Metropolitan Community Church Key West—June 27, 2004
Rev. Geoff D. Leonard-Robinson
SCRIPTURE & SAME-SEX RELATIONSHIPS
It has been said that the best defense is a good offense. In other words, instead of constantly reacting to situations and trying to defend oneself, it’s often better to be proactive. I happen to believe that’s what we’re called to do—move boldly forward rather than spend all of our time trying to make up for lost ground.
Having said that, I must admit that the first two sermons of this series were focused more upon “defense”—reacting to and defending against the hurtful and arguably incorrect interpretations of the few scriptures regarding homosexuality. So, enough of defense—it’s time to switch to offense. This morning, I’d like for us to look at three examples of same-sex relationships found in scripture—both in the Hebrew and Christian Testaments.
We begin by looking at the relationship between David and Jonathan. This is the same David in the lineage of Jesus of Nazareth—the same David, a shepherd, who later became king—the same David who is credited with writing a large number of the Psalms. And Jonathan—the son of Saul, King of Israel. But, for argument’s sake, let’s pretend Jonathan’s name was Joan and that she was the daughter of Saul.
With that premise in mind, we begin our story right after David volunteered to fight the Philistines, killed Goliath with a slingshot, and then came before King Saul. First Samuel 18:1-4 would read like this: “When David had finished speaking [to Saul], the soul of Joan was bound to the soul of David, and Joan loved him as her own soul. Then Joan made a covenant with David, because she loved him as her own soul. Joan stripped herself of the robe that she was wearing, and gave it to David, along with her jewelry, and all her most prized possessions.”
Sounds like “love at first sight,” doesn’t it? But that’s only the beginning. Saul became afraid of David’s popularity, fearing that public favor would motivate David to usurp the throne. So, Saul planned to kill David. When “Joan” pleaded on David’s behalf, Saul relented. Then Saul made a second secret plan—but it failed.
The next time “Joan” spoke of David in the palace, Saul went ballistic! He said, “Do I not know that you have shamefully chosen [David] to be your own?” Joan ran to the place where David was hiding to report what had happened. First Samuel 20:41-42 tells us what happened next: “David rose from beside the stone heap and laid with his face to the ground. He bowed three times, then he and Joan kissed each other and wept with each other; David wept the more. Then Joan said to David, “Go in peace, since both of us have sworn in the name of the Lord, saying, ‘The Lord shall be between me and you, and between my descendants and your descendants, forever.’” David got up and left; and Joan went back into the city.”
Sounds like a tearful, heart-wrenching farewell scene from “Romeo & Juliet,” doesn’t it? Now, try to put all bias, all outside influences, all pre-conceived notions aside and think again of those two scenes. But, this time remember that the two people involved were David and Jonathan—two men. Our first inclination may be to say, “But that’s different! It couldn’t have been the same as ‘love at first sight’ and devotion between a man and a woman. They were merely best friends.” But, the story doesn’t end there.
Years later Saul and Jonathan were killed together in battle. In the first chapter of 2nd Samuel, we read that when David heard of Saul and Jonathan’s deaths, he tore his clothes and fasted in mourning his loss. He cried and wrote a song that he ordered all the people of Judah to sing. It’s lyrics were included in our reading this morning: “Jonathan lies slain upon your high places. I am distressed for you my brother Jonathan; Greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, surpassing the love of women.”
If we read what’s written, if we set aside our own cultural and societal notions—what does the “least forced” interpretation seem to say to us?
Next, we consider the relationship between Ruth and Naomi, as presented in the Book of Ruth. There was a woman in Bethlehem named Naomi. She and her husband, Elimelech, take their two sons and travel to the land of Moab to escape a famine. Unfortunately, shortly after arriving in Moab, Elimelech dies.
Eventually the two sons marry “local girls,” Orpah (or-paw’) and Ruth. But Naomi’s luck doesn’t seem to get much better. Both of her sons die before fathering any children. So, now there’s only Naomi, Orpah, and Ruth—3 widows with no means of support or survival. (After all, it certainly was not the age of the female entrepreneur!)
So, Naomi decides to return to Bethlehem to her father’s family, and advises Orpah and Ruth to return to their families. Orpah agrees that it’s the only way to survive, and goes. But Ruth refuses and pledges never to leave Naomi’s side. The two then travel and live together. Eventually, Ruth marries Boaz—a man much older than she—although we’re never told that she “loved” him. In fact, it was Naomi who “set up” Ruth and Boaz in order to “create some security” for Ruth’s future. [Ruth 3:1] And when Ruth finally bears a child, scripture says that the village women proclaimed, “A son has been born to Naomi.” (Ruth 4:17)
It was obvious to everyone that the most important human relationship in the lives of Ruth and Naomi was the relationship they had with one another. Again, think back on this beautiful story and substitute a man for either Ruth or Naomi as you consider the pledge, or covenant, Ruth made to Naomi found in Ruth 1:16-17: “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried.”
Sounds like the words of one who cares intimately for another, doesn’t it? Ironically enough, those words have been quoted in thousands of weddings—weddings between a man and a woman. I’ve even sung the version set to music at more weddings than I can count. Yet, even as our culture recognizes that as a pledge of love—the kind of love that should exist between spouses—that same culture refuses to acknowledge the possibility of a loving, committed, same-sex relationship being blessed by God.
Another interesting tidbit: The son that Ruth bore—that was “born to Naomi”—was named Obed (o-bade). Obed was the father of Jesse, and Jesse was the father of [whom?] none other than King David. So Obed the son of Ruth, “born to Naomi,” was the grandfather of David—the same David as in the story of David and Jonathan. (So maybe it is as much nature as nurture.)
Finally, let us consider a story from the Gospels—the story of the Roman Centurion that we heard read this morning. A Roman soldier approaches Jesus and pleads for the life of his “servant” who is at home, paralyzed and suffering terribly. Jesus offers to go and cure the servant. The soldier says that won’t be necessary for he believes that if Jesus but “speaks the word” his servant will be healed. Jesus tells those around him that he hasn’t seen that kind of faith among any of his followers, and then tells the soldier to go home and he will find the servant healed.
Now, that sounds pretty straight forward (no pun intended)—like just another typical story of Jesus healing someone who was afflicted. But there is much more to this story—elements that would have had a great impact upon those witnessing the event, or those reading Matthew’s account in the late first century.
First of all, it was incredible that a Roman centurion would approach Jesus, a Jewish “prophet” or “teacher,” to ask for a favor. In effect, he was acknowledging that Jesus did in fact have some sort of supernatural power. That would help to explain Jesus’ “amazement” which led him to proclaim the centurion’s faith greater than any he had seen among “believers.”
Secondly, it’s hard to imagine that a Roman centurion would take such a risk—put himself in such a position—on behalf of a mere slave or servant. Are we to believe that this particular servant could make a pot of coffee like no other, or bake a soufflé lighter than anyone else’s, or could polish armor more splendidly than any other servant? It seems hard to imagine. However, if we look closely at Matthew’s account, there’s another element that might help us understand the nature of the centurion’s urgent request.
The English versions of the Bible we read basically use the same word—“servant”—throughout the dialogue attributed to the centurion. However, Matthew specifically chose to use two different Greek words in the original text. When the centurion said, “I say to my servant ‘Do this,’ and he does it,” Matthew records the word as duolos (doo’-lahss). But, when the centurion referred to the one that was afflicted, for whom he was pleading, Matthew records the word as pais (pah-eece).
This may seem insignificant, until we consider that in all four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, & John), the word pais is only used four other times, whereas duolos is used 73 times. So, it would appear that translating both Greek words as simply, “servant,” fails to communicate something unique and very special about the one for whom the centurion was taking such a risk in making his impassioned plea.
The fact of the matter is, there were three uses for the word pais: 1. son, 2. servant, 3. young male lover. In fact, pais is one of the two root words used to form the word pederasty—which was the technical term for male homosexual relationships in the Hellenistic world.
So, if in fact the “servant” was actually the male lover (as opposed to an “ordinary” servant) of the centurion, that would account for the significance in Matthew’s choice of using different Greek words in his account. It would also become much more logical for the Roman centurion to be humbling himself, taking a risk, and pleading for the life of this particular servant. (Maybe it wasn’t the soufflé after all…)
Interestingly enough, even though Jesus was very aware that Roman men practiced pederasty—maintained homosexual relationships, and even though Jesus knew it was uncommon for a man to show such care and devotion to a “servant,” he never asked the Roman centurion what was the nature of their relationship. Jesus didn’t care. What he did do was praise the centurion for his faith and heal the centurion’s pais.
David & Jonathan, Ruth & Naomi, and the Roman Centurion & his “pais”—Whether or not any of these three intimate relationships included sexual intimacy we cannot be certain—we weren’t there. However, to an objective reader employing the
“least forced” interpretation, sexual expression of shared loved is easily within the realm of possibility. It is only our biases that make such possibilities seem impossible.
But there are two things of which we can be certain—two facts found in common with all three relationships that cannot be denied: 1. These three same-sex “couples” cared very deeply for one another, were committed to one another, and shared a pledge or covenant with one another. 2. These three same-sex loving relationships were celebrated and honored by God.
May God’s spirit of truth lead us into all truth—“In Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for we are all one in Christ Jesus…and heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28-29)