In attempting to formulate an ethical Christian attitude toward homosexuality, those who identify themselves as Christians may wish to follow the example of Christ himself. References to homosexual behavior are rare in scripture, and nothing at all has been recorded as having come from Jesus as a specific instruction on the topic, yet ethical teachings do abound in the Jesus traditions that provide ample guidance for Christians today.
Above all else for Christians should stand what is known as the Great Commandment, recorded in all three of the synoptic gospels. In order to assess the authenticity of this central teaching we should bear in mind that it does appear in three different versions which arose in different times out of different communities. Moreover, it is remarkably consistent from one version to the next. This must lend weight to the commandment as being an authentic reflection of the teachings of Jesus himself. Possibly one of the most intriguing aspects of the commandment is the way Jesus makes use of the Jewish tradition of his day.
As a teacher, Jesus is deeply grounded in the Law, yet he also appears to be free to adapt it to suit his purposes, when he feels it is inadequate to express the radical new message he has been sent to impart. In this case he takes two important teachings from the books of Moses and combines them in a fresh and exciting way to create a new synthesis. For generations, since the time of the Babylonian exile and possibly since the Exodus itself, the people of Israel had been taught to love their God with all their heart, with all their soul and with all their might. These words were repeated at every Jewish service as having come directly from the mouth of God to Moses on Mount Sinai. They appear in Deuteronomy just after the Ten Commandments and represent a summation of all of the detailed prescriptions by which God’s people are to live.
The innovation which establishes Jesus as a creative and radical messenger is to marry this central teaching to another from Leviticus. From amidst a varied collection of many specific examples of how observant Jews are to treat one another, Jesus lifts one small verse that typifies and distills all the rest: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. All of the other verses that surround this one, against lying, cheating, stealing and defrauding, are simply further articulations of this one attitude that should inform our relations with one another. So far we have seen that in synthesizing the Great Commandment Jesus has remained consistent with the most basic values of the Jewish heritage, yet he shows remarkable freedom in adapting them to suit his purposes. The Great Commandment appears to fulfill some of the most important criteria for judging the authenticity of scriptural references: it is well attested in multiple citations; it is consistent with other teachings; and it is distinctive enough to represent a new and unique departure, setting it aside from the cultural context in which it arises.
There can be little doubt that Jesus desires us above all else to love one another, which would include gay and lesbian people, or that his example gives us license to adapt the Levitical Holiness Code with a certain freedom in response to changing circumstances. Let us examine briefly, for instance, the other items he chooses to omit in his distillation of the Law. When Jesus tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves he is lifting up a scripture which appears shortly after the injunction against lying with a male as with a woman. This occurs in the midst of one version of the commandments which are elsewhere coalesced as the Decalogue we know today, which some religious leaders are now suggesting should be posted in our schools and legislative offices. Yet the very next verse is indicative of the mind set which Jesus urges us to leave behind: you shall not let your animals breed with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; nor shall you put on a garment made of two different materials (Leviticus 19:19, NRSV).
All of these laws are concerned with keeping everything in its proper place in a fixed and static universe, created in six days in accordance with God’s eternal will. We must recall at this juncture that these strictures were compiled by a priestly cadre with the purpose of promoting a theocratic government based on a hierarchical system of authority. It is to be expected that such an agenda should produce a body of law that would emphasize order, discipline and obedience, but it is this very system that Jesus comes to overturn in proclaiming the Reign of God. His purpose in reformulating a law based on love for one another is to reform a religion he sees as badly straying from its own core values. Does God really care how you breed your livestock or what garments you wear? Jesus suggests that what really matters in God’s Realm is that you treat one another with dignity and respect. In criticizing the religious establishment of his day as a believing Jew, Jesus gives us a model for faithful dissent which calls upon us to apply our own conscience in adopting a stance of loving critique toward oppressive official structures today.
The cleansing of the Temple in which Jesus overturns the tables of the moneychangers is perhaps the most dramatic instance of his attempt to institute a new order. This incident, which also appears in all three of the synoptic gospels, has become emblematic of Jesus’ attitude toward the authorities of his day. Again we find that temporal and religious practices are subject to review and change in accordance with God’s will for a just society. Both Mark and Matthew, the earliest versions, place this incident shortly before the Great Commandment is given. Clearly injustice and unfair dealing are to be condemned and (literally) overthrown wherever they appear, even within the precincts of the Temple itself. It has been said that the poor and those unable to afford the two shekels necessary for the purchase of the turtle doves used for sacrifice were unfairly excluded from practicing their religion. In driving out the moneychangers, Jesus was condemning a practice which prevented one group from seeking communion with God. This would appear to be an indictment of those who are trying today to place restrictions on who is worthy to participate in worship: then, and now.
In the fourth gospel, which appears to have arisen out of a very different community, the equivalent commandment is related in a strikingly different context, although for all the differences its core message is remarkably similar. Here the break with Jewish teaching is even more pronounced and we receive what is presented as an altogether new commandment. In keeping with its later date and strongly separatist tendencies, it is apparent that the Johannine community sees itself as markedly distinct from its Judean surroundings.
Unlike the earlier versions which were at pains to stress the continuity and compatibility of Christian and Jewish lore, this fourth gospel emphasizes the newness and exclusivity of the Johannine Christian message. So Jesus’ commandment in John 13:34 is simply that we should love one another. He goes on to specify that we should love one another just as he has loved us, and puts a specific emphasis on the fact that everyone will know that we are his disciples by the way we love each other.
Instead of emerging as part of a Socratic or rabbinical question and answer reflecting the Hellenistic style of inquiry as the other versions of the Great Commandment do, this one appears as part of Jesus’ farewell discourse in John’s gospel and thus has a more purely revelatory character in keeping with the higher Christology of the Johannine group. Before looking at the ways that Jesus loves people for guidance in how we should love one another, it may be helpful to draw attention to its immediate surroundings. The disciple whom Jesus loved is depicted as reclining next to him or against his breast in a position of particular favor. In this intimate posture, Jesus announces that he is with them only a little longer, “as I said to the Jews” (John 13:33).
It is the prophetic actions of Jesus in the gospel accounts that send the loudest message about how we are called to work for the realization of God’s Realm, which may be summarized as a marriage of outspoken criticism for unjust institutions with outreach to those who are marginalized, excluded or rendered voiceless by them. Here in John’s gospel the most characteristic incidence of this approach may well be the woman caught in adultery in Chapter Eight. Although it does not appear in the earliest manuscripts, this episode was considered characteristic enough of Jesus’ teachings as a whole to be included in later versions. It is of particular interest to us because it deals with what was at the time considered a sexual sin.
Here again Jesus demonstrates that he is free to change and adapt the Law of Moses. Rather than carry out the prescribed sentence of stoning as the righteous authorities might wish, he suggests instead that the one among them who is without sin should cast the first stone. A new order is proclaimed by Jesus in standing up for the victim of hypocritical condemnation in sexual matters. This teaching was so threatening to the oppressive social norms of the day that it was not even included in the earliest manuscripts, but the tradition of prophetic social criticism surrounding Jesus was so strong that it could not be suppressed and was later included.
Time and again we see Jesus reaching out to reclaim those who have been excluded by society, through his reconciling and healing ministry. If those who claim that homosexuality is a sin can take instruction from his treatment of the woman taken in adultery, perhaps those who suggest that is an illness may attend to his treatment of the Gerasene demoniac. The usual treatment for those who were perceived as different at that time was simply to exclude them from society. The people of God were to be pure and any imperfection was dealt with by keeping it as far away as possible, much as some people would like to exclude gay and lesbian people from the church today. Jesus however has a different approach, going out of his way to heal these rifts in the social fabric and bring people back into the community. In the country of the Gerasenes or Gadarenes, a man who was mentally ill had been outcast and was living among the tombs, a danger to himself and others due to his condition. Jesus was not deterred by this and healed the man, restoring him to society and making him once again capable of human contact. This simple act of compassion was so frightening to the inhabitants that they begged him to go away. His radical acts of inclusion were threatening to destabilize the fabric of society, the same dissolution that some people fear would result from the full inclusion of gay and lesbian people today.
Lepers, paralytics, the handicapped and unclean all benefit from Jesus’ conception of how we are called to love one another and are restored to society from being marginalized and excluded. Even on the Sabbath he performs his acts of healing reconciliation. Could we not love one another as he has loved us and include sexual minorities in our own Sabbath observances? By eating with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus is showing us how we are to live and love one another. It should be clear that the laws which were considered binding about who is socially acceptable were to be discarded if they served to punish or exclude a particular group. Women, children, foreigners and other marginalized groups are singled out for particular favor by Jesus; time and again we see him making a special effort to demonstrate how the weak and disadvantaged should be treated.
I thank God I’m gay, these days, because I participate in all kinds of oppression without being aware of it. A very wise person once taught me that those who are privileged don’t even have to see the ways they benefit from the suffering of others, they don’t need to notice. Only those who encounter discrimination every day, who have it thrust in their face that they are less than, not as good, are forced to live with that pain. I take all kinds of privilege for granted and normally wouldn’t realize that most of us are not so fortunate. So my position as a member of a sexual minority is a great gift, really, because it gives me access to the experience of exclusion, lets me feel the hostility and disapproval because of a basic part of who I am, that I would not otherwise know. And that makes me more compassionate and more committed to justice for everyone.
A chaplain in the Palo Alto Veterans Affairs Health Care System, David C. H. Mundy earned his M.Div. from the Pacific School of Religion and his bachelors degree from Swarthmore College. A graduate of Phillips Exeter Academy, he completed his Clinical Pastoral Education at Stanford University.