What’s a eunuch? The story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, which many of us will hear read this coming Sunday, reminded me of my youthful ignorance of things such as eunuchs. As a teenager being introduced to the depths of the bible, anything that had to do with something sexual was avoided by our old fashioned pastor. Whatever eunuchs were was off limits, as were questions about harlots, women known to be sinners, adulterers, Moses’ natural power that had not abated, even in old age, and the like. I recall that there was some vague reference to the sin of spilling one’s seed, which was an act reputed to also cause poor eyesight. Being a tad on the naive side, it took me a while to catch on that my 20/800 vision made me a suspect for some reason. But I digress. What’s a eunuch?
Knowing the answer to that, knowing that he traveled on a very long and dangerous journey to worship at a temple into which he could not enter, is the key to understanding the good news of the kingdom that is near to all and not just to some. The gospel message is, among other things, quite earthy. I don’t think that troubled most people over the centuries in which the earthiness of living was an every day experience, and, therefore, not a subject to elicit juvenile twittering combining embarrassment with curiosity. I don’t know when that came in, but it certainly found a voice in Victorian prudishness that infected the religiosity of America through at least the first two thirds of the 20th century. My guess is that that faux prudishness one experienced in chruch had something to do with the mass exodus of baby boomers from it. Remember, they were the members of the Sunday School classes so large that they nearly overwhelmed the capacity of local congregations. What they learned in those years was such thin gruel, and so disconnected from what they saw going on all around them, that growing up and leaving behind their childish ways included leaving behind the religious trivialities they had learned in church.
In an odd twist, we religious leaders and teachers have become far more comfortable talking honestly about the earthiness of scripture as it relates to human sexuality, but we are losing ground in another arena – agriculture.
The bible is not just earthy about sex, it’s also earthy about agriculture. History, wisdom, poetry and the gospel stories are saturated with agricultural settings and metaphors. This Sunday some of us will have the vine and its branches. Last Sunday we had the good shepherd. Barley, wheat, tares, early rains, late rains, sheep, goats, asses, plowing, seeding, reaping, threshing, and more are all vehicles that carry the depth, breadth and weight of meaning required for a full understanding of what scripture has to offer.
It’s not much of a problem where I live. We are surrounded by agriculture. Even we townies know at least something about the basics. But we are a shrinking population amidst the many for whom the language of the farm is as foreign as Farsi. In our urban sophistication we can handle sex without much ado, but what are we to do with grape vines? Who even knows that the vine is not the fruit bearing tendril snaking its way onto a trellis like frame, but the root stock itself? Who understands about grafting new varieties onto old stock? Why is a lamb symbolic of anything other than cuteness? Talk about irrelevant nonsense! If that is what religion is about, why bother?
If I choose to preach this Sunday on Jesus’ self identification as the true vine, the few members of my little rural congregation have only to wander to the edge of town to be in the vineyards. For my big city born and bred friends, a vine is highly problematic, and Jesus being the true vine is all but meaningless – unless. Unless the preacher come teacher is able to impart enough information for the metaphor to make sense. It means throwing out the thin gruel and cooking up some thick, rich porridge.
The solution? Make ag-econ 101 a required introductory course in seminary? Maybe not, but the language we use to guide nascent Christians into the language of the bible is way too important to forget about it.