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Finding Myself in the Centurion's Pais

This is about reclaiming the gospel in this story of faith for those of us who are LGBTQ.

In the spring of 2001, for my Christian Scriptures class at Seattle University’s School of Theology and ministry, with Professor Karen Barta, I wrote an exegesis of the story from Chapter eight of Matthew about the centurion and his pais. The pais was healed by Jesus after an extraordinary statement of faith by the centurion. I chose to research and write about this story in Matthew after discovering the work of Thomas C. Zeigert. See note1.

Greek lexicons give a variety of meanings for the word pais, including son, daughter, boy, girl, adopted son and beloved one. All of these seem to indicate a family member who is loved and is in some way in a legally dependent relationship. Other definitions in the lexicon are servant and slave. In Matthew pais is usually translated as “servant.” In a similar story in Mark, we see “slave” and in John, “son”.

Zeigert, while a Ph.D. student at Claremont Theological School, proposed that pais in Matthew could mean “adopted brother.” And then, referring to this work by historian John Boswell. See note 2, Zeigert shows that in Roman society at that time, the term “adopted brother” sometimes meant essentially a same-sex marriage. Without necessarily any difference in age, a male who was loved by another male would be adopted in order to be able to inherit property. In Roman society at that time, heterosexual marriage was also more of an adoption than a contract and wives were sometimes called sisters. I learned of Zeigert’s work from the Open Hands Magazine.

Below is a Midrash which I wrote as part of my academic paper. For any of you are not familiar with the term Midrash, it is an ancient form of biblical interpretation in the Jewish faith, and one way of doing it is to use your imagination to enhance a biblical passage and add descriptive details, bringing it more alive to you, while still being true to the text. If you have never written a Midrash, please do!

1 Zeigert, Thomas C. “Blessed and Challenged by Jesus,” Open Hands, Vol. 13, No. 4 (Spring 1998): 14.

2 Boswell, John. Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe. New York: Villard Books, 1994.

A Midrash

Copyright 2001, 2021-2023 by John Cahall

Aeschylus was a man of faith. All of his life, he had prayed to the gods that he would have faith, that he would live a life of trust, soaring free like an eagle held up by the gods in the wind, not tied down by fear and worry. And that is how he tried to live his life. Sometimes he could do it; sometimes he failed. But every day he continued to pray to the gods.

Aeschylus met Hermes in Athens on his way to Israel. He was passing though the central marketplace in Athens and had stopped at a stall selling pottery. And suddenly, in front of him, was this beautiful young man. They haggled over a pot, and then it all ended in laughter. In a conversation over pottery, it all began. Hermes was only a little younger than Aeschylus. He was not, by the standards of beauty, perfectly formed, and yet he was. The Greek, who was in servitude, and the Roman centurion fell in love. Aeschylus bought Hermes his freedom and brought him with him to his appointment in Israel. There Hermes served as Aeschylus’ household manager and scribe, and they lived together in joy, and because this is life, sometimes in sorrow.

But now something has happened. Hermes is very ill. He is in pain and can’t move, and he is showing great courage, but his eyes are frightened. The herbalists and the healers have come and gone, and nothing has helped. Hermes looks very pale and his breath is shallow. Aeschylus sits on the edge of the bed and holds him, and says a silent prayer to the gods, “Please help, what should I do?” “Hermes,” he said, “If only that Jewish teacher were here. I saw him, a month ago, down near the synagogue. He was healing people and it seemed very miraculous. I believe he could heal anyone. But he went away.”

“But, Aeschylus,” Hermes said, “when Riga came in to cook this morning, she was talking about this Jewish teacher who was healing people near the baths. Could it be the same one? She said he is a Nazarene, who goes by the name Jesus, and she said that about him, those very words, ‘that he could heal anyone.’”

Aeschylus sat there for a moment and he could feel his heart racing. Could this be true? Have the gods answered his prayers? If the healer is in Capernaum…. He had to find him! “Hermes….” He embraced Hermes and kissed him softly. “I’ll find him. Hermes, I must go look for him. Will you be all right?”

Even in pain, Hermes smile was so sweet. “Go, Aeschylus,” he said! “Give me some water. I’ll be all right. You’re such a funny guy. But because of you I believe. Go look for your healer, and I’ll lie here and try to imagine you finding him. But, please, don’t stay away long.”

And Aeschylus found him, just where Riga said, near the baths. Aeschylus was about a block away when he saw him. The teacher was sitting on a little grassy knoll surrounded by children and around them a crowd of adults were sitting or kneeling, with many more milling around. And one of the children threw a ball and the teacher caught it. And he held it up in his left hand for just a moment and looked over the crowd in the direction of Aeschylus. And suddenly Aeschylus realized, this is not an ordinary man; this man is holy. And his heart was filled with great hope, and then at that moment somehow he knew, with no doubt whatsoever, this holy man can heal Hermes.

And without even seeing the people around him, Aeschylus walked toward Jesus. With surprised looks, the crowds parted to let him through. But Aeschylus didn’t even see them. He saw only Hermes and Jesus. And when he came near to the teacher, Jesus looked up and smiled the most beautiful smile and greeted him in Aramaic. Aeschylus replying in Aramaic, said only, “Holy One, I need help.”

Jesus said, “What is it?”

“My adopted brother is desperately ill and paralyzed. I need help!”

And Jesus looked into Aeschylus’ eyes and deep into his heart and Jesus saw who Aeschylus was and Jesus saw Aeschylus’ love for Hermes. And Jesus said, “I will come and heal him.”

But Aeschylus said, “Holy One, you are a saint and I am a soldier. You do not need to come to my house. As I have an authority from Caesar, you also have an authority greater than mine. If even I can give commands and they be obeyed, even more so it must be with you. Just say the word and my pais will be healed.”

And Jesus jumped up and laughed and looking around him at the crowd, he said, “No where in Israel have I found such faith!” And he said to Aeschylus, “Go home, it will be done according to your faith.” And when Aeschylus returned to the house, there was Hermes standing in the doorway.

[The Midrash was delivered as a sermon at Seattle's Ravenna UMC and Highland Park UMC, and, in 2013, after a preparatory sermon the week before explaining the alternative interpretation of “pais,” at Crown Hill UMC]

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