The Ethiopian Eunuch

Deborah Beach Giordano
© April 30, 2018

Acts 8:26-40 ~ told by Deborah

When Philip returned to Jerusalem after preaching and healing in Samaria, an angel told him, “Don’t get settled; go, take the road from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This way goes through the wilderness.)

So he he started out at once.

At the same time an Ethiopian eunuch was returning home after having come to Jerusalem to worship. This man was a court official in charge of the treasury of the ruler of the Ethiopians. The eunuch was reading as he rode in his chariot.

The Spirit told Philip, “Go over and accompany that chariot.”

When Philip caught up to it he heard the man reading from the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?”

The eunuch replied, “That’s a good question. Without a guide to show the way, how can I?” And he invited Philip to join him as they traveled along the road. 

The eunuch was reading the passage: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer he did not protest. He was robbed of a fair hearing. Who will tell his posterity? His life on this earth is ended.”

“Let me ask you,” the eunuch said, “Is the prophet saying this about himself or about someone else?”

Then, starting from this scripture, Philip proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.

As they were traveling along, they came to a pool of water; and the eunuch said, “Look, there is water! Why can’t I be baptized right here?”

He ordered the chariot to stop, and Philip and the eunuch went into the water, and Philip baptized him.

When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord sent Philip away; the eunuch never saw him again as he returned to his home — filled with joy.

The next thing Philip knew, he was many miles away, in the coastal city of Azotus, and he continued through the region, proclaiming the good news wherever he went, all the way to Caesarea.

Angelina’s Arrival

It was in an evening class in graduate school when I met the student I first knew as Andrew, who dressed in suits and ties and sported a pronounced “five o’clock shadow” by the time we assembled at 7 p.m. Over the course of the next several semesters the beard slowly faded, the shirts and ties gave way to sweaters and tees, trousers were replaced by skirts, and her name became Angelina. 

Throughout it all the rest of us studiously avoided remarking on the changes that were taking place — although we were hyper-vigilant in our choice of pronouns and the use of her (new) name. We were far too sophisticated and enlightened to actually notice what was happening.

You might say that Angelina’s transformation was “hidden in plain sight” — as it was obvious to everyone, yet remained The Great Unspoken Fact. We made a point of ignoring what was occurring right before our eyes.

Modern Puritans

I realize now, lo these many years later, how absurdly puritanical we were. It was as if we had taken a vow of silence — imposed by our egos; put in place because we were unwilling to admit that the situation was an unusual one, that we had no prior experience to draw from. We simply didn’t know what to do — and so we did nothing and said nothing.

Gender reassignment is a rare occurrence at any time, and it was even less well-known then. Many (most?) of us were curious and a bit taken aback by the process and Angelina’s willingness to endure it. Gay and straight alike, none of us had a context for understanding what she was going through, but of course we didn’t want to be seen as ignorant or intrusive, and so we said nothing. 

We erected a Wall of Politeness.

Although Angelina had a strong relationship with her academic advisor and served as a Teacher’s Aide for another professor, otherwise I’m afraid that she was relatively isolated. Maybe more than “relatively.” Everyone was unfailingly polite; greeting her with a smile, making supportive noises in response to comments she made in classroom discussions, etc., but I recall no close friends. She wasn’t a member of the PB&B group (Pizza, Beer, & <ahem> Complaining), nor one of the Quad Flies who hung out on the lawn area between classes. She was friendly to everyone, but almost always on her own.

Unfortunately I’m not sure if that was by choice. None of us seemed to have thought to ask her — no, wait, let me put that in personal terms: I know that I never thought to ask her to join us. If I had thought about it at all, I imagine my justification would have been that I didn’t really know her, and I didn’t want to make her uncomfortable. (But in all honesty: who was it that I really wouldn’t have wanted to make uncomfortable??)

Through our “enlightened” lens, I don’t think we saw Angelina as a person, only the sexuality — that we were so desperately pretending to ignore. And so we didn’t see her. We were blinded by the nice.

Truth-Speaking

Now let’s compare this “modern” behavior with the passage from Acts. Read it again; what to you see?

Eunuch. Eunuch. Eunuch. Eunuch. Eunuch. Eunuch. Eunuch. The word repeatedly jumps out at us. The Ethiopian man is described as “the eunuch” again and again, even when the pronouns “he” or “him,” would smooth the narrative flow of the text. Apparently the author thinks it is an important aspect of the story.

OK, we get it: the fellow was a eunuch. But the author’s insistence on emphasizing that fact makes us squirm. Our contemporary enlightened ignorance strikes again: we don’t want to know that the man was a eunuch. We consider it rude to notice a person’s physical appearance, especially disabilities — or anything having to do with sex. It’s a private matter. It’s “unmentionable.”

But these things do matter. Our physical condition, our physical situation, our humanness makes a difference in our lives; they are facts that cannot be ignored or denied. 

Who is meant by these words?

The author didn’t repeatedly tell us that the man was a eunuch in order to shock or embarrass or titilate us, but to make an important point about the Gospel, and about the One who delivered it to us.

The eunuch was reading the passage: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer he did not protest. He was robbed of a fair hearing. Who will tell his posterity? His life on this earth is ended.”

“Let me ask you,” the eunuch said, “Is the prophet saying this about himself or about someone else?”

We tend to believe that Philip used the passage from Isaiah to prove that Jesus of Nazareth was the promised, suffering servant Messiah. Period. But it seems to me that there is more to the story. A lot more. 

If we consider that Scripture passage in the context of the eunuch’s lived experience — if we recognize the eunuch as a eunuch, in his full humanness — it becomes much richer and fuller. Isaiah’s words must have shimmered with meaning for a man who was castrated when a mere child: like a sheep to the slaughter, like a lamb before the shearer; helpless, powerless, silently suffering in fear and pain.

And so the eunuch asks: “Who is it that the prophetic Voice of God is speaking about?” Could it be me? Could it be that God sees me? Is it possible that the Eternal understands my loneliness; is a companion to me in my isolation; is one with me in my otherness? Can it be that God’s compassion extends to all people — even to “outsiders”?

The eunuch would have been prohibited from entering the Jerusalem temple, nor could he have participated in worship there. This wasn’t because of who he was (it wasn’t personal), but because of the condition of his body. In religious life, in private life, in public life, at home and even in a foreign land — wherever he went, whatever he did, the eunuch was a permanent outsider. And then the Word of God reached out and spoke to him.

The Spirit said to Philip, “Go, accompany this man on his journey.” And so he did, and told the eunuch the story of Jesus of Nazareth — an outsider; shunned and mocked, silently accepting his condemnation, tortured, scorned, and crucified: taken, like a sheep to the slaughter. This man, this Jesus, this outsider, has been affirmed by God as the Lord Christ, God’s beloved Son. This divine Presence came into our world and knew suffering, and understood, first-hand, what it means to be fully human — including the humanness that is “imperfect”: disabled, different, damaged, isolated, alone, outside the norm. 

God “gets” us. And loves us. And calls to us. And speaks to us. Yes, my friend, the Voice of God was referring to you: this one is a beloved and important member of My family. (And so is this one, and this one, and this one, and this one….)

And who among us is not damaged or distressed or different? And who has not felt isolated and alone?

The Good News of Jesus Christ

The Holy Spirit told Philip to join the eunuch as he made his way along the road, but gave no further instructions. Apparently his Christ-fueled heart led the way from there, for Philip responded to the eunuch’s question in a way that inspired the man to want to become a follower of Jesus and — and this is hugely important — so that the eunuch “went on his way rejoicing.” As if he’d heard some Good News.

The eunuch hadn’t been rejoicing earlier; he was sitting alone in his chariot, reading and wondering — and perhaps praying — about who was acceptable to God. Perhaps he was grieving over his seemingly insuperable outsider status, perhaps dreaming of a community in which he would be included; somewhere that he would be seen as a whole person. 

And after his encounter with Philip, he went on his way rejoicing — because Philip treated the eunuch as a person beloved of God, as a partner in the kingdom of heaven, because that’s how the Gospel works: it is meant to bless and uplift people where they are and who they are. It recognizes our individuality and our commonality. Each of us is unique, and yet we are, as has been said, more alike than different. The eunuch was a eunuch; he was also a human being yearning for love and acceptance, just as we all are. Just as Angelina was.

Nice Walls

How many times do we erect walls of “niceness” that impede or impair our relations with others? How often do we avoid contact with a person who is different or distressed — to spare ourselves embarrassment or discomfort, despite our claims to the contrary? 

I am reminded of the woman who had been an active member of a church for over twenty years; after her husband ran off to Mexico with his secretary Denise stopped attending Sunday worship. And no one called to check on how she was doing. No one. It was as if she had vanished without a trace, erased from the memory banks. When long-term “church friends” were asked about it, they responded, “I don’t want to embarrass her.” “If she wants to talk she can call me any time.” “I’m sure she’s got a lot on her plate.” They hid their cowardice behind claims of politeness, choosing to ignore the suffering in plain sight: pretending not to notice the obvious fact of her divorce.

It’s sad, isn’t it? Those women failed to provide companionship and encouragement to a lonely and isolated soul. They missed out on an opportunity to proclaim the Good News — in fact they buried it; you might even say they betrayed it by their (in)action. Just as we did — as I did — back in graduate school, by failing to reach out to Angelina.

Glorious Beloved, through Your grace, may we become heartfelt bearers of the Gospel in all that we say, all that we do, all that we hope for, all that we pray for, and all that we are. Amen.

Virtual hugs and real-time blessings,

Deborah 

Suggested Spiritual Exercise: Who is an “Ethiopian eunuch” to you? Who is the outsider?

Important Disclaimers

I in no way intend to draw parallels between Angelina and the Ethiopian eunuch except insofar as their shared outsider status, and the fact that their “differentness” has to do with sexuality.

All names have been changed and specific circumstances modified to protect the identities of the individuals referred to in this reflection.

 

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About inklingscommunity

I am a struggling Christian, committed pacifist, near-obsessive recycler, incurable animal lover, inveterate tree-hugger; a nature mystic, a socialized introvert, an advocate for the vulnerable, an opponent of exploiters.
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