Bearing Your Scars, Rejoicing
The Rev. Dr. Warner Bailey
June 19, 2022
If you were an ordinary traveler and you passed the tall Black man riding in comfort in a chariot reading a scroll spread on his lap, what might you have thought of him? A man of power, no doubt. A man of means. An intellectually curious man. Somebody high up.
And considering the location where you are passing this man as you are traveling down the road from Jerusalem to the port city of Gaza, you know that this is a man far away from his native land of Ethiopia. Ethiopia was a land of fabulous wealth. Ethiopians were tall, well-built, sharp featured. They moved with grace and beauty in their ebony skins. And since not a great number of people had visited far away Ethiopia, people imagined Ethiopia as this fantasy world, where you could drop out of the rules of the regular world, where all your dark thoughts and repressed desires became real in the bodies of Black men and women.
As a traveler, you could pick up all this just from looking at him. It might surprise you, however, but not for long, when you got closer that the sign you noticed on the side of the chariot said “Treasurer” and the door of the chariot bore the seal of the Ethiopian queen Candace. You knew it! This was a very high official. This man of power was returning home from a business trip for Queen Candace.
But if you looked at what the Ethiopian treasurer of the queen was reading, it wasn’t what treasurers would normally be reading—a balance sheet or a trading report or a business contract. It was the book of Isaiah. How did this person who came from the outermost reaches of the known world get ahold of something as valuable as the Isaiah scroll?
We don’t know for sure, but this we do know. Maybe his family was part of that branch of African Jews that traced their origin to one of Noah’s sons. Maybe on one of his earlier trips to Jerusalem he picked up interest in the story of God’s life with the Jews. Maybe he was impressed and moved by what he could see of the Temple worship. Whatever it was, he wanted to know more; he went back as often as he could, and he paid a considerable sum to buy a complete Isaiah scroll of 66 chapters.
All of this is on the surface for everybody to see. A powerful Black man from a land of mystery. A very senior governmental official. Traveling with an impressive retinue. An intellectually curious and spiritually seeking man.
But there are other things to know about this Ethiopian treasurer that you cannot see. Other things covered over by his flowing robes. This man is a eunuch, a fact told to us straight out in this story not once but six times over. This man has been a victim of the grossest sexual assault with the intent of shaming him, traumatizing him, cutting him off from having a family, making him forever dependent on someone else for support. These experiences of sexual assault, shame, trauma, and vulnerability have been cut into his body. They leave deep physical and emotional scars.
These scars never go away, meaning that he can look at himself and it all come rushing back. These are the kinds of things you do to someone you want to make a slave.
We are not simply what others can see. We are not truly what we appear to others. It’s like peeling off the layers of an onion, isn’t it? We are beings far more disturbing and complex and interesting than surface impressions give on. It was not so unusual in those days for eunuchs to ascend to high status positions—yet never gain their freedom. In fact, the more the dominant slave-owner could make the subservient slave vulnerable and dependent, the more the slave-owner could count on the obedience of the enslaved person. What do we have but a high status official in a low-caste body. A good-looking Black that is not fully a man and is further feminized by being bossed by a woman. Someone free to go to Jerusalem but must hurry back to the queen. But all that is hidden under his robes.
Have we finally got this guy squarely in our sights? There is one final descriptor to be mentioned. This man had come to Jerusalem to worship, but when this Ethiopian treasurer of Queen Candace walked up the steps of the temple to go in, he would find his way blocked, not because he was Black but because he was a eunuch. Those are what the rules on the door said. He wanted to worship with the throng, to be uplifted by the swelling singing of the psalms, to be intoxicated by the clouds of incense, giving God thanks and praise and crying out to God his hurts and concerns. But his body, what had happened to his body, would not permit him to enter. Only the pure and unblemished could come into the presence of God. His scars made him—Treasurer to Queen Candace of the Ethiopians—forever unacceptable in the sight of God. But all this hurt, all this oppression, all these dark memories he carries hidden by his robes.
So he had to content himself with what he could have and what he could do. He could read the scroll of Isaiah.
“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.”
He stops his forward motion and asks, “About whom does the prophet say this? About himself or someone else?” When I teach this story to my students, I ask them “What would you say in answer?” Many of them know that what the Ethiopian is reading is the famous song of the Suffering Servant whom God appointed to suffer in solidarity with God’s people.
Through their shared suffering, God would provide healing for God’s people. It was a joyous moment when the followers of Jesus discovered that they could use this servant song to make sense out of his death by crucifixion, a kind of torture that is reserved for the worst of the worst, the marginalized. Furthermore, as the suffering servant is brought to new life after completing his mission, so Jesus was vindicated by God raising him from the grave.
Jesus’ resurrected body shows the scars of his traumatic memory, and he promises that in him we can have a new life of purpose even while bearing our scars.
So I ask my students and I ask you, “What would you take from that story from Isaiah to place upon the heart of this Ethiopian? What speaks to the scars of this man? I ask. Sometimes someone will say, “But his scars were hidden. I didn’t know he had any scars.” “Really,” I reply. “You don’t think we all carry scars? It is the scars of Jesus that make him a brother to each of us. It is the sight of Jesus living full of purpose and abundant life, despite of and in the enduring presence of his scars, that gives us hope. And it is the scars of the Ethiopian that chain him to a life that is finally hollow and bittersweet. Speak to that man about how God has made Jesus his brother and the power of abundant living even with his scars.”
The body of Jesus tells the story of life that God makes flourish in the face of enduring memories of deep hurt. The eunuch-man is baptized into this body of Christ, and suddenly he has access to a new field of power because he is now included in a personal relationship that cleanses him from deep shame, that raises him from silent humiliation, that gives him a purpose and a target far beyond the queen he faithfully serves.
So, my friends, that can be for you, too. The message of a crucified Jesus resurrected is that his scars are now badges of life triumphing over death. We are baptized into him to be sealed into that new life—scars, warts and all. So when you look at what has scarred you, you can stop it from leading you into slavery and instead see your scars as the points where you and Jesus are glued together, the contact points where his power and life flow into yours.
The story ends with the baptized eunuch going down the road rejoicing. Surely, he had been a happy man before? After all, he has money, power, intrigue, honor. Why now at the end of the story is he described as rejoicing? Money, power, intrigue, honor? None of those things got at the root of his aching, bone deep hurt. Only his new bonding to the scarred and super-surviving Jesus filled him with the hope and purpose that made him sing.