John R. Donahue, S.J.: The Gospels invite us to find Jesus among LGBTQ people today

Views John R. Donahue, S.J. / September 19, 2022 Print this:
(Photo courtesy of Pexels/Eduardo Braga)

As churches grapple with issues of sexual life and morality in a changing world and turn to the Bible for guidance, the few New Testament texts that are often discussed are the very worst places with which to start. In a recent article for Outreach, the Scripture scholar Walter Brueggemann calls them “texts of rigor.” We will return to them later—and briefly. 

Firstly, we turn to the life and teachings of Jesus as a fundamental resource in capturing the liberating power of the Gospel and unmasking the destructive force of selective interpretation.

Who is coming to dinner?

The first follower of Jesus—after Peter, his brother Andrew and the sons of Zebedee—is Levi, a son of Alphaeus. Christ goes to Levi’s house where “many tax collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples—for there were many who followed him” (Mk. 2:15). Scribes and Pharisees, the doyens of the religious establishment, are shocked and ask his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

This question evokes a quick response from Jesus: “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mk. 2:17). Jesus’s presence is an invitation to a new perspective on God’s presence.

Later in his ministry, after John is imprisoned, Jesus derides a generation who called John the Baptist demonic because of his ascetic and radical lifestyle (which included not eating or drinking). They blamed him, the Son of Man, for just the opposite, shouting: “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!” Such was the name of Jesus before he  was called, “Messiah,” “Lord” or “Savior” (Mt. 11:16-18).

Tax collectors at that time were not wealthy colonials who purchased the office from Roman occupiers and gleaned exorbitant profits for themselves. Rather, they were local officials responsible for a host of taxes and tolls that touched many aspects of ordinary life. Jewish Temple officials also collected taxes, an added suffering on a beleaguered population. Tax collectors were often scorned because of their dishonesty and association with the Roman occupiers of the land.

The other friends of Jesus, the sinners, represent a wide spectrum of people ranging from people notorious for their immoral activities, such as thieves, prostitutes and brawlers; to people whom, by their very professions as tax collectors, peasants or farmers, could not be expected to live a full Jewish religious life. They did not follow the Torah as taught by religious leaders. 

Also, physical maladies were thought to be the effect of sin and precluded full participation in community and religious life. “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” reads the Gospel of John (9:2).

Being marginalized and considered suspect by those with whom they lived was the burden of sinners, but they were invited by Jesus:

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest … For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light (Mt. 11:28, 30).

Later, as his disciples listen, Jesus berates the religious officials who lay heavy burdens on the shoulders of others, but will not move them with a finger (23:4).

Where is Jesus found today? He is found among LGBTQ people carrying the burden of suspicion and marginalization, inflicted, all too often, by those who invoke the Bible to justify the very things that are counter to the life and teaching of the prophet from Galilee.

Crossing barriers

In his remarkable book The Dignity of Difference, the late Jonathan Sacks, who was for 22 years the chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth, unlocks the richness of the Hebrew Scriptures and the Jewish tradition “to counter the human tendency to dislike the unlike and exclude people not like us from our radius of moral concern.” His fundamental insights provide a lens for reading the New Testament. 

“Where is Jesus found today? He is found among LGBTQ people carrying the burden of suspicion and marginalization, inflicted, all too often, by those who invoke the Bible to justify the very things that are counter to the life and teaching of the prophet from Galilee.”

In another book, Then the Whisper Put on Flesh: New Testament Ethics in an African American Context, the Presbyterian theologian Brian K. Blount writes that the Gospel of Luke presents “a tableau where Jesus breaks through social and religious barriers by positioning Jesus in the continual company of social misfits . . . and actualizes the theme of reversal by the way he behaves.” 

Religion often creates hatred and suspicion of “the other.” These feelings are particularly acute when two groups claim to be the authentic interpreters of a shared tradition—visible in our own day in the split between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, as one of several examples. During Jesus’ lifetime, a long-standing chasm existed between Jews and Samaritans.   

This tension, which broke out often into warfare and violence, was especially strong during the New Testament period. During the time of the Roman prefect Coponius, when the Jews were celebrating the festival of unleavened bread, some Samaritans scat­tered human bones in the Temple, thus polluting it so that sacrifices could not be offered. After a clash between Galileans and Samaritans, the Galileans elicited the help of Eleazar,  a robber, and with his assistance plundered, Samaritan villages.

This hatred between the Jews and Samaritans is reflected in the Gospels. The Samaritan woman at the well says to Jesus, “How is that you a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” and the Johannine editor notes, “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans” (Jn. 4:9). The woman later testifies that the dispute involved their respective temples: “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem” (4:20).

Later, the opponents of Jesus ask, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” (Jn. 8:48). Jews and Samaritans looked on each other as “the hated other,” each of which was a threat to their respective religious and national identities.

Guides along the way

The Gospel of Luke counters this culture of hatred. As is well known, Luke organizes his Gospel around a great journey narrative, where Jesus travels from Galilee, in the North, through Samaria and onto Jerusalem, in the South (9-19). On his death march, Jesus speaks words of life. At the outset of his journey, he sends the disciples as messengers “ahead of him” to a village of the Samaritans “to make ready for him … but the people would not receive him” (9:52-53).

In response, James and John ask Jesus if he wants them to call fire down from heaven and destroy them,” but Jesus “rebukes” them, a term usually used when Jesus casts out demons  (Lk. 4:35, 41; 9:42).  The request of James and John continues the stereotype of the evil Samaritans, while Jesus’ rebuke foreshadows the reversal of attitudes toward the Samaritans that will unfold throughout the journey. 

Two other Samaritan stories in Luke shatter entrenched prejudices and divisions, not only for their first hearers but for all who would claim the Gospel  as a guide. As Jesus continues along his journey, he is confronted by an expert in Jewish law, who wants to test him (Lk. 10:25-28) 

The expert asks what he should do to inherit eternal life. Jesus answers with a question: “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” The lawyer responds with the commands from Jewish law to love God and neighbor (Deut. 6:5; Lev. 19:18), and Jesus approves the answer. But continuing to test Jesus, the legal expert asks,  “And who is my neighbor?” (Lk. 10:29).

The legal language disappears and Jesus tells him a parable, which shocks his understanding of neighbor and describes what it means to be a neighbor (Lk. 10:29-37). The parable narrates the intersection of various personal histories. Though compact, it moves forward rapidly by engaging the reader in a series of dramatic tensions.

A traveler from Jerusalem to Jericho described simply as “a certain person,” similar to the “everyman” of medieval plays, is beaten, robbed and left half-dead beside the road. All identifying characteristics are gone; we don’t know whether he is rich or poor, Jew or Samaritan. Then three travelers come down the road.  

The first, a priest, arrives “by chance,” sees him and walks past, as does the second passerby, a Levite. Too often, we can interpret this as a bit of anti-Jewish polemic, but if the priest and the Levite were going to Jericho to perform religious duties, any contact with a corpse would have made them unclean. They are good people caught in a dilemma.  

Next comes a Samaritan. Given the intense hatred at the time of Jesus between Jews and Samaritans (cf. Jn. 4:9; 8:48), Jesus’ hearers may have expected the Samaritan to finish the man off.  Yet the rhythm of “seeing” and passing by is broken by the explosive Greek verb esplanchnisthe, meaning “moved with compassion.” Only then does the Samaritan enter the world of the injured man with saving help.  

He stops, tends to the wounds of the half-dead man and brings him to an inn with instructions that they care for him. Here Luke combines “seeing” and compassion, as he does when Jesus sees and has compassion for the widow at Nain (7:13), and when the father welcomes home his Prodigal Son (15:20). Compassion is that divine quality that, when present in human beings, enables them to feel deeply the suffering of others, and move from the world of observer to the world of a companion with the afflicted.

Like all parables, this story has multiple meanings. Most shocking in the parable, though, is not that someone stopped. It would be a story of compassion if a Jewish lay person stopped. The parable forces us as readers to put together “good” and “Samaritan.” The outsider provides the model of love of neighbor; the apostate fulfills the law. 

“Compassion is that divine quality that, when present in human beings, enables them to feel deeply the suffering of others, and move from the world of observer to the world of a companion with the afflicted.”

We might also put ourselves battered in the ditch and ask if we are ready to be helped by those whom we would class as outsiders. Who today teaches us and enacts for us the meaning of love of God and neighbor?  The parable ends, but now Jesus is the questioner, asking the lawyer, “Who was neighbor to the man who was robbed and near death?” The lawyer grudgingly answers: “The one who treated him with mercy.”  

Biblical mercy is not forsaking punishment or forgiving wrongdoing, but, simply put, “saving help.” The outsider is the true neighbor.

As text, this parable is a “classic”—that is, any text, event or person that unites particularity of origin and expression with a disclosure of meaning and truth, available in principle to all human beings. It challenges its readers (and hearers) to move beyond their social and religious constructs of good and evil. It also subverts their tendency to divide the world into insiders and outsiders.

It makes us realize that goodness may found precisely in those we most often call marginal or a threat to the standing moral code.

Compassion shapes another parable Jesus tells along the way. All of us have heard the story of the Prodigal Son, but deeper images surround this family (Lk. 15:11-32). A young son asks his father for his inheritance, packs off to the wide world, joins the wrong crowd and squanders his money. Wallowing in misery, he admits his foolishness and plans a return speech: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” 

Seeing him in the distance, the father, filled with compassion, runs and kisses his son. The son gives his prepared speech, but before he cries out, “treat me as one of your hired hands,” the father showers him with signs of love, acceptance and freedom and tells everyone, in essence, “let’s party.”

But the older brother, coming home from a hard day on the farm, hears singing and dancing, and when told that his father is throwing a party for the long lost brother, the elder son does not join the celebration. The father comes out and begs him to join, saying his brother has returned safe and sound. But the older brother angrily says, “Listen. For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.” 

Again the father pleads, reminding him that his brother “was lost and now is found.” The parable doesn’t tell us whether he joined the party.

The attitudes of the two sons is key to the deeper meaning of the parable. The younger son thinks that the way to return to the father’s good graces is to be treated as a servant; the older one boasts that all these years he has been a dutiful servant. Both define sonship in terms of servile obligations, and each, in his own way, destroys the family.  

The story is really a tale of the “Prodigal Father”—a man, so lavish in his love, who shatters the self-understanding of both sons, and wants both to be free. In the parable, the love of the father reaches out to both the wayward and the dutiful.

A surprising “foreigner”

While the Good Samaritan is the prime example of the teaching of Jesus breaking through religious and social barriers, for its full import, we must reflect on the third Samaritan story, the Healing of the Ten Lepers (Lk. 17:11-19). 

Placed near the end of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, on the edge of Samaritan territory, ten people afflicted with the horror of leprosy (or some skin disease that made them “unclean”) cry out from a distance: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” 

According to the law, they are to remain at a distance (Num. 5:3) and to shout to warn people of their presence (Lev. 13:45-46). Jesus’ healing response is immediate, and he directs them to go to the priests who will authenticate the cure. Leviticus 13-14 contains over 100 verses with elaborate descriptions of the treatment of diseases and criteria for their cure. 

But the narrative moves beyond a standard healing narrative when one of the lepers returns “glorifying God with a loud voice,” and prostrates himself before Jesus. Surprised, Jesus wonders why only one of the ten has returned and given thanks, and that he is a Samaritan, whom Jesus calls “a foreigner” (The Greek literally means “a person of a different kind or nature.”)

Throughout Luke’s Gospel, “glorifying God” is a fundamental response to the presence of God in the actions of Jesus (cf. Lk. 2:14, 20; 19:38; 23:47). In these significant places, those who give such glory are people on the margins of Jesus’ society. Shepherds (along with tax collectors) are listed among those occupations that no observant Jew should pursue. Samaritans, as we noted, were hated and suspect, and a leper who was a Samaritan was doubly scorned, both for his disease and for his religious and ethnic identity.

A Gentile centurion, who is also of a different kind as well as a representative of an occupying power, glorifies God and calls Jesus innocent (23:47). The actions of the Samaritan in the parable and of the Samaritan leper comprise two religious attitudes that are fundamental to both Judaism and the teaching of Jesus.

Jewish teachers in the first century defined the two fundamental religious actions as worship of God and love of neighbor. The Samaritan leper who twice gives glory to God embodies the first of these fundamental dispositions, while the Good Samaritan is a model of love of God expressed in love of neighbor. Luke forcefully says that those who are called enemy and scorned as outsiders are fulfilling fundamental religious attitudes expected of both Jews and all followers of Jesus.

Martin Luther called the parable of the Prodigal Son the “Gospel within the Gospel.” Perhaps, for our day, these Samaritan narratives should be called the Gospel within the Gospel. 

Bad news in the Bible?

I mentioned earlier that I would not then deal with what Walter Brueggemann has called “texts of rigor.” Those texts are constantly invoked to pillory LGBTQ people and exclude them from aspects of church life. Such texts offer little help from the New Testament when discussing issues of sexuality in the contemporary world. Lists describe actions, not dispositions, and none of these texts know of loving and free adult relationships.

“We should cease talking about the problem of LGBTQ people, but be thankful for their gifts. The dignity and beauty of difference  is a legacy for all  those who are members of the Body of Christ.”

The texts of rigor condemn sexual activity between men in a catalog of the corruption and wickedness of the pagan world, renouncing idolatry, envy, murder, rebellion against one’s parents, slander, gossip, fornicators, sodomites, thieves, slave traders and greedy liars (Rom. 1:26-32; 1 Cor. 9-11).  

Certain consideration should guide any evaluation of these texts. First, they describe a world Paul’s followers have left behind when they now experience freedom and new life, as they “were sanctified and justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 6:11). Secondly, the sexual relations so mocked were most often abusive through an imbalance of power (e.g., a slave master with a servant; older men molesting young boys).

Since many of Paul’s followers were former slaves who were victims of sexual exploitation, these texts proclaim that, in Christ, there is “neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). 

The gifts and power of LGBTQ people

We have spent time together thinking about powerful stories of the actions and words of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus meets people where they are, shares meals with them and talks of their love of God and neighbor. Tax collectors, sinners, Samaritans: They went through life disinherited and marginalized by the world around them. 

Ordinary people avoided them and many religious leaders shunned them. In defending and associating with them, Jesus came into conflict with those who held power. Clerical circles and civil authorities collaborated to put him on trial. He was sentenced to death. Yet the paradox of this death is that it was, and it remains, life-giving.

But there are other stories that awaken hope in people today. Amid the tapestry of my early years, two decades before the Second Vatican Council, were threads of racism, religious prejudice and the distorted norms of affective love. As the years passed, stories of people’s lives once thought disturbing and the presence of friends, teachers and guides gave way to a deeper appreciation of the beauty of human diversity.  

I am now 89 years old. As the sands of my time run out, a recent awareness of the gifts and power of LGBTQ people join my procession of mentors. I am thinking of the kindness and generosity of a gay couple who constantly helped in accompanying a group of pilgrims on a trek through those lands where Paul of Tarsus preached about freedom from the law and the joy of the Gospel. 

I will always remember a student, whom over 30 years ago, hesitatingly told me he was gay. After his ordination as a priest, he spent years working among the poorest of the poor, only to die of a vicious cancer at age 55. He was truly one of the holiest people I’ve ever known. And I know parents who struggle and yet guide with love and affection a son or daughter facing their journey of gender transformation.

We should cease talking about the problem of LGBTQ people, but be thankful for their gifts. The dignity and beauty of difference is a legacy for all those who are members of the Body of Christ.


Suggested resources for continuing reflection

Gnuse, Robert K. Trajectories of Justice: What the Bible Says About Slaves, Women and Homosexuality. Cascade Books, 2015.

Keen, Karen R. Scripture, Ethics, and the Possibility of Same-Sex RelationshipsEerdmans, 2018.

Martin, James J. Essential Writings. Selected by James T. Keane. Orbis Books, 2017.

Robertson, Brandan J. The Gospel of Inclusion: A Christian Case for LGBT+ Inclusion in the Church. Revised ed., Wipf and Stock, 2022.

John R. Donahue, S.J.

John R. Donahue, S.J., is a renowned New Testament scholar. He taught many years at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, served as president of the Catholic Biblical Association and is the author of many books on the Bible, including "The Gospel in Parable." He is also the co-editor, with Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., of the Sacra Pagina commentary on the Gospel of Mark.

All articles by John R. Donahue, S.J.

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4 Comments
  1. What do you think of the word pais meaning lover, in the centurion parable? Those say this supports the centurion being sexually involved with his pais. If this is a potential interpretation, how reasonable is it?

    Reply
  2. I am curious as to why the seminal work of John Eastburn Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (1980), is left out of this list of resources. His work with biblical texts in this area was groundbreaking and tremendously influential. It is mentioned neither in the Levine article, nor that by Brueggemann on this website. A major and puzzling omission.

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  3. Thank you, Ryan. I’ve seen it! Father McNichols speaks of Boswell’s work and that of Fr. McNeill in tandem; the relationship between the two is often (mis)represented in current scholarship (which is understandable, given the publication dates of the relevant works – 1976 in the case of McNeill and 1980 in the case of Boswell), based on the assumption that it was John McNeill who was the lexicographical influence on Boswell, rather than the other way around. As someone who is currently researching an authorized biography of Boswell, I know that Boswell was lecturing throughout the 1970’s on the topic of these problematic passages in the Bible as well as other aspects of the relationship between homosexual people and the life of the Church. From Boswell’s correspondence, and in conversation with living colleagues, it becomes clear that it was indeed McNeill who borrowed much of his lexicographical material from Boswell. In one section of the relevant chapter of his book, The Church and the Homosexual, partial (but not full) credit is given to Boswell for this material, that is to say, for some of the borrowings, but not all. Both of them were inspired by the earlier work of Anglican scholar Derek Bailey, but in the final analysis, it was Boswell who provided the most comprehensive, in-depth, and convincing analysis of terms like “arsenokoitai” and “malakia,” to name but two, which have caused such grief and misunderstanding for so many centuries – and he did it first. It is disheartening to find that many (quite eminent) contemporary scholars seem to have forgotten this milestone in the common life of the Catholic Church and LGBTQ+ persons. Boswell provided the foundations on which their own work currently stands.

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