Skip to content

The Eunuch and the Two Voices (sermon)

May 7, 2012

Acts 8:26-40

The distance from Ethiopia to Jerusalem was over two and a half thousand kilometres. Something like travelling from Dunedin to Auckland and back. And that’s just getting to Jerusalem! … by chariot! So the Eunuch in our story had a lot of time to read the prophet Isaiah, not to mention the Torah (Jewish Law).

Taking this story at face value, the Eunuch would have found some material in the prophet Isaiah which would interest him personally. For instance in Isaiah 56:3-5 he would have read this:

Do not let the foreigner joined to the LORD say, ‘The LORD will surely separate me from his people’; and do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree.’ 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.

That phrase ‘cut off’ was probably quite a powerful image for a Eunuch! Do you hear the connection with the passage he was actually reading – about a mysterious figure who Isaiah presents as God’s way of redeeming his people (God’s suffering servant)? Let me read it again:

“By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future generation? For he was cut off from the land of the living”

A eunuch, without the possibility of offspring, marginalized for his abnormal sexuality, knows (on many levels) the experience of being cut off.

The fact that he had travelled 2500 kms by chariot to worship God in Jerusalem suggests he knew not just the writing of the prophet Isaiah but also the Torah (Law) in Deuteronomy 23:1, where he could hardly have failed to notice this passage

“No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD.”

So there’s a little bit of tension between Deuteronomy and Isaiah. The Old Testament is not simple. It’s a self-critical tradition. There’s an argument going on, for example between the prophets and parts of the Torah

Jesus is the same… he’s part of the argument going on over many generations. He reads and uses the Old Testament, but he uses it critically. You have heard it said ‘an eye for an eye’… but I say to you? Jesus is not a fundamentalist. The interesting question which I want to look at in a minute is HOW did he read the OT critically?

I want to do a bit of a side trip for a moment to try and give us some perspective on this issue. It’s not a new issue. You can see the NT writers grappling with it as they write. This was their bible…

How do you make sense of the Old Testament? Are there bits you take more seriously than others? Are there things you struggle with? …At a recent Café Service (when I asked this) a couple of things emerged… (i) firstly the mythological character of the early part of Genesis and the perceived clash with faith and evolution, and (ii) secondly the moral problem of the way in which God is portrayed as a violent warrior in parts (commanding genocide of men women and children).

Let me give you the two minute, brutally condensed version of how we have dealt with this issue, the history of Christian interpretation of the OT (condensed from Michael Hardin’s condensed version), then go on to suggest how the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch points us in the direction of a solution to the problem of the OT. Fasten your seatbelts!

If we go beyond the NT itself into the 2nd century, the first person really take the issue on was a guy call Marcion. His solution was simple. Get rid of it. Chop the Bible down the middle. The NT was from God the OT wasn’t. The church rejected that solution (it didn’t fit with how Jesus or the NT treated the OT). As the second century wore on and Greek philosophy shaped the way people thought, they started to look below the surface for the hidden spiritual meanings and truths (allegory) that were the eternal word of God, that way they could disregard the awkward bits. Things were seen of symbolic importance rather than literal. We might call this the ‘slicing approach’ rather than the ‘dicing’ of Marcion. By the end of theRoman Empire and the time of Augustine the general idea was that the OT and the NT should be treated as a single integrate entity, with slicing for spiritual meaning as a key solution to problem bits. Slicing dominated but dicing wasn’t gone for good.

Jump over middle ages, jump over Luther and Calvin – to modern versions of slicers and dicers.

Modern dicing probably started with the Anabaptists (peace church sensitive to the contrast between Jesus and OT) said, like Marcion, we are followers of Jesus, it doesn’t matter if the OT says something different about God, because basically when God became incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth, he changed his mind. So in practice they were a bit like Marcion, they diced the bible down the middle. So we keep the OT but we ignore it in practice.

A modern version of this is very big in Americaat the moment. It’s called Dispensationalism. They dice the bible up into lots of little segments where God operates according to different systems – Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Church, Tribulation post rapture, and so on. So that’s the modern version of dicers

The modern version of slicers is probably evangelicalism. They look for spiritual truths that can be distinguished from merely cultural practices – you may have come across this with Paul telling women to wear head-coverings (cultural not spiritual).

I wonder which approach you relate best to. Do you just ignore the OT altogether? Do you dice the bible up? Or do you slice it into layers? Or perhaps you have no problem with the God who commands genocide?

Today I want to suggest that there is another way! What’s more (although I won’t argue it fully today) it’s the way Jesus read the OT and you can see it in today’s passage also.

You might recall that in the resurrection stories we read a few Sundays ago, the first thing Jesus does on the road to Emmaus, at the table with his two fellow travellers and in the upper room is to show them how to read the scriptures (OT) and each time the key is the same… he showed to them that “the Messiah must suffer”… Anyone know where in the OT he got that vision of God’s messiah and God’s future from? (Second Isaiah – suffering servant)

Let me throw a theory at you to take away and think about in relation to the OT… Jesus didn’t reject the OT, he took it very seriously, and so did the writers of the NT, but what he did and what they did, was pick up on one strand within it, making it the key to everything. That’s the first part of the theory. Second part is this: there are two voices that are heard in the OT – the voice of the winner/conquerer and the voice of the victim/loser.

In the ancient world, in all of mythology if you lose it is the will of the Gods – the perspective of the winner remains. In that respect its like history-writing. The gods of ancient myth are violent. The gods justify the violence of the winners. Religion is about doing a deal with the gods, sacrificing to appease their wrath…  Something completely new emerges for the first time in the Hebrew scriptures, not only does it become self-critical literature, but for the first time the voice of the victim is heard, there is a critique of violence. Remember Cain and Abel (the blood of Abel cries out from the ground – Cain guilty but protected)…. Joseph the innocent victim who forgives… the Psalms the lone voice (sometimes seeking vengeance sometimes not)… Job (a victim who stands up to his persecutors, in an argument about the nature of God). But ultimately, not only is the voice of the victim heard but in second Isaiah we see God’s identification with the victim profoundly captured in this figure of God’s coming redeemer, the servant who suffers at the hands of the people for their sake. This is where Jesus sees his calling. This is why Jesus refuses to be a warrior.

And the truth is there are other voices in the OT (Joshua, Judges, parts of the Torah, Kings Chronicles, Ezekiel etc) and in the midst of this, material about a pagan warrior God,  the voice of the victim begins to be heard, the non-violent God begins to be seen.

Which leads us back to today’s reading… just as the risen Jesus clearly looks to Isaiah for the roots of his ministry, so today, in this fascinating story of the Eunuch, of someone grappling with understanding the OT (while riding along in his chariot), it’s the suffering servant of Isaiah that provides the clue… and we read “and starting with this scripture he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus”.

Let’s put ourselves in the Eunuch’s shoes for a minute: Let’s imagine you are someone of abnormal sexual status in the community, a curiousity…You read the scriptures and in them you hear two voices… one tells you (Deuteronomy) you can have no part in the house of God… another tells you (Isaiah) that you could have a place of dignity among the people of God. The fundamentalist approach is no help to the Eunuch. The slicing and the dicing is no use to the Eunuch. But if Philip comes alongside his chariot and helps him see the voice of the victim from the message of Isaiah (rather than Deuteronomy) and in that whole strand I described, the voice of the God who identifies with history’s victims, then he will discover the voice of a non-violent God who becomes himself the forgiving victim in the person of Jesus. I want to suggest that that is what Philip does and that is why the Eunuch hears good news, stops his chariot and is baptised into a new way of life.

Advertisements
2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 8, 2012 9:26 am

    thanks for the sermon Bruce and the brief precise – the slicing and dicing illustration was very helful. Nice work!

  2. May 8, 2012 9:53 am

    Cheers Mart… Life must be going alright if you have time to read other peoples sermons. hope you are well.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: