Jim Taylor's Columns - 'Soft Edges' and 'Sharp Edges'

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Published on Wednesday, October 16, 2019

The eunuch and the hitchhiker

Who is the most despicable person you can think of? The kind of person you would least like to spend any time with? The kind of person who makes your skin crawl?

            Back in biblical times, you’d probably be thinking of a eunuch.

            Eunuchs had three strikes against them.

            A eunuch was almost always a slave.

            And probably a foreigner captured in battle, a former enemy

            And strike three, a eunuch wasn’t a man anymore. He had been castrated. Although castration of an adult male wouldn’t necessarily prevent him getting an erection, he couldn’t perform that most essential function of manhood – fathering children to continue his family line.

            The King James version called the process the “begats.” Abraham begat Isaac, Isaac begat Esau and Jacob, Jacob begat Joseph, and so on. The gospels of both Matthew and Luke list Jesus’ ancestry -- in Matthew through 42 generations, in Luke through 77.  Regardless of the details, the “begats” establish his credentials.

            But eunuchs could not beget anyone.

            That was why kings and princes put eunuchs in charge of their harems. Whatever else he did – and your imagination is as good as mine -- the eunuch couldn’t produce potential challengers for the throne through the king’s wives.

            The Bible records King David having nine wives and 19 sons. All those sons were entitled to compete for his crown – which they did, even murdering each other. King Solomon reputedly had 700 wives and 300 concubines, exponentially increasing the potential for conflict.

 

No boundaries

            Because eunuchs were “safe,” they were often promoted to senior positions.

            After the event now called Pentecost, the small band of Jesus’ followers grew dramatically. Three thousand Jews visiting Jerusalem converted and were baptised the first day! Even women!

            But there were still limits. Jesus was for those within the Jewish family, descended from Abraham.

            And then one day, a disciple named Philip was walking along the road to Gaza when a chariot came by. A chariot meant the person in it had to be important. This one carried a eunuch from the royal court in Ethiopia, the fabled home of one of Solomon’s wives, the Queen of Sheba. This one was the national treasurer.

            The man been struggling with the writings of the Jewish prophet Isaiah. Philip hopped on board and helped him understand Isaiah’s message.

            According to the Book of Acts, the eunuch believed. So Philip baptized him. In a stream or pond near the road.

            When Philip returns to Jerusalem, he’s greeted by the other disciples: “Hey, Philip, how was your trip to Gaza?”

            And Philip says: “Pretty good. I baptized a eunuch!”

            “You did what?” they chorus.

            It was forbidden. It was unthinkable. But baptism doesn’t have an “Undo” button.

            And so an outcast, a eunuch, became a member of the followers of Christ.

            This story was preserved in the Bible, I believe, because it illustrates the radical openness of the new movement. No one was excluded. Not even eunuchs.

            Those in the Christian church today who want to build walls around their private preserve, restricting the entry of criminals or addicts or transsexuals, of people with black or brown or beige skins, or of people who call God by another name, might benefit from re-reading the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch.

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Copyright © 2019 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups, and links from other blogs, welcomed; all other rights reserved.

                  To comment on this column, write jimt@quixotic.ca

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YOUR TURN

 

Responses to last week’s column about facilitating discussion fell loosely into two groups – those who agreed that an appeal to authority was usually an attempt to squelch opposing opinions, and those who argued that authority was essential.

 

Tom Watson: “I totally agree that using a scripture verse as authority pretty much shuts down the discussion. However, I wonder whether ‘In my experience...’ can't do the same. After all, I haven't had the benefit of the experience so how might I argue against it?”

 

John McTavish had doubts: “Speaking from experience is a tricky tactic when it comes to faith in general and theology in particular. My own experience in theological studies, for example, taught me that theologies of experience are not always the best way to go. And yet finding that better way can't be found without, among other things, life experience, including of course the experience of theological study.”

 

Frank Martens admitted, “I use the experiences of others far more than my own. I have a lot of practical, hands on, experience, so don’t hesitate to pass that on; whether people accept it, is up to them. I don’t have a lot of critical experience in philosophy so I rely on professionals to dispense that. But, I write a lot of letters to newspapers, most of which are printed (with the exception of criticism of Israelis or Jews), and here I use the expertise of others who I think are far more experienced than 90% of the readers.”

 

Steve Roney: “Ruling out appeals to authority, and having everyone speak only from their own experience, without ever being challenged, endlessly enables discussion, but it prevents any resolution. One talks on forever, but to no purpose.

            “As an editor, if you reject the authority of dictionaries on word meanings and correct spelling; reject the authority of standard grammar and a given style guide, everyone is then just spelling from their own experience.

            “Do you believe in climate change? This is purely on accepting authority. It is impossible for you, or anyone, to make a case on personal experience. You may detect that last winter was colder than this winter. Someone else, living somewhere else, will inevitably have had the opposite experience.

            “But this is true of almost all science. You have not yourself done the experiments. You have no personal experience of evolution, either. You cannot; nobody can. Nor do you have much personal experience that would make you believe that the world is round and circles the sun.

            “You reject the Bible specifically as authority; you need to make a case for why it is not authoritative. The whole point of having a canon, after all, is to have an authority. You are right, of course, that the Bible can be quoted selectively and out of context to justify almost anything. This is not a criticism of the Bible; this is a criticism of those who are misrepresenting it.”

 

Laurna Tallman disagreed with my assertion that the scriptures (Christian or other) “were never written as reasoned arguments for a unified worldview.”

            Launa countered, “I contend that they always were written as reasoned arguments for a unified worldview. I think that viewpoint is defensible if you read the Bible as history, not as an infallibly ‘correct’ unity. It is a compilation of many, many stories of many types. The core of the stories that survive is rational if viewed through the prism of the culture that produced them. That core is why they have been preserved in a canon. You must understand the culture to understand the story.

            “If you appreciate the stories, you will see past their discrepancies compared with modern knowledge to marvel at the extent to which they were and remain rational and, therefore, useful (even for quotation).

            “There are ideas at the core of many of those stories that resonate in our times. I would further contend that these resonances have to do with our anatomical similarities. [Laurna is an expert on how hearing affects the ability to learn: JT] Experiences that have become labeled ‘spiritual’ depend ona certain capacity for learning. Thus, not all humans experience all of them.

            “I think your request that people speak out of their own experience is extremely valuable, as long as you realize some people may be prevented by their own audio deficits from experiencing them.”

 

Bob Rollwagen: “Personal experience is a real-life approach to learning. The challenge is to understand the boundaries that each individual speaks from. Call-in radio shows seem to be a good illustration of this. Callers neglect to define their orientation. For example, a radio complaint that teachers abuse sick days: is this from someone who has a fixed salary above poverty and full paid benefits? Or [from someone who] earns six figures and pays for all their medical support? Their experience is not that of a teacher living most of the working day in close proximity with children who introduce unique health issues to the group every day.

            “It has also been my experience that most try not to disclose their actual reality. Wealth is a highly guarded secret to which we all feel entitlement. Some make social contributions but, again from my experience, these are minute compared to their wealth and life style.”

            Bob wondered “how an individual can believe it is better to have $100 in our pocket instead of full support of a societal support structure worth many thousands of dollars, and also wish to reduce our support of international poverty in favour of more wealth locally for our society, one of the richest in the world already. I wonder what decisions this person’s experience will bring and how the resulting focus will benefit the 95% that do not have a similar life.”

            “Life is political in many ways. Unfortunately, few understand this reality. Thanks to you for your approach to creating dialogue. It is unfortunate that most do not know how to listen.”

 

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PSALM PARAPHRASE

 

In this season of the church year, I have a choice between a selection of verses from the Bible’s longest psalm, Psalm 119, and Psalm 121: “I lift up my eyes to the hills…” As one who lives among mountains, there is no choice! But I’m also aging, and I live among people who are aging. Our limbs and muscles no longer respond the way they once did. I had that thought in mind when I wrote this paraphrase of Psalm 121.

 

1          I lift my eyes to the mountain peaks --

            but my feet remain rooted to the ground.

            I need help to walk the rest of my way.

2          God doesn't move my feet for me.

            God doesn't put a spring back into my stride

            or a bounce back into my behavior.

            But God keeps me going.

3          I must be more careful now.

            Sticks and stones will break my bones

            if I stumble over them.

4          It's harder to "lift my eyes unto the hills"

            when I need to keep them constantly on the path.

            Perhaps it's a good thing I don't have to hurry through life, any more.

            I can afford the time to pause, to reflect, to be grateful.

5          The Lord of life has looked after me.

            I've never had to carry a burden bigger than I could bear.

6          My successes did not subvert me,

            nor did despairs destroy me.

7          The Lord of life will look after you too.

            You can never see the end of the road when you take that first step,

8          but you can take each step of the way

            with faith that the Holy One will guide your feet

            right to the end.

            Thanks be to God.

 

For paraphrases of most of the psalms used by the Revised Common Lectionary, you can order my book Everyday Psalmsfrom Wood Lake Publishing, info@woodlake.com.

 

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TECHNICAL STUFF

 

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                  I write a second column each Sunday called Sharp Edges, which tends to be somewhat more cutting about social and justice issues. To sign up for Sharp Edges, write to me directly, jimt@quixotic.ca, or send a note to sharpedges-subscribe@lists.quixotic.ca

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PROMOTION STUFF

 

To use the links in this section, you’ll have to insert the necessary symbols. Some spam filters have blocked my posts because they’re suspicious of some of the web links.

                  Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca He’s also relatively inexpensive!

                  I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom. She also has lots of beautiful photos. Especially of birds.

                  Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony” -- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’s readers. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom (NB that’s “watso” not “watson”)

 

ALVA WOOD’S ARCHIVE

                  I have acquired (don’t ask how) the complete archive of the late Alva Wood’s collection of satiric and sometimes wildly funny columns about a mythical village’s misadventures. I’ve put them on my website: http://quixotic.ca/Alva-Wood-Archive. You’re welcome to browse. No charge. (Although maybe if I charged a fee, more people would find the archive worth visiting.)

 

 

 

 

 


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Author: Jim Taylor

Categories: Soft Edges

Tags: church, Ethiopia, eunuchs, harem, Pentecost

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