I had never really thought much about the Ethiopian Eunuch before I heard him speak last year to a group of two hundred or so. Of course, it wasn’t really the first-century court treasurer to the Queen of Ethiopia; it was Peterson Toscano acting as the Eunuch in his one-person play, Transfigurations. The performance, which we at The Marin Foundation sponsored as a Living in the Tension event, highlighted several gender-variant individuals throughout Scripture. And it was excellent.
Here’s a quick, parenthetical summary of the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8:27-39), for anyone who needs a refresher: The book of Acts begins with Jesus ascending into heaven with the final instructions to “be my witnesses to Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” This is the Great Commission. It sparks Jesus’ followers to spread the Good News about Jesus throughout the world and directs the narrative trajectory of Acts outward from Jerusalem. So in chapter 8 we find Philip, one of the twelve apostles, traveling further into Samaria and encountering a convert to Judaism, the Ethiopian Queen’s most trusted official. A eunuch. As a eunuch, he had been castrated likely at a very early age, which would have had drastic effects on his testosterone levels and therefore physiological development (as Peterson memorably put it, “not quite a man, and not quite a woman–someone else”). The Eunuch was sitting in his chariot reading aloud from a passage of Isaiah that Philip overheard and understood to be a prophetic foretelling of Jesus. Philip engaged the Eunuch in conversation, told him “the Good News about Jesus,” and, at the Eunuch’s prompting, baptized him. It was the first baptism recorded in Acts.
When I say that Peterson impersonated the Eunuch, I don’t just mean that he put on a scarf and a different demeanor; I mean that he imbued this relatively minor biblical character with a sense of true personhood. It’s easy to read the mere 12 verses devoted to the Eunuch’s story and totally miss the significance of his conversation with the Apostle Philip–not so much its significance in advancing the Gospel’s spread to Ethiopia (aka, “the ends of the earth”), but its significance to the Eunuch himself.
Here’s the passage from Isaiah he read:
“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter
and like a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he opens not his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”
Now imagine, as I did for the first time at Toscano’s performance, reading this passage as a man whose genitals had been forcibly removed. It could not have been an accident that the Ethiopian Eunuch’s scroll was opened to this section. Here was a man who had grappled with his share of humiliation and injustice, a man whose identity and life had been decided for him, a man whose wealth could only be counted in coins, not family. I imagine that if the Eunuch’s text had been a book, it would fall open to this page in Isaiah.
The Ethiopian Eunuch was a sexual minority. He felt the alienation of being outside cultural norms. But apparently he wasn’t alone.
“Who is the prophet speaking about?” That was the Ethiopian’s question to Philip. And, of course, the question behind it was, “Who understands what I’m going through?”
Philip’s answer is Good News. It’s Good News to the Eunuch, not just because there was indeed someone else out there who could relate, but because that person was God’s own son. The Good News was that God so identifies himself with the marginalized that He goes to the margins himself. And stays there. Lives there. Yes, he is the Savior, the one whose Kingdom will restore justice and value the oppressed. But he’s also the co-sufferer, the one who experiences pain and rejection and the deep yearning for a better world.
I think the Ethiopian Eunuch isn’t the only sexual minority who Jesus is proud to be associated with. I think Jesus is just as Good of News today as he was in the first century. I think my appreciation and experience of God’s love has grown deeper and wider as I look around me at the diversity of those who have also been called by grace.