What does "pais" mean?

I've been asked lately about a passage in Luke which has apparently been used as evidence that Jesus did not consider homosexuality sinful. It is the famous passage about the Roman centurion (Luke 7:1-10) in which the centurion asks for healing for a servant. The word used is pais, and it is argued that this word refers to a "same-gender partner."

There are a couple of problems with this reading. The first is that even if correct, this would not equate with any sort of statement by Jesus about homosexuality. By dealing with the centurion, Jesus obviously had the chance to raise any number of Roman sins: Tyranny, worship of false gods, slavery, and so on. Frankly, this was not the time to do so, when someone was sick. The critics who suppose that, if Jesus were against homosexuality, he would have taken this opportunity to deliver a scalding lecture on it, are mistaking Jesus for a hellfire fundamentalist. Obviously one does not have to be a hellfire fundamentalist to regard homosexuality as a Biblical sin, but that is no doubt the way advocates of this position would prefer to characterize things.

Jesus, of course, did tell people to stop sinning; he obviously did so with the woman about to be stoned in John 8, but this was the exception rather than the rule, at least as far as presentation goes. Since the Gospels provide snapshots, not full stories, it is hardly out of the question that Jesus took the time later to address some of his concerns with the centurion on a variety of issues.

Second, the equation of pais with "same-gender partner" is more than a little presumptive. The word is mainly used of infants (Matt. 2:16), of children in various contexts, and of Jesus himself in relation to God (Matt. 12:18). The most we can say is that while it is conceivable that the centurion regarded a young same-sex partner as a pais, the semantic range of pais is much wider than that, and does not indicate in and of itself that a same-sex partner is in mind.

Third, the critics go on to say that the pais was "honored" (entimos) and assume this means a same sex relationship. The problem with this view is apparent from the social setting: To be the passive partner in a male same-sex relationship was a decisive dishonor. One of these critics also read modern ideas of love into the picture-as explained in our e-Book Rendered Unto Caesar-which would not be the case at all.

So why would this slave be "honored"? The same word is used of Jesus in 1 Peter 2:4, 6 as being a cornerstone laid in Zion, and in Luke 14:8 of persons invited to a feast. There were many ways to gain honor in the ancient world. While it is true that there were fewer ways to gain honor in the context of a master and slave, there were still a number of ways. The servant, for example, may have done the centurion some good turn, like overhearing an enemy plot against the centurion, allowing him to foil it (just as Paul's nephew did, Acts 23). Or, the servant may have made an especially good impression on a distinguished visitor, who in turn did the centurion a favor. Or, the pais may have somehow aided the centurion when he was injured in battle, either by tending his wounds, or by seeking help. It is simplistic and presumptuous to say that a same-sex partnership is what lies behind the relationship.

In sum, as is often the case, critics make too much of too little.