James Martin: “How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into Relationship”
Revered James Martin SJ*, LGBT Christian Italian Forum (Albano Laziale, Rome, 5-7 October 2018)
Ciao! Mi dispiace che non posso parlare in italiano un po ‘meglio. Quindi penso che dovrò parlare in inglese.
When I was researching a book on Jesus, I came across a fascinating insight from the biblical scholar Ben Meyer. He contrasted the two approaches of John the Baptist and of Jesus. In general, he said, for John the Baptist, the approach was conversion first and community second. In other words, for John, what was required first was conversion—or in the Greek, metanoia, often translated as repentance, but more accurately a complete change of mind and heart. After conversion came inclusion into the community. For John, you underwent a “metanoia,” symbolized by baptism, and then you were part of the community. So conversion first, community second.
For Jesus, however, the approach was the opposite. For Jesus, it was community first, and conversion second. The first thing that Jesus did was, more often than not, to welcome people. Especially those who felt that they were on the margins in any way. Any conversion came second.
We see that again and again in the Gospels, and it’s an insight that can help us minister better to LGBT people. Community first, conversion second. And the conversion I’m speaking about is not “conversion therapy,” which tries to change people from homosexual to heterosexual. No, it’s the conversion that we’re all called to—every one of us. The complete change of hearts and minds contained in the word metanoia.
So let’s look at the stories of three people who felt they were living on the margins, and think about the way Jesus’s actions towards them can help us in our ministry to LGBT people. Now again, I want to emphasize: let’s see these people not as sinners, because we’re all sinners, but as those who felt that they were living on the margins.
The Roman Centurion
First consider the story of the Roman centurion. As you’ll remember, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke tell the story of a Roman centurion living in the town of Capernaum, Jesus’s base of ministry during his time in Galilee. It was a Jewish fishing town of about 1,500 to 2,000 people. The centurion meets Jesus, perhaps on the road, and tells him that his servant is sick. In response, Jesus offers to come to the centurion’s house, a sign of public welcome in that time. So right away we see Jesus’s welcome.
But the centurion says that’s not necessary. I too am a man with people under my authority, he tells Jesus: I say to one person “Come” and he comes, and to another “Go” and he goes. All you need do is say the word and my servant will be healed. Jesus professes amazement, saying that the man’s faith is greater than in all of Israel. Then he heals the servant.
But here is something not to overlook: the Roman Centurion is a pagan! He’s not Jewish. He is probably not even monotheistic! He probably worships multiple Gods. He is as far outside the Jewish milieu as you could imagine. He is not only on the margins, he is beyond the margins! How many LGBT people feel like that in the church?
But notice how Jesus treats him. Does he say, “Pagan”? Does he shout, “Sinner”? Does he say, “Come back when you’re Jewish?” Not at all. He encounters him, he listens to him, he welcomes him, he has pity on him, and then he does a great service for him. This is how we are to treat people on the margins–with respect, sensitivity and compassion. But most of all with welcome.
The Samaritan Woman
Second, think of the story of the Woman at the Well, also known as the Samaritan woman. It’s a long reading, from the Gospel of John. Jesus goes to a well, at noontime, in the heat of the day, and meets a Samaritan woman. In the course of one of the longest conversations that Jesus has with anyone in the Gospels, we find out something about her. She has been married several times and is apparently living with someone who is not her husband. During their conversation, Jesus reveals his true identity to her, as the Living Water, and she is so overjoyed that she leaves her water jug behind to tell her friends. It’s a parallel with Peter and Andrew dropping their nets and leaving everything behind to follow Jesus.
New Testament scholars say that there are two reasons Jesus shouldn’t even be talking to her: First, she’s a woman. Second, she’s a Samaritan, a group that was opposed to the Jews for a number of religious reasons. But again, notice how Jesus encounters someone who must have felt completely on the margins. Does he say, “Sinner!” Does he say, “Fallen woman!” Does he say, “Samaritan!”
Not at all. He listens carefully to her, he appreciates her situation and he gives her a gift by revealing to her his identity. Again, it is a gesture of welcome to someone who would have felt totally marginalized. In fact, one reason she is at the well at noontime, is that this is when other women would not have been around, because of the heat. So she experiences herself marginalized.
How many LGBT people feel like that in the church? But Jesus treats her with respect, compassion and sensitivity. And at the end of the story she goes into the town to proclaim what has happened to her. She is restored to the community and she is now an apostle, sent out to spread the Good News. Thanks to Jesus’s welcome.
Zacchaeus and LGBT People
Finally, let’s look at the story that I think best illustrates this idea of community first, conversion second. The Gospel of Luke tells us the wonderful story of Jesus’s encounter with Zacchaeus. Jesus, you may remember, is travelling through Jericho, a huge city. He’s on his way to Jerusalem, near the end of his ministry, so he would have been well known. As a result, he probably had a large crowd following him.
In Jericho, there is a man named Zacchaeus. He was the chief tax collector in the region, and so would have also been seen by the Jewish people as the chief sinner. Why? Because he was seen as colluding with the Roman authorities. So Zacchaeus was someone who was probably on the outs with everyone. Here I’d like you to consider Zacchaeus as a symbol for the LGBT person. Not because LGBT people are more sinful than the rest of us—because we’re all sinners. But because they feel so marginalized.
Luke’s Gospel describes Zacchaeus as “short in stature.” Zacchaeus could not see Jesus “on account of the crowd.” That was probably because of his size, but how often does the “crowd” get in the way of the LGBT person encountering Jesus? When are we part of the “crowd” that doesn’t let LGBT people come close to God?
So Zacchaeus climbs a sycamore tree, because, as Luke tells us, he wanted to see “who Jesus was.” And this is really what the LGBT person wants: to see “who Jesus is.” But the crowd gets in the way.
Now here comes Jesus, making his way through Jericho, probably with hundreds of people clamoring for his attention. And, out of all those people, whom does he decide to talk to? One of the religious authorities? One of his disciples? No, Zacchaeus! And what does he say? Does he shout, “Sinner!” Does he shout, “You terrible tax collector”? No! Jesus says, “Hurry down for I must stay at your house today!” It’s a public sign of welcome to someone on the outs.
And then comes my favorite line in the whole story, “All who saw it began to grumble!” Which is exactly what happens today towards LGBT people! People grumble. Just go online and you’ll see all the grumbling. An offer of mercy to someone on the margins always makes people angry.
But Zacchaeus climbs down from the tree and, as the Gospels say, he “stood there.” But the original Greek is much stronger, statheis: He stood his ground. How often do LGBT people have to stand their ground in the face of opposition, prejudice and hatred in the church?
Then a surprise: Zacchaeus says that he will give half of his possessions to the poor and repay anyone he has defrauded, four times over. An encounter with Jesus leads to a conversion, as it does for everyone. And what do I mean by conversion? Not conversion therapy. And probably not even not leaving his profession behind. Because the only tax collector in the Gospels that give up his profession is Matthew.
No, the conversion that happens to Zacchaeus is the conversion that we’re all called to. In the Gospels, Jesus calls it metanoia, a conversion of minds and hearts. For Zacchaeus, his conversion meant giving money to the poor. All this comes from an encounter with Jesus. Because for Jesus it’s more often than not community first, conversion second. For John the Baptist the model was convert first and then be welcomed into the community. For Jesus, it’s community first, conversion second.
This is how Jesus treats people who feel like they’re on the margins. He seeks them out before anyone else; he encounters them, and he treats them with respect, sensitivity and compassion.
So when it comes to LGBT people, there are two place to stand. You can stand with the crowd, who grumbles, and oppose mercy for those on the margins. Or you can stand with Zacchaeus, and, more importantly, with Jesus. You can stand with Jesus and welcome them into the community.
*Rev. James Martin, SJ, is a Jesuit priest, editor at large of America magazine, consultor to the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communication, and author of numerous books, including the New York Times bestsellers Jesus: A Pilgrimage, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything and My Life with the Saints, which Publishers Weekly named one of the best books of 2006. Martin’s book, “Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity,” (HarperCollins, 2018) had the support of three U.S. cardinals, including Cardinal Kevin Farrell, prefect of the Dicastery for Laity, the Family and Life. Father Martin is a frequent commentator in the national and international media, having appeared on all the major networks, and in such diverse outlets as The Colbert Report, NPR’s Fresh Air, the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Before entering the Jesuits in 1988 he graduated from the Wharton School of Business.