The opponents of gay same-sex marriage and of the “gay lifestyle” (whatever that is), like to claim that their opposition is rooted in traditional family values, “as found in the Bible.” This claim is so completely spurious, is is remarkable how seldom it is challenged. Just a little thought and reflection shows not only how the Gospel values have little to do with modern Western conceptions of the “traditional” family, but they are so far removed from it, that the real values espoused can certainly be described as certainly “queer”, if not quite as specifically gay. In reaching this conclusion, I have been reading and reflecting on the social context of the ‘family’ as experienced in Jewish society and the broader social environment, at Jesus’ own ‘family’ in childhood and maturity, at His actions, and at His words.
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The Jewish Family.
It is important to recognise that traditional Jewish society did indeed place enormous importance on the idea of family, both in the narrow sense of the immediate biological family, and in the broader sense of the ethnic Jewish community. This was so important that on the one hand, everyone was expected to marry and produce l, and on the other, that those outside the narrow ethnic group were regarded as inferior, even unclean. The detailed dietary and other regulations well -known from the Old Testament were part of an elaborate legal structure to maintain the ‘purity’ of the Jewish nation. The Jewish family, however, was very different from our modern conception, deeply patriarchal, and with uneven treatment of men and women. Women were were expected to show rigorous sexual fidelity to their husbands, and were thought of as the ‘property’ of their men.
In the broader social environment, the Jewish state in Jesus’ day was under Roman military occupation. Like the Greek society of the time, the Romans too had a deeply patriarchal society, and one in which there was not the modern distinction between ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’ activities. Distinctions were drawn rather, on the social class of one’s sexual partners, and male citizens would routinely have sex not only with their wives, but also with other lovers, prostitutes and slaves of either gender.
My reflections on this theme were initially prompted by a posting on “Nihil Obstat” for the feast of the Holy Family, in which she pointed out how very atypical for the time was the Lord’s own childhood family, so often quoted as a model for all Catholic families.
But our childhood families are not the only ones we live with. More important as we grow older are those adult families we make for ourselves, usually by forming couples in marriage or out of it, and with or without children. As LGBT people we are also very conscious of how often we may remain single, but still form looser groups of friendship, who may in a real sense become our ‘families’ of a different sort.
So what were the adult ‘families’ that Jesus made for himself?
First, and famously, He did not marry. This alone is remarkable, given the expectation in Jewish society of marriage and procreation. So, what were His other relationships – what informal ‘families’ did He form? We get the answer to this easily enough by looking at the Last Supper. The Jewish Sabbath meal, and most especially that of Passover, are the occasions above all when Jewish people get together as families. It is significant then that the Lord spent his own Passover meal – which we know as the ‘Last Supper’, with the 12 apostles: these were the people we must take to represent His closest family. Who were these men? If they ever had wives and families of their own, they had been set aside to spend the rest of their lives with Jesus.
Think about it: on the most solemn holy day of the Jewish calendar, when it was customary for all Jewish people to share a ritual meal with their closest family, Jesus and the apostles spent the evening as a group of single men. Does this not sound remarkably like a modern group of urban gay men spending our equivalent family festivals sharing meals together, away from biological families?
Single people know, of course, that the concept of “family” can be fluid. In addition to our closest, most intimate circle, there are often others who might be very close, almost family, but not quite in our innermost circle. Who represented this ‘almost family’ circle to Jesus Christ? The most obvious candidates to me are the household of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, with whom He had an obviously close and special relationship. What was the nature of this household? Once again, very far from the expected “traditional” family. The two women are described as ‘sisters’ and come across to me as the stronger, more vividly drawn characters: Lazarus is famed more for his death and rescue from it, than for anything in his life. Even at face value, this is an unusual household: Jewish women would typically have been married off at an early age, not still living as adults with their brother. Where such households did exist, it would normally be the brother, as the only male, who would be expected to dominate the household and be the focus of attention. For a clearer understanding of the household, it is worth remembering that the word ‘sisters’ may have been used euphemistically: it is at least possible that Mary and Martha were a lesbian couple, living with a gay friend as lodger.
So: in His families of choice, the Lord spent His time either with a band of single men, or with a household of two single women (possibly a lesbian couple), and yet another unmarried man. Even in the broader social circle, I am not aware of any instance where He is reported as spending time with a a conventional married couple with children. Thus far, in examining the Lord in His own family context, we have found not an endorsement, but a repudiation, of the traditional family.
I still need to show that this repudiation of the traditional family is continued in His words and actions. That I will do later in a follow-up post.