[This article is part of the series, The Politics of Scripture. While the focus of the series is on weekly preaching texts, we welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression. Submissions may be sent to email@example.com.]
Emma Goldman once said “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.” Goldman was speaking of the bourgeoisie democracy that upholds the status quo of US society. Her words have rung true for many of us progressives who voted for President Obama. We have and grown increasingly frustrated as his administration has leaned toward the status quo rather than the oppressed and poor. This week’s lectionary reading tells of a man who was part of the status quo in his society, high in power and authority in Ethiopia, yet God’s Spirit had something else in mind for him, an apostle named Philip.
The narrative in the center of Acts 8 introduces an Ethiopian eunuch who was in charge of the entire treasury of Queen Candace. He traveled to Jerusalem with his slaves to worship at the Temple of YHWH. The text omits any reference to the festival or event he attended. It was traveling back from Jerusalem that Philip meets him, the eunuch is reading a selection from Isaiah 53. Now a few things should catch our attention. First the man is a eunuch, a man who had chopped off his testicles, possibly for an ascetic lifestyle or to have sexual intercourse without getting anyone pregnant. The fascinating thing about the eunuch reading from Isaiah 53 is that if he would have read in a few more chapters, he would have seen that:
“For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.”(NRSV Isaiah 56:4-5)
The lyrical symmetry in the text is outstanding. God desires that the eunuchs be brought back into the land of Judah, out of the Exile. These verses come from second Isaiah which was written around 538 BCE calling the people to go back into Judah. In the following verses (6-7) of the same chapter God also desires for the foreigners to be included in Judah. The Ethiopian eunuch meets both of these requirements and is able to travel to Jerusalem to worship God in that holy city for these reasons. The last thing about the unnamed eunuch is his wealth. One gains authority over a treasury for several reasons: one must already be from a rich family, must have connections to power in different sects, and must always abide by the interest of the person’s monies that is being watched. Thus, the Ethiopian eunuch was interested in keeping the status quo in control.
On the flip side, as one reads from the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, the early apostles “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need”(NRSV 2:44-45). The Apostle Philip was living in these conditions and God’s Spirit lead him to a person who was economically wealthy. In socio-economic terms, Philip uses a communal proletariat hermeneutic to explain the Scripture about Jesus to the privileged eunuch. It was then the eunuch who saw the communal water to be washed in.
The story ends with Philip disappearing after they come up out of the water. The eunuch, it says “went along his way rejoicing.” It is up to Christian imagination to picture how the eunuch’s life and practices changed. Did he find Philip’s hermeneutic more convincing than his own? Had stress been emptied from his life and now he can get back to Ethiopia to work for the Queen again? Or did the eunuch give up his privileged life to be a disciple of Jesus living with a community of believers?
Timothy Wotring is a senior Theology Major at Eastern University in Saint David’s, PA. He lives in West Philadelphia and is a member of the Episcopal Church. He keeps a blog (blackflagtheology.com) and is interested in political, liberation, feminist, and post-colonial theologies.