What’s to be done when the most influential person of all time is silent about arguably the most contentious issue of our own time?
Not only do the world’s 2.3 billion professing Christians look to the figure of Jesus of Nazareth as their moral compass, but countless more also respect his teachings and grapple with them, whether as private persons, professors, or public figures.
While nearly all parties present at Jesus’ trial demanded his crucifixion, since then Jesus’ popularity has only gone up. And up. He enjoys an unparalleled prominence: Jesus went from being an untouchable to being untouchable.
That is to say, with rare exception over the past two millennia everyone has wanted Jesus on their side. Some might dismiss Moses as a legalist, and the Apostle Paul as a misogynist. But Jesus?
You pretty much always want him on your side.
While such unparalleled prominence has its upsides, one particular downside (perhaps we should say ‘dark side’), famously articulated in Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest for the Historical Jesus (1906), is that interested interpreters of Jesus find it altogether difficult to resist the temptation of portraying and repackaging the Man from Galilee after their own preferences and principles.
As well as their own prejudices. And passions.
And if the debate over homosexuality over the past forty years has been marked by anything, it is accusations of both inexcusable prejudice and inexcusable passion.
Accordingly, Jesus’ silence on the issue has been taken . . . as silence is usually taken–namely, as consent. But as consent to what? Consent to the Jewish ethical precepts of sexuality in his day? Or consent to the ethical possibilities for sexuality in our own day?
For the latter view, consider this pithy and persuasive clip from the ever-comical Stephen Colbert:
Is Colbert right?
What is one to make of Jesus’ silence on this most controversial issue?
Jesus’ Teaching on Divorce?
But, wait, was Jesus really silent on this issue?
Some conservative Christian voices argue that, in fact, he was not, based on his teaching about divorce (as well as his generic references to “sexual immorality”).
There is indeed a legitimacy but also a significant limitation to this argument, which we’ll discuss below. But for now we’ll echo the admission of one thoughtful conservative pastor, who after voicing this very argument on a blog post, (rightly) conceded, “Jesus did not directly address romantic and erotic same-sex relationships.” (I’m grateful that a friend shared this thoughtful and courageous blog post by Rev. Scott Sauls with me.)
Two Observations about the Figure of Jesus of Nazareth
First, Jesus is rarely what we expect him to be. He doesn’t fit into our categories. Somehow he is both infuriating and enticing, impossibly simplistic and engrossingly sage-like, unnerving and intoxicating. Why?
Because Jesus was on his own side: “Whoever is not with me is against me.” (Who talks like that?) And he was on his own side, not because he was merely a socio-political “outsider” but because he was in a preternatural way from the Outside. He was not merely a revolutionary inciting a movement; he was a Revealer unveiling mysteries about a new, incredibly subversive Cosmological Order.
My point: One does not merely walk up to an Apocalyptic Exorcist from the Outside and ask him if he’s a Democrat or a Republican, if he’s pro-choice or pro-life, or if he’s for or against homosexuality.
Second, Jesus excelled at attracting all the “wrong” people. If Jesus asked you to host a party for him (and he is, undoubtedly, the kind of person who would do that), he would proceed to invite all the people whom you (and I) would make it a point not to invite. To all of us who are comfortably inclined to see ourselves as subjects of the Kingdom, Jesus declares:
“…many will come from east and west, and will recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, but the subjects of the kingdom will be cast out into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
For some of us (I consider myself in this category), it is all too easy to celebrate that Jesus welcomed “sinners and tax collectors,” probably because we have not been the victim of the horrific carnage that such “sinners and tax collectors” very cruelly and conveniently leave behind in their path of destruction: imagine seeing Jesus enjoying a meal with one who had exploited either you or one you love. Jesus spent time with people of whom you and I would say, “I don’t think I can ever forgive them for their passions or the prejudices.”
For others of us (again, I have to include myself) it is troubling to read in the Gospels of Jesus’ interactions with strict observers of Torah and with singularly wealthy insiders and Sanhedrin members, all of whom represented the very worst of institutionalized religion with its ugly pride and prejudice. But Jesus also welcomed them and to no little effect: in addition to men such as Nicodemus (whom Jesus calls “the teacher of Israel”) and Joseph of Arimathea (“a member of the [Jewish] Council”), the earliest and most influential follower of Jesus was (and remained) a Pharisee–Saul/Paul of Tarsus.
With these simple reflections, let’s consider the following:
1. Jesus was Love.
When speaking to (largely) non-religious audiences, I have on several occasions asked the question, “Who have been the most loving people in history?” I regularly get answers like Mother Teresa, Gandhi, or Martin Luther King, Jr.
But I always get Jesus. Why?
It has everything to do with rejection–with Jesus’ willingness to endure entirely undeserved and unparalleled rejection.
There is an agonizing downward spiral to the Gospel narratives that is almost unbearable: from his scandalous birth, throughout his subversive life until, supremely, at his most disgraceful death, Jesus was rejected: at his crucifixion not only was he rejected by cowardly political rule and corrupt religious authority, he was also rejected by those who claimed to be his followers and, heartbreakingly, by the very One he called his Father, the Creator.
None of this is an accident. Mark’s Gospel offers a programmatic statement that captures the heart of both Jesus’ instruction and agenda as God’s anointed (“Messiah/Christ”):
“He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the teachers of the law and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.”
And so it is that in the Gospels we witness Wisdom ridiculed; Welcome spurned; Innocence vilified; the Just One condemned; the Answer treated as the Problem.
Jesus, then, is the face of rejection and, thus, the face of loneliness. But why?
Why else would one willingly endure such entirely undeserved and unparalleled rejection? Except Love.
A Love that stood alone (and still stands alone). Why? Because it was alone. Unbearably alone.
(To interject: If I may be so bold, if there is one thing that tragically continues to characterize so many gay men and women, it is loneliness. Jesus knew loneliness; he went even further into that abyss. He did it out of love for you and me. For a moving discussion of loneliness among gay men, click here.)
And why was Love willing to be so insanely alone, so intensely rejected?
In the name of Peace, to initiate an unprecedented, ever-expanding reign of peace–peace in all senses of that word–the reconciliation and restoration of his Father’s world to his Father and to itself. Supremely, Jesus was undeservedly rejected by his Father that we might be undeservedly received by his Father.
In sum, to initiate an unprecedented and impregnable reign of peace, Jesus was ruthlessly rejected. Out of love. Because he was Love. He is how we know what Love is.
And this Love is a love that confounds both prejudice and passion. It is neither exclusive nor erotic. It is a Love that pursues peace for and with both the prejudiced and the impassioned, even if initially rejected by both.
How does His Love compare with our own?
2. Jesus was Change
Because Jesus came in love to initiate a reign of peace, he in love absolutely refused to keep this world’s (altogether counterfeit) peace:
“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword” (Mt. 10.34).
Knowing the devastation that comes from disordered devotion to one’s kin (Mt. 10.35-37), country (10.38), and personal craving (10.39), Jesus followed his forerunner John the Baptist in universally and unapologetically requiring that all who would have a role in this reign of peace must themselves first “repent”–i.e., abandon their former allegiances, affections and aspirations and fully align themselves with him: “Follow me.”
Love insisted that all surrender all that they are. To him.
But the reason Jesus insisted on this change was that he himself was instigating Change. Through him the Creator was acting in an unprecedented and irreversible way, signaled by the wondrous “signs” by which he all too easily effected this seemingly impossible Change: he restored sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, fitness to the feeble, and flesh to the leper.
Without in any way taking away from these signs of Jesus as evidence of his authority over the realm of disease and death (not to mention the realm of the demonic), these were wondrous “signs” primarily because they signaled Jesus’ authority to effect change at a deeper, non-physical level–to create ears that could now listen fully, hearts that could now love truly, hands that could now serve joyfully, feet that could now walk faithfully, lives that could now be lost sacrificially.
And if Jesus actually had the authority to instigate such seemingly impossible deep Change, it’s no surprise that he insisted on it.
And that he insisted on it from us all.
3. As Love, Jesus insisted on deep change. From everyone.
Never short of vivid and startling imagery, Jesus famously issued the following ultimatum:
“If your hand or foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter into life maimed or crippled than with two hands or two feet be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye than with two eyes be thrown into the fire of hell.”
This ultimatum has at times been reduced to the moral equivalent of muzzling a pit bull, with the patient in question (usually struggling with some sort of chemical or sexual addiction) being given a list of preventative prescriptions to restrain immoral behavior.
While such prescriptions may at times have their place (I admit they have in my life), Jesus’ ultimatum here is much more profound.
In its context (both in Mark and Matthew), this ultimatum insists that we protect others –especially those more vulnerable–from ourselves: we are so incredibly predisposed, says Love, to taking advantage of others, that out of love for others we must be committed to drastic change, which he describes with an altogether macabre metaphor of self-amputation.
This metaphor–and it is surely a metaphor–points to a change that is:
– incredibly costly: When we consider that Jesus spoke largely in more rural contexts in an agrarian culture, in which physical/manual labor was at a premium, to suffer the loss of a hand or foot would at least significantly alter (but probably end) one’s present vocation. Jesus, then, is speaking of change that is life-altering.
– indefinite: Jesus’ ultimatum borders on paranoia: “cut it off and throw it away“–as if amputation weren’t sufficient. This is not a temporary application of severe measures, the need for which will be revisited subject to improvement.
– intrinsic: Here Jesus is, in my estimation, truly profound–profoundly insightful and profoundly infuriating. Jesus does not compare the evil within us to a hideous unnatural growth that must be surgically removed, nor does he compare it to an improperly healed bone that must be painfully re-broken and reset. He refers to an evil within us that in every way feels natural and essential and whose function is altogether automatic: when we each of conceive of our own body (both as a whole and in its parts), we identify it with our very selves (if I hurt my back at the gym, I will later complain, “I can’t believe it–I hurt myself at the gym!”).
In love Jesus is putting his finger, ever so painfully, on aspects of us as humans–i.e., ways of thinking, feeling, acting, fearing, desiring, even just being–that are so unconsciously normal and “natural,” so much a part of who we are that from our earliest memories we’ve never known anything different–we were born with that eye or hand or foot, and yet, insists Jesus, they simply have to go–period, end of discussion.
Jesus, the one who is Love, who is Change, who gave sight to the blind and life to the dead, calls us to deep change.
So the change that Jesus requires here is incredibly costly, indefinite, and intrinsic. But it is also . . .
– non-lethal: the entire goal of amputation is precisely that amputee might live: “It is better, says Jesus, “to enter into life maimed or crippled . . . It is better to enter life with one eye . . .” As costly as it may be, the patient will experience a life that they can never know without the amputation.
– non-negotiable: characteristically, Jesus does not mince words; this ultimatum is not for the religious elite, the mystics and monks. It is, soberingly, an ultimatum: “It is better to enter life maimed or crippled than with two hands and two feet be thrown into eternal fire.” In short, for those who survey the world and (sanely) conclude that, for all its wondrous glory, it is plagued with the deepest injustices and yet (insanely) insist that they themselves are somehow not a very real part of the problem, that they are somehow substantially different, truly exceptional, Jesus can assure them that they will be excepted, excluded from the coming Kingdom of peace, assigned a destiny among all who insist that they were not a very real part of the problem and who, therefore, absolutely refuse to truly repent.
In my estimation there is an epidemic today, an epidemic that has indiscriminately infected those on both sides of the debate about homosexuality. It is the epidemic of thinking that Jesus called for deeply countercultural change in our society, but not deeply counterintuitive change in ourselves.
In this thinking both sides stand together. Against Jesus. Against Love.
So thus far we have said: (1) Jesus was Love, rejected to initiate a reign of peace; (2) Jesus was Change, instigating unprecedented change and, thus, insisting that all change; (3) In love, he insisted on deep change from us all–incredibly costly, indefinite, intrinsic, non-lethal, non-negotiable change.
Love, Deep Change and Me
Before relating these observations about Jesus to the topic at hand, it is, I think, essential that I relate them to myself.
There are some (but, alas, very few) sinful attitudes and actions that simply don’t appeal to me (e.g., I doubt I’ll ever struggle with a gambling addiction, but who knows). But there are other (far more) sinful attitudes and actions to which I’m altogether susceptible, even strongly inclined.
But even beyond those, there are still other sinful actions and attitudes to which I am drawn . . . like a moth to the light. These need no justification: I don’t want them; I need them. Their Scriptural prohibition is (in my estimation) not merely unnecessary or outdated but inhumane: left to myself, I do not conceive of these actions and attitudes as part of the problem; they are part of the solution–my “go to” when in a bind, or when bitterly defeated, or when basking in the brilliant light of victory, or even when I’m just bored. To me they are harmless, even helpful.
But to these actions and attitudes Jesus gives an unqualified, unapologetic “No.”
They have been the source of incredible disappointment with Christianity.
And they have also nearly burned down my life, almost ending my marriage and ministry. They have led to so much loneliness, shame, missed opportunity, regret, loneliness, damaged relationships, discontentment, irrecoverable loss, and–did I mention loneliness?
And in spite of all that, I still want them. But I also hate them. And, as strange as it may sound, I’ve come to be profoundly grateful for them.
They have forced me to become fully known to others, to be accountable, to live life in (informal) consultation. They have forced me to get to know myself: underneath my wrong attitudes and actions there are, I’ve discovered, a legion of altogether sophisticated (and, yes, skewed) allegiances, affections and aspirations that incite me to wrong action but yet also unite me to others, whose wrong actions may be different but whose underlying attitudes and struggles are actually quite similar.
Because of all this, my struggles have helped me to live in real community, and (as a husband, father and pastor) have helped me to really help others. I am not alone.
And despite the fact that I still struggle at times with disappointment, because Jesus has demanded that I wrestle with these issues nearly every freaking day of my life, I have tasted a deliverance that has brought an uncommon elation, the elation that comes with the following incredible epiphany:
what I thought was absolutely essential actually isn’t.
And almost daily I realize that there is an (imaginary) alternate universe in which my life has taken a radically different trajectory, one that is far darker, far more desperate and despairing, far more desolate (there’s that loneliness theme again). It is a universe in which I am addicted to my own self-identity, my own insatiable desires, and my own disgusting self-deception.
Jesus, Love, Deep Change and Homosexuality
But, of course, the question is: what, if anything, does this have to do with homosexuality?
My own answer to that is simple: at one level, nothing; at another level, everything.
At one level, it would be laughable and utterly irresponsible to suggest that in Jesus’ ultimatum above, he was “really” thinking primarily (or even exclusively) about homosexuality.
But at another level, how confident could we be that Jesus’ ultimatum, given its demand for deep-seated, self-redefining, counter-“normal/natural” change, somehow excludes homosexuality?
(That the metaphor applies to the arena of sexuality per se is indisputable from Jesus’ application of it to sexual sin in Mt. 5.28-30).
To answer that question, Jesus’ ultimatum requires us to ask two questions: the first is a soul-searching question about our humanity; the second is a straightforward question about history.
As for our humanity . . .
The contentious issue of homosexuality has often been presented as conflicting accusations of inexcusable prejudice and inexcusable passion. There is truth to this, but I don’t think these accusations begin to account for why this issue has been so hotly disputed.
Jesus’ ultimatum actually points us in a different direction.
At bottom the bitter debate over homosexuality in Western cultures has little, if anything, to do with homosexuality per se or even sexuality in general. It has everything to do with our diagnosis of humanity: just how deeply should we diagnose the evil within all of us, individually and collectively?
On this score Jesus is crystal clear. His conviction–as his death demonstrated and his teaching declared–was that we are all worthy of crucifixion. Ironically, this conviction incited the world to crucify him and incited him to let them do it.
Alas, we are all so incredibly skilled at rationalizing and legitimizing our own urges and agendas, whether those urges and agendas are emotional, intellectual, social and (let’s be honest) especially sexual.
If this is true, should what feels so easy, so automatic, so essential and “natural” be subject to less scrutiny, or more?
Does, then, Jesus’ ultimatum exclude homosexuality? In truth, how one answers that question turns not (first and foremost) on our view of morality but on our view of humanity. And while both sides obviously differ on morality, they are often (functionally) in agreement in their view of humanity: the change needed in their society runs far deeper than the change needed in their soul; for both, normal is natural and need not be subverted.
But if Jesus lost his life to precipitate an irreversible Change, must we not lose our own if we are to participate in that Change?
As for history . . .
Far more simply, we must ask: Given what we know of Jesus and his day, would his ultimatum have included homosexuality or not?
Over the past nine years I have read a good majority of the extensive Jewish literature of the (so-called) Second Temple era, as well as a good portion of the subsequent “rabbinic” era: nowhere in all this vast (and beautiful) Jewish literature have I ever once come across any discussion of adult consensual same-sex romantic or erotic behavior that even remotely hints at the possibility that it is acceptable.
But don’t take my word for it. Take William Loader’s. Loader, professor emeritus of New Testament at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia, with the help of an Australian Research Council Fellowship, was able to spend five years (full time) studying sexuality in the Jewish texts of the Second Temple, publishing five major research volumes on the topic. He concludes:
“…in all the literature which I examined the assumption is that such [homoerotic] actions and the attitudes, passions, [sic?] which produce them were abhorrent . . . . There is no evidence that any of the Jewish writers actually believed that there were people with a natural sexual orientation towards people of their own sex. Philo, who mentions that view, declares it absurd . . . . In fact, along with idolatry, same sex relations were a major target in Jewish criticism of the depravity of the world in which they lived” (Making Sense of Sex: Attitudes towards Sexuality in Early Jewish and Christian Literature [Eerdmans, 2013]: 146).
[Loader himself registers his own objection to ancient Judaism’s view, interestingly using a logic that the metaphor in Jesus’ ultimatum itself undermines: “Why can these people for whom homosexual orientation is natural not express themselves sexually in the same responsible way we ask of heterosexual people?” He also insists that “The fact that in relation to slaves and women one can find hints of a better approach in these writings, but not in relation to homosexuals, is no reason not to follow the path of non-discrimination” (147, emphasis mine).]
In short, absolutely nowhere in the (incredibly diverse) Judaism of Jesus’ day (or any time before or well after) were there voices second-guessing the Old Testament’s prohibition of homosexuality.
But the obvious response is to ask: if the Judaism of Jesus’ day uniformly condemned homosexuality, doesn’t that make Jesus’ silence all the more conspicuous?
After all, to grossly understate it, Jesus was no ordinary Jew. In fact, one of the contributing factors to his death is that he had no problem confronting his own culture and forging his own path. For example, his interactions with women shocked both his foes and followers alike, and his (exceptional but not unique) view of marriage was altogether unappealing even to his own disciples.
In short, Jesus had no problem pushing back: it’s one of the conveniences of knowing that you’re going to be utterly rejected anyway.
But this is precisely the problem: here Love didn’t push back.
An educated guess as to why Jesus was silent on homosexuality is simply that like, e.g., Ben Sira and other Jewish literature originating from the context of Judea, there is simply no need to state what is entirely unquestioned. By contrast, in the Jewish literature composed in far more Hellenistic contexts (e.g., Alexandria), one can find staunch disapproval of same sex behavior. This affirms what is assumed in Jesus’ teaching on divorce, namely that, like all Jews of his day, he believed that (1) sex requires marriage; and (2) marriage requires two sexes.
Conclusion: Receiving the Rejected One
The 20th-century Anglo-American poet W. H. Auden was heralded as an author who could do almost anything with words. Among many critics today Auden often vies with Yeats for the honor of the greatest English poet of the 20th century (Yeats, it should be said, was of Anglo-Irish descent).
Raised Anglican, Auden shed his childhood faith well before entering Oxford, where even as an undergrad he received acclaim for his astonishing literary capacity, quickly regarded as a (if not the) voice of his generation. Finding freedom to express his homosexuality in the Berlin bath scene of the late 1920s and early 30s, Auden abruptly left the acclaim and influence in England and settled in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village in the late 1930s, and it was there, to everyone’s surprise, that he rediscovered and rekindled his childhood faith. Convinced that his homosexuality was wrong (he liked to use the term “crooked” to describe his sexuality), he struggled with it–and often failed–throughout his entire life.
Concerning his faith in Jesus, he wrote soberly and ever so self-suspiciously:
“I believe [Jesus to be the Christ] because He fulfills none of my dreams, because He is in every respect the opposite of what He would be if I could have made Him in my own image. If a Christian is asked, ‘Why Jesus and not Socrates or Buddha, Confucius or Mohammed?’ perhaps all he can say is: ‘None of the others arouse all sides of my being to cry, “Crucify Him.”‘” (originally from The Chimera, 1943; republished in The Complete Works of W. H. Auden: Prose, 1939-1948: 196-7).
. . . . . . . . . .
But how can we survive, much less flourish, without the use of our eye, hand, or foot?
Considered by many to be the most influential composer of all time, Ludwig von Beethoven wrote his famous Ninth Symphony in 1824. He was by that time completely deaf. The entire time that President Franklin Roosevelt was in office he was confined to a wheelchair. In 1993 Major League Baseball player Jim Abbott, while pitching for the New York Yankees, threw a “no-hitter”; Abbott, a leftie, was born without a right hand. Author of twelve books and an ardent activist for women’s rights, Helen Keller was afflicted with an illness at 19 months that left her both deaf and blind (her biographical film The Miracle Worker is superbly acted). Incredibly active in athletics and the outdoors as a teen, at the age of 17 in a tragic diving accident, Joni Ericson Tada became a quadriplegic; fifty years later she leads an international nonprofit that helps persons with disabilities around the world and is an accomplished author and artist.
It is only when we surrender our lives to Love, when we count the cost of discipleship, that our lives become truly extraordinary.
And truly free.