What does Jesus’s ministry have to say about LGBTQ+ people? The Gospels shed no direct light on this question. Jesus said nothing directly about homosexuality, perhaps because the modern understanding of this phenomenon did not exist during Christ’s milieu. But that does not mean we have no clue about how Jesus might look at this community today.
To draw out some inferences based on Jesus’s words and deeds, we can look at some specific Gospel passages and meditate on them, asking ourselves how Jesus might’ve interacted with LGBTQ people in his time.
It’s an exercise in imagination, but a helpful one.
In this meditation, I would like to focus on the story of the “sinful” woman, a story which appears only in the Gospel of Luke. (Lk 7:36-50). In this story, a Pharisee invites Jesus to dine at the Pharisee’s home. A “sinful woman,” says the Gospel, entered the Pharisee’s house. (We are not told what sin the woman committed.)
However, according to the New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson, the Greek text suggests that she was “the sort of woman in the city who was a sinner,” meaning that her status as a sinner was known to the Pharisees and to Jesus.
Jesus , according to Johnson’s exegesis, was “reclining at table” in the Hellenistic manner, that is, lying on his side with his feet pointing away from the table. The woman, carrying an alabaster flask of ointment, stood behind Jesus at his feet, weeping.
She bathed Jesus’s feet with her tears, wiped them with her hair, kissed them and anointed them with the ointment. When the Pharisee saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, that she is a sinner.” (7:39)
At that time, it was believed that a sinner who touched another made that person unclean. (cf. Lev 15:9-32) The Pharisee’s thoughts imply that Jesus is allowing himself to be defiled by not resisting the woman’s touch.
Jesus reads the Pharisee’s thoughts and chastises him: “When I entered your house,” says Jesus, “you did not give me water for my feet, but she has bathed them with her tears and wiped them with her hair. […] So I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven; hence, she has shown great love.” (Lk 7:44, 47)
To paraphrase Jesus, because the woman had performed such acts of love for him, her many sins had been forgiven. The Pharisee, however, is aghast and embarrassed at the woman’s display. For him, it is a rather shocking scene.
I sometimes lose sight of that, having read and heard the story so many times. This is what you might call the sin of the familiar: by becoming so familiar with something, one can lose the ability to feel the depth of its power, its utter radicalness. That can be as true of purple flowers and stunning sunsets as it is of Christ and the Gospels.
But one should always be on guard, especially considering the often radical nature of Jesus’s ministry, against this sin.
In our meditation, we might place ourselves in the scene as the Pharisee or as one of his attendants accustomed to the traditions of their time. We might also modernize this story, and imagine a display like this at a small gathering inside the home of a respected member of society who has invited a rather curious, but equally respected, guest of honor.
How would you react to a woman, someone whom you understood to be of ill-repute, kissing the bare feet of the guest of honor or covering his feet with her tears and kisses?
That would certainly stop all conversation in the room.
Would you cringe, like the Pharisee, in embarrassment? Would you condemn her undignified self-abnegation? Would you try to put a stop to it or yank her away and call an Uber?
Is that not what many rational people would think of doing today?
The Pharisee belittles the woman, not giving her the respect a devout person deserves. This is akin to those people who belittle members of the LGBTQ community, condemning them as sinners and rejecting them as beloved children of God.
What about the guest of honor? What would you think of him just sitting there, quietly taking it all in?
The woman loved in her own way, and in a way that placed her own dignity last. She loved in a way that was a disgrace to the people of her day and earned her scorn and rejection.
Could you love that powerfully?
I know that LGBTQ people do.
I am not suggesting that straight people cannot or do not love that powerfully, too. But the love that LGBTQ people feel is a love that still shocks and embarrasses many today. Their love is considered an unnatural disgrace by some, who regard gay people like the Pharisee regarded the sinful woman.
LGBTQ love is worthy of scorn to some and worthy of being labeled “objectively disordered” by church hierarchy. It warrants, in some eyes, a denial of the sacraments or a policy of prohibiting them from getting too close to the church by serving in its schools, charities or ministries.
LGBTQ love perseveres despite this. The love of LGBTQ Catholics perseveres for the church, too, despite some modern-day Pharisees who find them an embarrassment and an abomination.
What might Jesus do or say?
Imagine an LGBTQ+ youth weeping and kissing Jesus’s feet and wiping them with their hair.
I draw this analogy between this LGBTQ youth and the sinful woman not because I believe that LGBTQ youth are sinful. I do so instead to focus on Jesus and what he might do or say to this LGBTQ person.
Would he cringe in embarrassment? Would he pull his feet in and slap the child away? Or would he bask in this unconventional and radical expression of love? Would he instead chastise those who stand mouths agape in shock?
I invite you to go a step further and imagine yourself as that LGBTQ+ youth, knowing and feeling only one way to love. You want desperately to be loved by Christ for your true self.
How would Jesus respond to you? How do you wish he would respond?