16 One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. 17 While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” 18 She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour.
19 But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. 20 When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews 21 and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” 22 The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. 23 After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. 24 Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 26 Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. 27 When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” 29 The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32 They spoke the word of the Lord[c] to him and to all who were in his house. 33 At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. 34 He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.
Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
In last week’s reading from Acts, we met Lydia, the Gentile woman of considerable means who brought herself and her whole household to faith in Jesus Christ, with a group baptism held in the midst of great joy. Paul and his entourage, including Silas, and the narrator (perhaps Luke himself), and others, must have been feeling pretty good about how things were going.
They followed their routine of going to “the place of prayer,” perhaps down by the river where they had first met Lydia. We can believe that they kept to their practice of prayer and teaching, preaching the good news of Jesus Christ, whether or not things were going well.
On his regular trips to the place of prayer, Paul kept encountering a woman who was very different from Lydia. While Lydia was a woman of position and many possessions, with her own household and a business to run, this other woman, really a young girl, was a person in the street, a slave-girl, owned by other humans but also held captive by a spirit that appeared to give her special powers.
The picture that is painted of this young girl is somewhat different, then, from the stories we have heard about people tortured by spirits and demons usually encountered (and exorcized) by Jesus and his followers. This girl is a lucrative small-business enterprise for the men who own her.
Many people would travel to Phillipi and go to the temple to seek out people like this girl. There was a fairly good tourism trade in this sort of prediction and discernment.
Scholars describe such people as “diviners” who were believed to be able to predict
the future but also to see more deeply into realities the rest of us might miss; probably like our modern-day psychics.
However in this story her strange public announcements about Paul and his little band of missionaries, we suspect, do not bring much income to her owners and then Paul’s “healing” or freeing of her took away that income.
Now this is a very different type of healing – the text says that Paul is clearly ‘annoyed’ so that leads us to think that this exorcism is more like an impulsive action born of irritation and Paul being concerned about the girl’s welfare.
What happens next? Well nothing, we hear nothing more about this girl, we don’t know whether she remained a slave? What her owners did with her?
This woman was a slave to masters and a slave to this evil spirit. She had no power, privilege, or freedom. Yet, she speaks the truth about Paul. Her “reward” is to be freed from the spirit, but did she experience freedom from slavery? Once the girl was set free, would “true” freedom have been elusive?
Brian Peterson says, “The focus of this scene is the power of Jesus over all the spirits of the world, but we might well ask whether and how there could be a more complete freedom for this woman. The story simply leaves her behind, nameless, disturbing, and perhaps a reminder of the continuing need of liberation for so many.”
Another commentator says that he is haunted by this slave girl and by the way Paul fails to challenge the system of slavery that holds her bound just as much as the spirit had, for Paul doesn’t try to share the gospel with her.
We need to reflect on this aspect of freedom. Is Freedom always good?
When westerns go to underprivileged societies, they what to help, they want to bring freedom but do they?
Sometime the things that we try to do to help actually hinder. The samartians shoe boxes – westerners feel that they are doing a wonderful thing and I am not saying that people are not helped but it would help the communities if all the items in the shoe boxes were bought in the country then that would bolster the local economy and provide jobs and wealth in a completely different way.
Tourists visiting ‘orphans’ in Africa and Cambodia has led to orphan tourism where children are forced into ‘orphanages’ so that the owners of the orphanages can make money out of them. You get the idea, we must be careful when we think that we are giving freedom and help.
If we think about victims of domestic violence. Many people ask – why don’t they just leave? Why don’t they seek freedom from this violent partner or family member?
I have seen women who have finally broken free from such dangerous and demeaning situations. In the wake of such wondrously realized freedom, in many cases these people have found themselves suddenly struggling with the challenge of living with fewer material resources in addition to trying to rebuild their own understanding of who they are. Oh, they may no longer be battered, but they are not yet fully free from the experience. How much better they do when they have a community of others who are there to help give them what they need as they seek to move ahead.
There is another thread to this passage that focuses on the many ways we humans are captive to forces seemingly more powerful than we are. There are powers that keep us bound: old prejudices, systemic injustice that we don’t even see but certainly benefit from, a need for security, fear that makes us strangers from one another, resentment that grips us and keeps us apart…perhaps we don’t call these “demons” or even “spirits,” but they are powerful indeed and we need to be set free from them.
The story doesn’t end once freedom is realized. Rather, a community is needed to help those of us, all of us, who find ourselves formerly enslaved, perhaps newly ‘free,’ to move into the fullness of what God intends.
So the girl is freed and then left behind. There is more about freedom or lack of freedom in this passage
Paul and Silas are arrested, beaten, and put in jail. Their freedom is taken away. They are put in jail because they helped someone – how is that fair? Is that how God works? I wonder if that is what they thought?
It doesn’t seem so – what do they do?
They sing, pray and praise even though they are chained at the ankles. THEN
BOOM An earthquake hits! The prison that holds Paul and Silas captive is broken open and they are able, if they wish, to walk free.
Why doesn’t Paul run, what about the other prisoners? It says that the Jailer finds all the prisoners still there. Well we don’t know for certain, but we suspect that Paul knows the price that his jailer will pay. Maybe the other prisoners are following Paul’s lead, maybe the joyous singing has kept them all there wanting more?
We hear that the Jailer is about to kill himself because the authorities will hold him responsible for the prisoners’ escape but in this surprising turn of events, he finds Paul and Silas and all the other prisoners still there. The jailer realises something supernatural is happening and asks Paul what he must do to be saved. Paul answers simply that he should “believe on the Lord Jesus.”
Everyone in this story needs to be freed, the slave girl , the men who used her (possessed by greed), the men who judged Paul (possessed by fear and a hunger for power or maybe for the public peace), the jailer (a victim in his own way), and, most surprisingly of all, Paul and Silas themselves, who need to be freed from their narrow way of thinking.
What does it feel like to put yourself in the place of each of these characters in the story? Are there powers that keep you bound? Are there tasks that distract you from God’s own mission?
One of the most powerful captivities of our age, besides materialism and militarism, is the way fear can imprison us in our convictions and our desire for security, making us unable to open our hearts and minds to others, to events, to the God who still speaks through them.
For the Jailer, fear almost leads to death, but compassion leads to his life, and his family’s life, being transformed.
It would be wonderful indeed to know what happened to the jailer after Paul left, but perhaps we get a hint of that in what I said before. It takes a community to really help people live out their freedom.
Perhaps this jailer joined the fledgling church at Phillipi with the relatively wealthy Lydia, the slave girl. The Jesus movement fashioned and still forms churches that cross social boundaries, resulting in a unity in Jesus that the world thinks impossible. The church and being around other people who have found and are living in freedom encourage us to continue to be truly free.
How are we called to be communities of mentors and friends and guides to those who have been enslaved by poverty or violence or addiction or grief or mental illness or… well, you name it.
For the story of the slave girl surely does not end where the account in Acts leaves us. I can’t help but wonder if you and I are meant to write the ending.
Indeed, as we consider Jesus’ call to unity in John’s Gospel this week, maybe this is exactly where it begins: Maybe this unity is not so much realized as the result of weighty theological discussions, but in working together to stand alongside those who have been enslaved and are now free. Perhaps this is a unity of action and of love lived out for the sake of all who have been set free and are now trying to live into that freedom. For the sake of all of us, of course, for we are all also formerly enslaved. And for the sake of a whole world of people who are yearning for such freedom, the freedom that only comes from believing that Jesus is who he said he is and believing in the new life and freedom that comes from knowing him.
This freedom is not just for us but for everyone. Once we have known the freedom we can’t help but want that for others.
Story of Harriet Tubman
Harriet Tubman escaped slavery to become a leading abolitionist. She led hundreds of enslaved people to freedom along the route of the Underground Railroad.
Born into slavery in Maryland, Harriet Tubman (c. 1820 to March 10, 1913) escaped to freedom in the North in 1849 to become the most famous “conductor” on the Underground Railroad. Tubman risked her life to lead hundreds of family members and other slaves from the plantation system to freedom on this elaborate secret network of safe houses. A leading abolitionist before the American Civil War, Tubman also helped the Union Army during the war, working as a spy among other roles.
After the Civil War ended, Tubman dedicated her life to helping impoverished former slaves and the elderly. In honor of her life and by popular demand, in 2016, the U.S. Treasury Department announced that Harriet Tubman will replace Andrew Jackson on the center of a new $20 bill.
Like Harriet Tubman, who gained her freedom but went back into the land of slavery time and time again to free others. We have a responsibility as followers of Christ to see that chains of injustice are broken and participate in the liberation of others. This may mean using our financial freedom to help those in poverty. It may mean using our privilege and our freedom to speak out when we see our black and brown brothers and sisters mistreated and incarcerated. It could mean using our freedom to welcome others and to walk alongside them as they struggle with mental illness or addiction. Harriet Tubman said, “I had crossed the line. I was free, but there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom. I was a stranger in a strange land; and my home, after all, was down in Maryland; because my father, my mother, my brothers, and sisters, and friends were there. But I was free, and they should be free.” May we have the strength of Tubman and the power of God to work for the freedom of all peoples from the things which enslave them.
Sermon Seeds June 2, 2019
Faith Element Acts 16: 16 – 34