Do You Understand What You Are Reading?

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.) 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 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.  Acts 8:26-40.

In today’s Lectionary reading from the book of Acts, we encounter the disciple Phillip.  After the stoning of St. Stephen, while Saul was still persecuting the Church, Phillip preached in Samaria.  Now, Phillip was a layman, a deacon who waited on tables and distributed food to widows.  But while in Samaria, he healed many people and cast out unclean Spirits.  Then an angel appeared and told him to go south toward Gaza.  Without question or protest, Phillip goes down this “wilderness road.”

Phillip then meets this Ethiopian eunuch, a court official in the queen’s court, a man entrusted with the queen’s treasury.  (Because of their castration, eunuchs were considered particularly suitable to work in the courts of royal women. Because of their mutilation, however, good Jews could not touch, eat with, or even talk to eunuchs.) The Spirit directs Phillip to join him in the chariot.  There, the eunuch sits, reading a scroll from the 53rd chapter of Isaiah. 

Phillip asks this man if he understands the passage he is reading. The eunuch does not understand whether the passage is autobiographical or if the prophet is speaking of someone else.  Phillip explains to him the gospel (good news) about Jesus, demonstrating that the early Church had already begun to read the later passages of Isaiah (sometimes called 2nd Isaiah) through the lens of the Christian experience.

As they travel along, something remarkable happens.  They come upon a pool or creek or a puddle of water and the eunuch asks Phillip to baptize him. Phillip does so, expanding the Church well beyond the reach anyone would have imagined before.   Not coincidentally, this happens because two of God’s children read Scripture together, expanding the reach of the Word.  Often in community, we discover new ways to read and understand the good news Christ came to bring us.

Among other things, this passage reveals a remark able shift in the new Christian community:  a shift toward inclusion.  We remember that the holiness codes  mandated the exclusion of eunuchs from the community of believers.  Deut. 23:1; Lev . 21:17-21. The Holy Spirit directs Phillip to go a different direction.  The Holy Spirit (the real “actor” in this book we call Acts) continually pushes the boundaries of the Christian community.  Where we thought the answer was an obvious “no”, the Spirit responds with an enthusiastic “Yes!”  We often underestimate the breadth of God’s intent to save this world and His children.

The Ethiopian, who had been excluded from so much of the religious experience, found Jesus in the middle of the desert.  Out in the wilderness, Phillip saw the power of Jesus at work.  Scripture tells us that this Ethopian, this man excluded because of his brokenness, rejoiced when he was welcomed into the Church.

This passage also teaches that we do not come to the faith alone, and very few of us grow in the faith alone.  I pray that, as we encounter the living God in Holy Scripture and throughout creation, we remain, like Phillip, open to the movement of the Spirit.  And maybe then, like that Ethiopian in the desert, we will encounter Jesus in the wilderness.

Shabbat shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

25 responses to “Do You Understand What You Are Reading?

  1. What power there is in the Word to discover him and be united in the one family. Encouraging thoughts as always.

  2. apocalypseicons

    It is indeed incredible how Jesus leads us to those who are rejected and gives us the opportunity to encompass them and include them.

  3. What struck me in reading this passage this week was the eunuch’s declaration that he would not understand unless someone explained it to him. While I’m fond of the Protestant view that anyone can read and interpret scripture for him/herself, I also like the humility before the Bible this shows.

    • Matt,

      Yes, I think you’re precisely right. And it’s worth reflecting on the difference between reading Scripture in the privacy of one’s own reading lamp, hearing Scripture, and studying the Word in a community of believers.

      God’s great peace,

      Br. James

  4. Alethea Eason

    “The wilderness road” . . . I love this image. How many times have I been on the wilderness road? Most of my life . . .this has always been a favorite story of mine. Inclusion has always been a part of Christianity from the beginning, as you say here. May I hear the YES of God more and more in my life.

  5. Charles Fogarty

    As a gay Christian, I have always seen the Ethiopian eunuch as my fellow excluded believer, but like the eunuch I have come to hear my call to be a member of Christ’s body.

  6. barbaraduffield

    “Phillip asks this man if he understands the passage he is reading. The eunuch does not understand whether the passage is autobiographical or if the prophet is speaking of someone else. Phillip explains to him the gospel (good news) about Jesus, demonstrating that the early Church had already begun to read the later passages of Isaiah (sometimes called 2nd Isaiah) through the lens of the Christian experience.
    As they travel along, something remarkable happens. They come upon a pool or creek or a puddle of water and the eunuch asks Phillip to baptize him. Phillip does so, expanding the Church well beyond the reach anyone would have imagined before. Not coincidentally, this happens because two of God’s children read Scripture together, expanding the reach of the Word. Often in community, we discover new ways to read and understand the good news Christ came to bring us.”

    Forgive the lengthy copy and paste above, but it strikes me that this blog, (in particular the section above), and others of the same ilk, are the modern version of precisely what Phillip offered the eunuch.

    Again, “Often in community, we discover new ways to read and understand the good news Christ came to bring us.” That is the value of this written offering of yours give to me. God’s richest blessings to you, Br. James.

    • Barbara,

      That’s certainly my hope, as it’s within my ability to do so. Thank you for the support, the encouragement, and most of all for the blessing.

      Pax Christi,

      Br. James

  7. Dear Brother James,

    I hate to repeat what I’ve said more than once, but I agree with Barbara: your comment about discovering “in community… new ways to read and understand the good news” is a good description of what happens at this site. I learn from your initial thoughts, and then I learn more from your interactions with each of us. Thanks for taking so much of your time to do this.

    Ron

    • Ron,

      I think the community that has grown up here is very, very special. As always, you are most welcome. I’m enjoying your current series a great deal, by the way.

      God watch over thee and me,

      Br. James

  8. So many marvelous points described from this passage, Brother James! Picking one… the Holy Spirit’s inclusive building of the body of Christ! My, that we would have that fervent a desire to see all nations know our Savior. Great words on this day, friend! God bless.

    • Dear Sweat family,

      It’s a powerful passage, isn’t it? (Our churches should study it more often and more seriously). I’m so glad you liked the piece.

      Blessings on you and your house,

      Br. James

  9. Powerful lesson today brother James. To me it speaks of the importance of baptism … what doeth hinder me… no water in a desert? Good post!

    • Paul,

      I’m glad you liked the post. Yes, I think that good Ethiopian had a rich and immediate understanding of the importance of baptism.

      God watch over us both, my friend,

      Br. James

  10. Noel Williams (prhayz) www.prhayz.com

    Excellent post brother James. I thank you very much for sharing. God bless!

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