Thursday, 8 May 2014

The Ethiopian eunuch: a case study in mercy

Ethiopian eunuch

Today’s first reading, from the Acts of the Apostles (8:26-40), tells the story of St. Philip’s journey from Jerusalem to Gaza, during which he meets the chief treasurer of the Queen of Ethiopia, who is a eunuch (i.e., man castrated to become a more trustworthy and disinterested servant). The eunuch is reading from the book of Isaiah and, upon being asked by Philip whether he understands what he reads, Philip is invited to join the eunuch in his chariot to explain it to him. The passage in question was:
“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he opened not his mouth.

In (his) humiliation justice was denied him.
Who will tell of his posterity?
For his life is taken from the earth.”
(cf Isaiah 53:7-8)
Philip told the eunuch that the passage was about Jesus and proceeded to tell him more. When they came to some water, the eunuch said: “Look, there is water. What is to prevent my being baptized?” (Acts 8:36). And Philip baptized him.

You might think: “so what?,” but the above is actually quite an important passage given what is going on in the Church today, since, I believe, it gives an example of what being welcoming of everyone and focused on mercy mean. The eunuch in question here wasn’t just some guy who wanted to be baptized and whom Philip baptized as a matter of fact, to boost statistics.

The Hebrew Bible is very clear that “the law forbids the community of the Lord to accept anyone who has undergone destruction or removal of their sexual organs” (cf. Deuteronomy 23:2), as is certainly the case with eunuchs. Since St. Philip - like Jesus - was a Jew, and Jesus’ followers at that time were part of the Jewish community, these restrictions would have been know to him and there would have been an obligation to honor and adhere to them. Nonetheless, it must have been Jesus’ imperative to “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19) that lead Philip to baptize - and thereby welcome into the community of Jesus’ followers - not only a non-Jew, but a member of a different race and of a sexual minority, explicitly outlawed by the Old Testament. None of these obstacles mattered to him, since “[t]he Spirit said to Philip, “Go and join up with that chariot.”” (Acts 8:29).

Pope Francis’ homily from this morning also deals with this first reading, instead of the Gospel as is more customary, and focuses on Philip’s attitude towards the eunuch:
“It’s impossible to evangelize without dialogue. It’s impossible. Because you must begin from where the person is, who is to be evangelized. And how important this is. ‘But, father, so much time is wasted because every person has their own story, comes with this or that, their own ideas …’ And, time is wasted. God wasted more time when he created the world, and He did well to do so! Dialogue. Waste time with that person because that person is whom God wants you to evangelize, what’s most important is that you give them the news about Jesus. But the way they are, not the way they ought to be: the way they are now.

Let’s think about these three moments of evangelization: the docility to evangelize; to do what God is asking, secondly, dialogue with people – but in dialogue, one begins from where they are – and thirdly, trusting in grace: grace is more important than all of bureaucracy. ‘What prevents this?’ Remember this. Often we in the Church are a factory of obstacles, because of which people can’t arrive at grace. May the Lord help us to understand this.”
Here, I believe, it is important to bear in mind what Francis means by “evangelizing,” which is “[t]o give witness with joy and simplicity to what we are and what we believe in.” There is no compulsion here, no obligation, no proselytizing. And that St. Philip had the same attitude is clear also from it being the eunuch’s initiative to become baptized. What struck me here is also the great simplicity and obviousness of his request: “Look, there is water. What is to prevent my being baptized?” Having received Jesus’ Good News from Philip, the eunuch has a new optics, through which the obstacles of old become invisible and it is only God’s welcome that can be seen. For the Church to then turn to this guy and say: “Sorry, mate, but you don’t qualify,” would have been absurd and is not at all what St. Philip did.

This brings me to a superb interview with Cardinal Walter Kasper, given to Commonweal magazine during his visit to the USA this week, where he speaks about mercy as follows:
“[The] ontological understanding of God was so strong that justice became the main attribute of God, not mercy. Thomas Aquinas clearly said that mercy is much more fundamental because God does not answer to the demands of our rules. Mercy is the faithfulness of God to his own being as love. Because God is love. And mercy is the love revealed to us in concrete deeds and words. So mercy becomes not only the central attribute of God, but also the key of Christian existence. Be merciful as God is merciful. We have to imitate God’s mercy. [...]

Mercy concerns not only individuals. It also an imperative for the church itself. The church defined itself at the Second Vatican Council as a sacrament of God’s grace. How can the church be sacramental, a sign and instrument of mercy, when she herself doesn’t live out mercy? So many people do not perceive the church as merciful. It’s hard. [...]

There are those who believe the church is for the pure. They forget that the church is also a church of sinners. We all are sinners. And I am happy that’s true because if it were not then I would not belong to the church. It’s a matter of humility.”
The key idea to me here is Kasper’s beautifully synthetic: “God does not answer to the demands of our rules. Mercy is the faithfulness of God to his own being as love.” Our own openness to others must be informed by a desire to share with them the joy that we have received from being brothers and sisters of Jesus and we must be weary of placing obstacles between them and God - no matter what they might be.