of the relationship – slavery, or slavery and lover - and contemporary gay relationships. I just think it’s a bit more complicated than that.
I think the passage is one that we have to wrestle with. It’s a passage which we have to discuss to try and work out what is going on, and what lessons can be learned. The discussions we have may depend on the contexts we have.
In MCC we may be tempted to start with some idea of a same sex relationship going on. In Chorlton Central we may be tempted to think of an understanding around the faith of an outsider. We may, or may not, move from our starting places. We may, or may not, find our understandings enriched, challenged, changed or confirmed.
We find meaning as we wrestle, as we think, as we discuss. And as we do these things we open ourselves up to the Holy Spirit to find meaning anew in this, and in other texts within the Bible.
So I don’t have any easy answers for what the passage is about. Easy answers cost Fred his claim for asylum. Easy answers ignore the complexity of the passage. Easy answers lead to cheap grace.