Reflecting on the Acts reading (the Ethiopian Eunuch, Acts 8:26-40)
So, the Ethiopian Eunuch is reading aloud (a very common practice – if you had the ability to read, then you would read aloud) from the scroll of Isaiah (Chapter 53), a passage that has come to be associated with the passion of Jesus.
What was this Ethiopian Eunuch doing reading this particular part of Isaiah?
Well, the background is that eunuchs were specifically excluded from the temple:
“If a man’s testicles are crushed or his penis is cut off,
he may not be admitted to the assembly of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 23:1)
But here, in the very section of Isaiah where the Ethipian Eunuch is reading, is this text:
Let no foreigner who is bound to the LORD say,
“The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.”
And let no eunuch complain, “I am only a dry tree.”
For this is what the LORD says:
“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose what pleases me
and hold fast to my covenant—
to them I will give within my temple and its walls
a memorial and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that will endure forever” (Isaiah 56:3-5)
A text of inclusion. It would have been a ‘favourite’ part of the Isaiah scroll for the Eunuch, one he would return to again and again, as it gave him a place of belonging. And, in the course of reading this text of inclusion, he would have become familiar with the surrounding text (no verses and chapter headings in those days!) including Chapter 53 that is the focus of the Acts 8 reading today (and for the conversation between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch):
“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
and as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.
Who can speak of his descendants?
For his life was taken from the earth.”
After Philip gives witness to Jesus, the Ethiopian Eunuch is baptized (in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy), and eunuchs find a place of belonging in the reign of God. That which was excluded has now been included.
It would have been a surprising and wonderful moment for both Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch.
Here’s a great reflection on this reading by Richard Beck:
The “eunuch story” may, at least in part, speak to the issue of social contribution or function. It seems that great emphasis was given to function in the old covenant “congregation of the Lord”. The “commission” of old covenant community focused around the growth of the Jewish nation, particularly in terms of the “be fruitful and multiply” directive. What we think of as evangelism wasn’t a primary focus – having and raising children with a particular worldview and a peculiar kind of monotheism was. Eunuchs could not contribute to this social mandate, and were therefore viewed as vestigials, as supernumeraries. There was a central religious goal, and these eunuchs were people who, having no way to further that goal, had no place in the religious community.
So, when the Spirit of the Lord went to miraculous lengths to ensure that the first known Christian non-Jewish convert was both of an alien culture and a “functionless” eunuch, the intention was to make us think about what it means to have “function” within the new covenant community of faith, and further, about how the Christian community, like a family, must embrace a non-utilitarian society.
In the Ethiopian eunuch, I see every person that typically would be relegated to the non-contributing “others” of society: the irritants, the wastes-of-time, the hangers-on. I see friends with Aspergers and autism spectrum disorders and severe depression and body odour. I see psychopaths and addicts and narcissists. I see people with unusual humor and inconsiderate conversational habits. Communities formed on utilitarian goals or on the fulfillment of mutual self-need, would leave all these people behind, but the community of Christ continually redefines itself in order to accommodate them.
The community patterned after the heart of God intentionally includes the maladjusted, the awkward, and the outcast, even to the detriment of “the perfect social atmosphere”. Loving “non-contributors” is inconvenient, messy, unpredictable and disruptive.
This is the practice of unconditional love. The church will grow more by that practice in itself, than anything that could be done by avoiding all the “time wasters”. Whatever is gained by avoiding them of time, comfort and money, is lost to apathy, impatience and unlove. “The community that seeks to save its life will lose it, but the community that loses its life for Christ’s sake will gain it.”