My thoughts (Jeff Miner):
One of Jesus’ favorite sayings, oft repeated in the Gospels, is this: “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.” Matthew 20:16. Today’s Gospel story is a classic example of that principle at work.
Remember, Jesus was born into the Jewish nation at a time of great upheaval. The Roman Empire had conquered Israel. To maintain their power, the Romans stationed large numbers of soldiers there. Any sign of uprising was dealt with fiercely. Any Jew suspected of challenging Roman authority was ruthlessly executed on a cross. These public executions were meant to send a blunt message: Don’t mess with Rome!
If you had been a Jew in Jesus’ day, how would you have felt about those who were part of the Roman war machine?
In today’s Gospel story, a Roman centurion, who led a unit of at least 100 soldiers, found himself so desperate for a miracle, he dared to ask a leader among the people he was oppressing (Jesus) for help. Why was this centurion so desperate?
He had a sick slave.
Wait a minute! That doesn’t sound very plausible. This was a time in history when slaves were viewed as chattel, mere property. Slaves were used until they were used up, then tossed aside. It was easier to buy a new slave than to invest time and money in trying to fix a broken one. So why was this grizzled warrior so concerned about a mere slave?
Because this wasn’t a “mere” slave.
When translated literally from its original Greek into English — without rearranging the syntax to make for smooth English — Luke 7:2 reads as follows: “Now of a certain centurion certain a slave ill having was about to die, who was to him dear.” Source: The NIV Interlinear Greek-English New Testament, Luke 7:2 (Zondervan, 1976). There are two key words here. The sick man was a “slave” (Greek = doulos) who was “dear” (Greek = entimos) to the centurion.
And why was this slave so dear to the centurion? The answer is found in verse 7, the only portion of our passage where the actual words of the centurion are reported. In the original Greek, the centurion refers to the sick slave who was dear to him as his “pais.” Source: The NIV Interlinear Greek-English New Testament, Luke 7:7. “Only speak the word,” the centurion says to Jesus, “and let my servant [pais] be healed.”
There are hundreds of instances in ancient Greek literature in which “pais” is used as the term of choice to refer to one’s same-sex partner. Source: K.J. Dover, Greek Homosexuality (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1978), p. 16; Bernard Sergent, Homosexuality in Greek Myth (Beacon Press, Boston, 1986), p. 10. In the ancient world, it was not uncommon for officers in the Roman army (and other powerful men) to acquire male slaves to serve as their lovers. This sounds awfully primitive, and it was. But remember, under the laws of the time, men who married women also “acquired” them as “property.” Unfortunately, that’s how the ancient world worked — for both straight and gay folks.
So now we have the complete picture. If we were to sum up the situation presented in Luke 7 through the eyes of a typical Jew at the time, here’s what we would say: “One of our chief oppressors, an officer in the Roman war machine — a Gentile dog, a pagan pervert — is asking our Jesus to salvage his perverted relationship by healing his love slave. How presumptuous! How disgusting! Has he no shame!”
And how does Jesus react? Does he squint his eyes and sneer in judgment? Does he fly into a tirade about Roman sexual perversion?
Well, actually, no. Verse 9 records Jesus’ reaction: “When Jesus heard this he was amazed at [the centurion]. Jesus turned to the crowd that followed him and said, ‘I tell you, not even among the Jews have I found such faith.’” Verse 10 goes on to indicate that Jesus granted the miracle of healing, thereby preserving the relationship between the centurion and his pais.
So there we have it. A Roman centurion was so in love with one of his slaves that he broke through all kinds of social boundaries to ask Jesus, a Jew, for help — convinced that the power of God rested so completely in Jesus that he could heal his servant by merely speaking a word. Unconcerned about the obvious homosexual nature of this relationship, Jesus announces that this soldier has greater faith than any Jew he has ever met.
Think about that! Jesus saw more faith in a gay Roman soldier than in all the holy men and woman of Israel. And you know what the Bible says about faith: “By grace you are saved, through faith.” Ephesians 2:8. Heaven sure is going to be an interesting place!
Thought for the day: Don’t get stuck on superficial issues (like sexual orientation); focus on what really matters to Jesus — how much faith you have. For the first shall be last and the last shall be first.
We encourage you to include a time of prayer with this reading. If you need a place to get started, consider the guidelines on the How to Pray page.