There’s a meme, featuring Oprah, which does the rounds now and again, but make quite an amusing point. It took all of two minutes on the internet earlier today to create my very own version:
Why did I do this? Because I read a rather strange ‘Lent Reflection‘ that seemed to me to perpetuate another ‘meme’, notably the idea that the Centurion and his servant in Luke 2 are best understood as lovers. Apparently, “Seen in the appropriate Greco-Roman context, the centurion and his servant were almost certainly lovers. Ancient history is full of such liaisons, most notably Hadrian and Antinous. In my view, the inference that the centurion and his servant were in a romantic relationship would have been clear to Jesus and to early readers of the gospels.“. This is an interesting argument, not a new one, and is worth engaging with. I was originally going to title this post ‘Miracles are for everyone, Marriage isn’t (yet)’ given the campaigning thrust of the Via Media blog, and a recently announced campaign for ‘equal marriage’ in the Church of England. But that would be to miss the point of the passage, and instead make it serve a debate for which it is not intended. The simplistic reading of Luke 7:2 offered here is implied to suggest that because Jesus chose to heal the centurion’s servant, Jesus thus approves of their relationship, and therefore so should we.
The worlds shortest bit of theological reflection shows that this probably isn’t the case. Jesus doesn’t offer miracles, signs of the kingdom of God that was core to his Gospel message, to people who he approves of, Jesus offers this, and life, and more, to all of us, regardless of our situation. Not for nothing does John write in his gospel that “But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31) Bluntly, the implication falls down before it is made, but let’s dig in a little. Ian Paul has a robust demolition on his blog from back in 2016, but I wonder if there are other aspects to this story that resonate with wider bilblical themes on sexuality that I’ve explored in relation to Jesus, in relation to the Bible, and in relation to how we might live today.
In his commentary, Darrell L. Bock notes:
“Luke stresses that his life is hanging by a thread. The slave is respected or highly regarded by the centurion, but it is hard to be sure of the exact force of ἔντιμος (entimos) . If the centurion regarded the servant as an asset or possession, “valuable” is the better translation (1 Pet. 2:4, 6); but if the centurion was the moral, sensitive man that the account suggests, “dear” or “esteemed” may be better (Luke 14:8; Phil. 2:29). The centurion’s hesitation in approaching Jesus may have been because of his concern for his slave, as well as his being a Gentile“
It is worth noting that Bock is writing a ‘conservative’ commentary in a ‘conservative’ commentary series, but it is telling that there is not a hint of sexual wording here – as Ian notes in the afore-linked blog, “Words do not always mean the same thing. The fact that the Greek word pais sometimes means same sex lover does not indicate it always carries that meaning.“. If the idea that “the centurion and his servant were almost certainly lovers” was a reputable and common academic idea, you’d hope a commentator would at least comment on it!
The more recently published Hermeneia Commentary on this text also helps us see that, rather than being a sexualised account, something else might be going on in this passage:
“According to the legal concept of slavery in antiquity, this could be understood financially. Luke intends to describe, however, a threatened interpersonal relationship (cf. the friends in v. 6). The officer loves not only the alien people of Israel but also his neighbor (10:25–37). His high estimation of his servant shows that he considers him not only in his function but also as a person. Jesus’ love, which reaches both the nearest and the farthest, responds to this double affection. Faith and love achieve an exemplary unity in the centurion.“
This leads me neatly back to my original point. There are multiple ‘miraculous’ things going on here. Firstly, Jesus heals someone, who isn’t even geographically near him. That is amazing! Secondly, we see the dawning of a faith in the Kingdom of God in this centurion – not only does he believe in and ask Jesus to heal his servant, but he is also demonstrating a love for him that goes beyond the normal slavery/object dynamics of that historical context. Perhaps this is a further aspect to the miracle that we need to hear today – not that a powerful man doesn’t want his lover to die, but that the bond of friendship can transcend social norms (slave/master, etc) in a way that points to the Jesus who says that we are his friends:
“I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:15)
Of course, we could try and read sex into every story of encounter and care in the Bible, but it might be easier (and more faithful to the Bible) not to, and instead to see these miracles, these signs, as what they are: signs of the Kingdom, available to anyone, for the sake of coming to Jesus and walking with him.
A few notes and links
- For alternative Lent Reflections, check out the ones I’ve been writing for London City Mission
- It is notable that both Ian Paul in his 2016 blog post, and Philip Baldwin in this 2019 one are explicit in noting Jeffrey John as the originator of this particular interpertation. I reviewed John’s book Permanent, Faithful, Stable a little while ago.
- If you want to chase the sources of the quotes from commentaries above, I reproduce them here for transparency….
- Darrell L. Bock, Luke: 1:1–9:50, vol. 1, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1994), 636.
- François Bovon and Helmut Koester, Luke 1: A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke 1:1–9:50, Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2002), 261.