The opponents of gay same-sex marriage and of the “gay lifestyle” (whatever that is), like to claim that their opposition is rooted in traditional family values, “as found in the Bible.” This claim is so completely spurious, is is remarkable how seldom it is challenged. Just a little thought and reflection shows not only how the Gospel values have little to d with modern Western conceptions of the “traditional” family, but they are so far removed from it, that the real values espoused can certainly be described as “queer”,if not quite as specifically gay. In reaching this conclusion, I have been reading and reflecting on the social context of the ‘family’ as experienced in Jewish society and the broader social environment, at Jesus’ own ‘family’ in childhood and maturity, at His actions, and at His words.
The Jewish Family.
It is important to recognise that traditional Jewish society did indeed place enormous importance on the idea of family, both in the narrow sense of the immediate biological family, and in the broader sense of the ethnic Jewish community. This was so important that on the one hand, everyone was expected to marry and produce , and on the other, that those outside the narrow ethnic group were regarded as inferior, even unclean. The detailed dietary and other regulations well -known from the Old Testament were part of an elaborate legal structure to maintain the ‘purity’ of the Jewish nation. The Jewish family, however, was very different from our modern conception, deeply patriarchal, and with uneven treatment of men and women. Women were were expected to show rigorous sexual fidelity totheir husbands, and thought of as the ‘property’ of their men. (Just consider, for example, the very founding of the famous twelve tribes of Israel. The mothers of the twelve sons of Jacob were two wives and their slaves.)
In the broader social environment, the Jewish state in Jesus’ day was under Roman military occupation. Like the Greek society of the time, the Romans too had a deeply patriarchal society, and one in which there was not the modern distinction between ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’ activities. Distinctions were drawn rather, on the social class of one’s sexual partners, and male citizens would routinely have sex not only with their wives, but also with other lovers, prostitutes and slaves of either gender.
My reflections on this theme were initially prompted by a posting on “Nihil Obstat” for the feast of the Holy Family, in which she pointed out how very atypical for the time was the Lord’s own childhood family, so often quoted as a model for all Catholic families.
But our childhood families are not the only ones we live with. More important as we grow older are those adult families we make for ourselves, usually by forming couples in marriage or out of it, and with or without children. As LGBT people we are also very conscious of how often we may remain single, but still form looser groups of friendship, who may in a real sense become our ‘families’ of a different sort.
So what were the adult ‘families’ that Jesus made for himself?
First, and famously, He did not marry. This alone is remarkable, given the expectation in Jewish society of marriage and procreation. So, what were His other relationships – what informal ‘families’ did He form? We get the answer to this easily enough by looking at the Last Supper. The Jewish Sabbath meal, and most especially that of Passover, are the occasions above all when Jewish people get together as families. It is significant then that the Lord spent his own Passover meal – which we know as the ‘Last Supper’, with the 12 apostles: these were the people we must take to represent His closest family. Who were these men? (If they were indeed all men. Colleen at Enlightened Catholicism has pointed out that an all-male Jewish passover meal would have been exceptionally unusual. The rituals prescribed certain roles for women. But I let that pass here, for now.) We know that Peter had a mother-in-law, but never hear of his wife. What of the others? If they ever had wives and families of their own, they had set them aside to spend the rest of their lives with Jesus.
Think about it: on the most solemn holy day of the Jewish calendar, when it was customary for all Jewish people to share a ritual meal with their closest family, Jesus and the apostles spent the evening as a group of single men. Does this not sound remarkably like a modern group of urban gay men spending our equivalent family festivals sharing meals together, away from biological families?
Single people know, of course, that the concept of “family” can be fluid. In addition to our closest, most intimate circle, there are often others who might be very close, almost family, but not quite in our innermost circle. Who represented this ‘almost family’ circle to Jesus Christ? The most obvious candidates to me are the household of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, with whom He had an obviously close and special relationship. What was the nature of this household? Once again, very far from the expected “traditional” family. The two women are described as ‘sisters’ and come across to me as the stronger, more vividly drawn characters: Lazarus is famed more for his death and rescue from it, than for anything in his life. Even at face value, this is an unusual household: Jewish women would typically have been married off at an early age, not still living as adults with their brother. Where such households did exist, it would normally be the brother, as the only male, who would be expected to dominate the household and be the focus of attention. For a clearer understanding of the household, it is worth remembering that the word ‘sister’s may have been used euphemistically: it is at least possible that Mary and Martha were a lesbian couple, living with a gay friend as lodger.
So: in His families of choice, the Lord spent His time either with a band of single men, or with a household of two single women (possibly a lesbian couple), and yet another unmarried man. Even in the broader social circle, I am not aware of any instance where He is reported as spending time with a a conventional married couple with children. Thus far, in examining the Lord in His own family context, we have found not an endorsement, but a repudiation, of the traditional family.
Jesus’ Own Relationships.
Scripture is not at all clear on the Lord’s own sexual life. We do know, since He was fully human, that He will certainly have had sexual impulses and feelings, and human emotions. We cannot know for sure what He did about them, but there is certainly some evidence that there was a special relationship with the “Beloved Disciple” of John’s Gospel, to whom He entrusted the care of His mother. There is also the curious incident of the naked young man in Mark’s Gospel, and a controversial fragment from the “Secret Gospel” of Mark which tells of a night He spent with a naked youth after raising Him from the dead.
His Responses to Others
One of the best known features of Jesus’ personal behaviour and character is of his complete open-mindedness and inclusiveness towards socially marginalised and despised groups, frequently lumped together as “prostitutes and tax-collectors”. This open-mindedness extended to all such groups, and specifically included sexual minorities, as shown in his willingness to go to the home of the gay centurion to heal his servant/lover, and his clear statement that eunuchs are welcome in the Kingdom of Heaven. (Eunuchs in biblical times were a clearly despised sexual minority, and may be the closest counterpart to the modern concept of “gay”).
The “Traditional” Families of the Gospels.
I can’t think of any. Can you?
Chris Glaser, in his excellent book, “Coming Out as Sacrament”, has a chapter on “Coming out in the Bible”, in which he reads several well known Scripture stories, from Adam & Eve in Genesis to Pentecost in Acts, as coming out tales. Among these, he presents the story of Jesus Himself as “Coming out of Family Values”. The evidence he produces in support of this argument is that:
- “his mother Mary was told that Jesus’ own coming out would mean “that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword shall pass through your own soul too (Luke 2:35)”;
- At twelve years of age, Jesus ignored his family’s departure from Jerusalem to sit in the temple, his “Father’s house” (Luke 2:49);
- He left His family and as far as we know, never married and never “begat” children;
- He called his disciples away from their families (9:59:62), told them he had no home (9:57) ,, and claimed that His gospelk would “set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother.” (Mathew 10:35-36);
- When His family came to see Him, He declared, “Whoever does the will of god is my brother and sister and mother”(Mark 3:35);
- Members of the new faith community addressed each other as brother and sister;
- Jesus’ own family of choice were three unmarried people – Martha, Mary and Lazarus;
- In the New Testament, the biological, polygamous, prolifically procreative family of the Old Testament was superseded by the more vital, eternal and extended family of faith, a family to be expanded by evangelism and inclusivity rather than mere procreation;
- Jesus had a special word of defence for the eunuch, who was an outcast in Israel because his body was mutilated, but more importantly because he could not procreate. “
Glaser, Chris: Coming out As Sacrament
Jennings, Theodore:the man jesus loved
Nissinen, Marti:Homoeroticism in the Biblical World: A Historical Perspective
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