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Humility in Power: The Ethiopian Eunuch

Humility in Power: The Ethiopian Eunuch

by Terence Aditon

 

One of the most beautiful stories in Acts is the story of Philip the Apostle, sent by divine direction to the Ethiopian Eunuch, who was coming from Jerusalem where he had gone to worship (Acts 8:26-40). Here is the story:

 Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south[a] to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.)  So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.  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.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
    Who can describe his generation?
        For his life is taken away from the earth.”

The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.  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?”[ He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip[c] baptized him.  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.  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.

In the ancient world, eunuchs constituted a powerful caste of men, serving royalty and nobility. If we wonder why eunuchs should be so important in the social hierarchies of that time, one reason is evident: the man can have no sons to compete for power with the princes or other heirs to titles and fortunes. This is patriarchy at its most critically cruel point: that a man be altered to serve the high-born and the rich. (Eunuchs also had a strong presence among the powerful in China. The practice of castrating men and placing them in service to kings and others in the upper ranks of society, was not confined to the Middle East or North Africa.)

Since eunuchs could not start a dynasty of their own to compete with those they served, the eunuchs were often among the most trusted servants of their society’s richest classes. Many of them are found to be stewards of large landholdings, of treasuries and properties.

The Ethiopian Eunuch was a rich man, steward to Queen Candace (an actual historical figure). A steward such as he, would be the equivalent of the Chief Financial Officer of a huge corporation, and even that comparison barely does justice to the enormous powers of stewards to the rich in the ancient world. (Think of Joseph, steward to Pharaoh, second only to the king in power and authority.)

The scripture says that the Ethiopian Eunuch had gone up to Jerusalem to worship. Since eunuchs were expressly forbidden by the Law to worship in the Temple, how do we account for the Ethiopian Eunuch’s presence there? Possibly he was impressed by the power of Israelite beliefs, and would be regarded by Jews as a ‘righteous gentile.’ Perhaps he was born to Jewish parents, or perhaps his high status and obvious riches, awed those who would have stopped him from worshiping in the Temple. It is a wondrous congruence that the Ethiopian Eunuch had purchased or somehow obtained a scroll of Isaiah, who denounced inequality and praised those who welcome the seeker after God. Again, this is an echo, in the miracles Jesus performed, the impression he made, on those who were outsiders to Jewish life: the Samaritan woman, the Canaanite woman, the tax collectors, the adulteress he saved from stoning, the lepers he touched and healed, the woman with the issue of blood, and therefore ‘unclean,’ who was healed by touching the hem of his garment.

Bible stories have these echoes, in both Old and New Testaments. Philip’s angelic summons to go to the Gaza road, echoes the summons to Ananias to heal the blinded Saul. (Acts 9:10-21). Those who are summoned are God’s instruments for revealing the power and truth of Christ; their obedience to the call is an echo of the Lord’s obedient life.

What is striking about the story in Acts, is that this powerful man, in a chariot, reading Isaiah, humbly said he could not understand, and needed someone to guide him. This was humility in its most pure and modest form.  Think how willing people are today to acknowledge what they don’t know. Think how often people resent someone who tries to teach something, however gently. A powerful man is assumed to be someone who knows the secrets to power, and is not assumed to be in need of a teacher. That is what makes the Ethiopian Eunuch a model for us all: true humility means we live the truth of who we really are, without pretension or deceit or false modesty. We acknowledge that there is wisdom greater than ours, and much to learn.

The Ethiopian Eunuch’s openness to Philip’s teaching, his recognition of the opportunity to be baptized, his joy as he continue on his journey, shows how powerfully the life and words of Jesus could fill and change every heart. May our hearts be that open, that humble, that joyful, in Christ.

 

Poet and writer Terence Alfred Aditon is a frequent contributor to the Magazine.

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