Dr. Peter Marty: To be a guide

This is a beautiful story that breathes all kinds of life

Read Acts 8:26-40

The Malmo, Sweden, library has undertaken a creative project that more libraries could afford to discover. I'm ready to recommend its merits to any librarian with an open ear. Instead of checking out books, Malmo's "Living Library" allows patrons to check out, or "borrow," live human beings. They are borrowed for 45-minute conversations in the library's outdoor cafe. 

The purpose of the venture is to introduce Malmo library users to real people who may be very different from them in circumstance or background, and who are often victims of prejudice. The goal is to gain fresh insight into our common humanity. Recent examples of people made available "for loan" include a Muslim woman, a quadriplegic, an ex-gang member, a gay man and a Gypsy.

Whenever I see a list of people who bear supposed oddities, I think of all the individuals in Scripture who kept showing up on someone's unkosher list. Gentiles, the blind, the lame, the mentally crazy, dwarfs, women, as well as people who had touched a corpse, lived with a skin disease, or suffered the disgrace of damaged sexual organs-all these individuals would have been good prospects for a living library project in biblical times. They regularly found themselves on the "unacceptable list" of the most religious people. Interestingly, they also happen to be the very ones whom Jesus regularly touched, healed, affirmed and forgave.

As Christian people trying to live a gospel of grace and make sense of an indiscriminately gracious God, we still have a strange love affair with boundary markers. There is something in the human spirit that causes us to want to think of ourselves as insiders, and others unlike us as outsiders. Who knows if this tendency is fed by pride, contentment or just a desire to feel more special than someone else. Whatever the case, we have been known to function like professional gatekeepers with some pretty spectacular screening devices. We have learned from the best of the Pharisees how to draw boundaries between respectable and disreputable, right-thinking and wrong-thinking people.

So what do we make of an Ethiopian eunuch who shows up in the book of Acts? His résumé is certainly intriguing. He has enough characteristics to make him a long shot for breaking through the religious boundary markers of his day. He was a dark-skinned foreigner, a treasury official for the queen of the Ethiopians, and one with a complicated gender issue. 

Sadly enough, this one whom many considered a "freak" had no real place in society. He obviously had no posterity. The Torah prohibited him from joining with others in worship (Deuteronomy 23). He was lost. It's no surprise that he would be rummaging through Scripture, looking for his place in life.

As the eunuch struggles to grasp what he is reading from the prophet Isaiah regarding another oppressed servant who was "cut off from the land of the living," Philip shows up. When Philip asks him if he understands this text, the Ethiopian replies, "How can I, unless someone guides me?" He then invites Philip to step into the chariot and sit beside him. 

This is a beautiful story that breathes all kinds of life. Notice that the eunuch is summoning someone to guide him, not to explain to him the Scriptures. A guide is one who has traveled a certain road and remains open to fresh discovery alongside fellow travelers. Philip's greatest gift is not that he can deliver godly information or model biblical mastery. His connection to the soul of the eunuch comes through a willingness to sit beside this searching man.

The gentleness of each player in this story is striking, especially given the aggressive evangelism of so many believers. The eunuch invites Philip to join him; it is not Philip who forces himself into the eunuch's world. This is the best of biblical hospitality.

It's hard to miss the mutuality between two very different servants. They even go down into the water together to be baptized. Philip then trots off to Azotus. We're told the eunuch disappears rejoicing ... presumably to find a living library cafe, where he can loan himself as a guide to others who want to know the greatness of God.

This is the fourth in a series of 10.

[Taken with permission from the December 2011 issue of The Lutheran magazine, available online here.]