By Ajit John
A Reading from Acts 8:26-40
26 Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) 27 So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, the queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” 30 So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32 Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:
“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
33 In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”
34 The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35 Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36 As they were going along the road, they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” 38 He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more and went on his way rejoicing. 40 But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.
Why was the Ethiopian eunuch in the account in Acts 8 drawn irresistibly to the text from the prophet Isaiah? Perhaps a clue lies in the brutality of the social custom of which he was a victim.
The making of eunuchs out of prepubescent boys was something widely accepted in antiquity. The eunuch who appears in our text has achieved distinction in the court of Queen Candace. He has one of the highest positions in the land, not unlike the Chancellor of the Exchequer in today’s United Kingdom. The shape of his life would not have been the result of personal choice, such modern concepts being utterly alien in pre-modern cultures. Nonetheless, he would have felt deeply what it must mean to be silent, like a sheep before a shearer, in Isaiah’s words, having done to him what he had no power to resist.
He must have known the humiliation of justice denied him. He would never be able to have a family or father a child or have his name and reputation handed down, the way every other self-respecting male could. Yet he longed for an answer, perhaps in the mercy of God. He was already being drawn as a proselyte, we are told.
About whom then does the prophet say this, himself or someone else? He wants to know because more than almost everyone else he understood what it meant to be humiliated and cut off. When Philip ran up and explained that it was Jesus, the Messiah, he understood the good news of Jesus and he literally dove into the waters of baptism. Tradition has it that he returned to Ethiopia and had a hand in establishing what became the Coptic Church.
It is often easier to relish the astounding accounts of Philip’s instant relocation from Gaza to Azotus. But the real miracle is that the love and mercy of God reached down to an alienated foreigner and connected him to the Church.
The Rev. Ajit John is an associate priest at St. Paul’s L’Amoreaux, a vibrant multi-ethnic parish in Toronto, Canada.
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St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral, Shreveport, La.
The Diocese of Meru – The Anglican Church of Kenya