The gay centurion in the Gospel who theologians disagree about

One of the best-known miracles in the New Testament is subject to differing interpretations, between those who defend the traditional meaning and those who say that, explicitly, it contains Jesus’ refusal to condemn homosexuality

Carlos Primo
'Christ and the Centurion,' a work by Francisco Caro, on display in the Prado Museum in Madrid. Painted near the end of the 17th century, it’s a representation of one of the best-known episodes of the Gospel, which continues to be the subject of debate.
'Christ and the Centurion,' a work by Francisco Caro, on display in the Prado Museum in Madrid. Painted near the end of the 17th century, it’s a representation of one of the best-known episodes of the Gospel, which continues to be the subject of debate.Museo Nacional del Prado

For centuries, theological disputes have often honed in on a word, a nuance, or a philological doubt that — upon being amplified by the religious perspective — can acquire extraordinary dimensions.

One of the most recurrent disputes has to do with an episode in the life of Jesus, narrated in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. It’s a well-known story: when Jesus is in Capernaum, he receives a request from a Roman centurion. The army commander asks Jesus to perform a miracle to heal his “servant,” who is seriously ill. When Jesus goes to his house, the centurion comes out and tells him that it’s not necessary for him to enter his abode, since he’s considered impure. He knows that, with the mere word of Jesus, a miracle will be able to take place.

Indeed, when the centurion returns to his residence, he finds the sick man instantly cured. It’s an episode so popular that, in the Catholic celebration of the Eucharist, millions of faithful recite a variation of his words before communion: “I am not worthy of you entering my house, but one word from you will be enough to heal me.”

The story — told in similar terms by Matthew and Luke — offers multiple interpretations. In addition to verifying the miraculous capacity of Jesus, it’s usually used as an anecdote to illustrate the strength of faith, as the miracle of healing can be carried out at a distance. This is what leads Jesus to say: “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” These are the words with which the episode concludes.

However, for years now, a controversy has arisen between different sectors of the Church regarding this story. Was the sick man truly a “servant” of the centurion? Several theologians and biblical experts have warned that the Greek term that appears in Matthew’s text to identify him — pais — doesn’t refer to a simple servant in the military language of the time (doulos, the term used by Luke), but rather to a servant who establishes an emotional and sexual relationship with his master.

If the “servant” was indeed a reference to a same-sex partner — resulting in a relationship on unequal terms, given the social difference between the two — this story would be the only direct allusion to the phenomenon of homosexuality in the Gospel. However, most translations have omitted this interpretation to opt for the words “son” — which is doubtful, since centurions were prohibited from marrying or having offspring — and “servant.” Of course, with Luke emphasizing that the servant is “very dear” to him, there’s the suggestion that the relationship goes beyond servitude.

The relationship between the centurion and his servant doesn’t come from a marginal interpretation. In fact, it’s quite widespread: it’s normal to find it in books and articles that address Catholicism from an LGBTQ perspective. There’s even an Argentine LGBTQ Catholic association whose name — El Centurión — refers to this reading. And, this past year, the story reached new audiences. The book Daily Gospel 2023 — the guide to biblical readings in accordance with the liturgical calendar, published annually by St. Paul’s, one of the oldest and most respected Catholic publishing houses — includes this queer interpretation in the comments that accompany the fragment, which is the reading from the Gospel on the first Monday of Advent.

Xabier Pikaza, a veteran theologian and the author of the accompanying text, has spoken out in favor of the integration of the LGBTQ community in the Church. His interpretation of Matthew’s verses aligns with this idea. According to the commentary he has written, the centurion is “a tough man, a professional [soldier], who is wounded because his servant-lover is sick. He’s a man hated by many Jewish nationalists and despised by other, more legalistic ones, because of his possible homosexual behavior. By begging Jesus to help him, he has had to overcome his military pride and his presumed sexual humiliation.”

If, in other cases, Pikaza notes, Jesus dares to break the invisible barrier that prevented people from approaching lepers, “here, he attends to the pain of the soldier with ‘irregular’ behavior, showing himself willing to enter his house… even if it’s ‘impure.’ He doesn’t demonize him, nor expel him. He heals him.”

This isn’t the first time that Pikaza has approached this episode. In an article published in 2015 on his blog, Digital Religion, he carefully analyzed the implications of this fragment… an old controversy that, despite everything, continues to be an open wound in certain sectors of the Church.

On December 18, the Pope made an unprecedented decision by authorizing blessings for same-sex couples. While this is far from marriage equality (the Vatican remains restrictive about this), the Pope’s declaration shows an evolution and an openness compared to the previous position of the Church. However, weeks before the announcement — after the inclusion of Pikaza’s commentary in the reading guide was made public — certain figures took to social media to call for a boycott of St. Paul’s publishing house, for allowing room for what they consider to be “heretical interpretations” of the New Testament. The response from Pikaza’s entourage has come in the form of an article that defends the theologian’s academic and intellectual work against the arguments of his detractors. His supporters have denounced the campaign launched by conservative media.

Another supporter of openness is James Martin, an American Jesuit priest who is close to Pope Francis. His essay on the subject — Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity — has become a small bestseller. Published in 2017, the book is currently in its third printing. Curiously, in the work, the centurion appears, but not as a homosexual. Rather, he shows up as a symbol and parable. “I’ve heard that interpretation (about the centurion and the servant being queer) and it’s very interesting that the centurion — at least in Matthew — doesn’t use the word doulos, which is almost always used in the Gospels to define a ‘servant’ or ‘slave,’” Martin explains to EL PAÍS.

“As Xabier Pikaza points out, the term used is pais, which means boy or young man. Of course, the centurion must have felt great affection for his servant; otherwise, he wouldn’t have asked Jesus to heal him. But were they really lovers? Is that why the centurion says that he’s not ‘worthy’ of Jesus entering his house, as has been suggested? I’m no Greek expert, but most New Testament scholars say that this interpretation is unproven.”

Despite his reluctance to accept this reading, Martin — head of Outreach, a Catholic LGBTQ portal — suggests a similar interpretation. “Even if pais just meant ‘servant,’ this story shows Jesus addressing someone entirely outside the Jewish environment. In other words, the centurion was probably not a monotheist and certainly not a Jew. But instead of expelling him by calling him ‘pagan’ or ‘sinner,’ Jesus treats him with great respect, praises his faith and gives him a great gift. It’s an early example of how Jesus treats marginalized people and, therefore, whatever [the word] means, it demonstrates how we should treat everyone we consider to be ‘the other’ — including LGBTQ+ people.”

The Church’s gesture of openness to LGBTQ couples suggests that part of the Vatican thinks like Martin. In a Church plagued by internal struggles and conflicting theological currents, cornered by the scandal of sexual abuse and by its own contradictions, something as simple as a story — repeated a thousand times — can spark an entire media storm. The unnamed centurion — although one source names him Gaius — who approached Jesus to ask him to heal the man he loved (be it his servant or his partner) has been there from the beginning, in a Gospel where Jesus makes no explicit condemnation of sexual diversity. Something that, for centuries, a good part of the Church has ignored.

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