Michael B. Kelly writes and speaks about spirituality, sexuality and justice. He is the convener for the Rainbow Sash Movement Australia and can be e-mailed at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Could Jesus have been gay?
The question is, apparently, provocative. According to comments and letters in the media this week, even asking the question is sacrilege, blasphemy, a vilification of Christianity, and a mockery of people's deepest beliefs. The Priests Anti-Defamation League is on alert, the Australian Family Association is outraged, George Pell is being "kept informed," and even the Moslems are appalled and all because of a play called "Corpus Christi" which re-imagines Jesus as a tender, thoughtful and gutsy young gay man in modern day Texas. Why all the fuss?
Some years ago I taught a Religious Education course entitled: "Jesus: Man, Myth, or Magic?" Each year I would tell my Year 12 students about the Church's teaching that Jesus was "truly man," and we would then list some of his human characteristics. They were fine with the dark eyes and the long hair and beard, but things got tricky when his human digestive system and his male reproductive organs were mentioned. Some students were embarrassed, some shocked, and a few flatly refused to accept that Jesus was built like a normal man. Something in Christian culture and piety had instilled in these 20th century teenagers a kind of revulsion at the idea of Jesus Christ, True God and True Man, having to go to the toilet or cope with sexual arousal like any other human male.
Mind you, these students were not the first to feel this way. Some early theologians speculated that Jesus would have perfectly regulated his intake of food and drink so that he satisfied his nutritional requirements without ever needing to urinate or defecate. Some of the desert monks tried this themselves, with sadly predictable results. Even more common was the claim that Jesus had "perfect" control over his sexual responses, so that he would never, for example, have had to cope with an inconvenient erection.
Most modern Christians would chuckle at these ideas, yet the smell of a pious, shame-based, anti-physical moralism has lingered long in Christianity and my students sniffed it out. I suspect that beneath this week's outrage at the suggestion that we might validly imagine Jesus as gay, is a persistent horror at the idea of him being truly human sensual, emotional, sexual, physical. The same outrage erupts when a film-maker like Martin Scorsese depicts Jesus' love for Mary Magdalen, a theologian like Bishop John Spong questions the physical virginity of Christ's mother or when gay Catholics line up to receive Holy Communion. The sacred and the sexual, spirituality and sensuality, prayer and physical pleasure must never be merged or celebrated together. Yet this is precisely what happened when the Divine became human in Jesus.
And when we look at the sort of man Jesus actually was, we see that the "Incarnation" was not some ethereal epiphany, but more like a sweaty, heartfelt bear-hug between God and humanity, indeed, more like the passionate, profound, joyous inter-penetration and mutual surrender that happens in really great sex.
The Gospels show Jesus as a man who understood and treasured the sensuality of human living. He brought the fine "new wine" of celebration, both literally and figuratively. He loved parties, dinners and weddings, and was accused of being a "drunkard and a glutton" and of partying with "prostitutes and sinners." He responded by claiming that the Kingdom of God would be one great feast where the poor, the prostitutes and the ritually unclean would have pride of place. He healed with spit, clay, touch and breath. He cuddled children, hugged lepers and delighted in a tender foot massage offered him by a woman of ill repute. He taught using images of earth, weather, animals, flowers, birds and house building. He revealed the secret of his identity to a woman from a despised religious sect who had been married five times and was "living in sin." He revealed his resurrection to his apostles over breakfast on a beach. He left bread and wine those essential elements of dinner parties ancient and modern as living symbols of his abiding presence. He referred to himself the "Bridegroom" and called everyone to an eternal banquet of love.
Considering all this, could Jesus have been gay? The Gospels tell us
nothing about Jesus' "sexual orientation " in fact the concept itself has only
been explored in modern times.
They are equally silent about whether he was ever married or had ever had sex. What they do show us is a man who lived with passionate freedom and who loved fearlessly and without regard for cultural norms or religious rules. The love he shared with Mary Magdalen was clearly intimate, tender and committed. The people he made his "family of choice" were three unmarried adults Martha, Mary and Lazarus and if Jesus too was unmarried they must have been viewed as a somewhat shocking little community in a culture strictly regulated by "traditional family values". Jesus himself was always telling people to leave their families, homes and properties to form a new community of equality, love and justice.
Jesus was also deeply comfortable sharing intimate love with members of his own sex. Two men were especially close. John, "the disciple Jesus loved," would lay his head on Jesus' chest at that final dinner and, alone of all the apostles, stand by him during his crucifixion. Lazarus was referred to by Jesus' friends, when speaking to Jesus, simply as "the man you love," He was so dear that Jesus would weep openly at his tomb and perform, for him, his most astounding miracle, raising him from the dead in the very shadow of Jerusalem and provoking the fatal wrath of the religious authorities.
There is also a rarely explored Gospel story that reveals Jesus' attitude towards same-sex lovers. One day a Roman Centurion asked him to heal his dying servant. Scholars of both Scripture and Ancient History tell us that Roman Centurions, who were not permitted to marry while in service, regularly chose a favourite male slave to be their personal assistant and sexual servant. Such liaisons were common in the Graeco-Roman world and it was not unusual for them to deepen into loving partnerships. Now the Jewish people were not ignorant, and like oppressed people everywhere they would have gossipped about their conquerors, especially the local battalion. This particular centurion was well known in the Jewish community, so when he humbled himself and pleaded with Jesus to heal "my beloved boy," everyone would have known exactly what he meant. Undoubtedly Jesus, who knew the secrets of human hearts, also knew. Jesus offered to go to the servant, but the centurion asked him simply to speak a word of healing, since he was not worthy to welcome this itinerant Jewish teacher under his roof. Jesus responded by healing the servant and proclaiming that even in Israel he had never found faith like this!
So, in the one Gospel story where Jesus encountered people sharing what we would call a "gay relationship," we see him simply concerned about and deeply moved by their faith and love.
(NOTE: The history of this story contains a deep irony, noted by Fr. John McNeill, the gay theologian expelled from the Jesuits on Vatican orders. The words of the centurion, "Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof. Say but the word and my servant shall be healed" form the basis of the prayer said by Catholics over many centuries just before they receive Holy Communion. They come from the lips of a man we would call gay.)
So, to return to our original question, could Jesus have been gay?
I believe the answer is yes, but I don't think it ultimately matters. What does matter is Jesus' revelation that tenderness, passion, generosity and overwhelming love are the very heart of God. What matters is that we lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people claim the grace of seeing, in the face of Christ, our own true face reflecting the image of God. What matters is that our heterosexual sisters and brothers learn to see shining in our eyes and in our loving, no less than in theirs, the light and love of the God we both worship.
Each of us must be able to say to the other, in the words that open the play "Corpus Christi": "I bless you and honour your divinity as a human being."