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Visions from The Catacombs, Week Before May 8, 2016

Acts 16:16-34

16One 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. 17While 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.” 18She 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.
19But 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. 20When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews 21and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” 22The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. 23After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. 24Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
25About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 26Suddenly 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. 27When 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. 28But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” 29The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. 34He 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.

What I Am Learning:

Paul and his partner Silas were out in public, in the wild space of competing religions and philosophies of the first century Roman Empire. As they were out and about, a young girl followed them, saying “These men are the servants of the Most High God.”

This young girl, like so many young girls today, was a victim of human trafficking. She was not trafficked to make money from forced sex, but because she was a “diviner.” A diviner was a person who could sense things about you and your future. She was possessed by a spirit, in their first century way of seeing the world, that gave her this ability. She was both possessed by the spirit and a possession of the two men who owned her.

So Paul got annoyed. Now the text does not say why he became annoyed. It could have been because she kept bothering them. It could have been because she was making their mission harder. This makes Paul seem like a heartless person who only brought healing to her when she became annoying enough.

The word here can also mean “grieved.” Paul may have been grieved by her situation to the point that he had to act. In this take on this word, her continuing announcement about who they were was a kind of plea. She knew that she was a slave of this spirit and these two men. She knew that Paul was a slave of the God of all humans. Perhaps she was hoping that Paul’s service to God would include bringing her to freedom.

Whatever his motivation, Paul frees her from her possession.

In the ancient world, spirits, both of good and evil nature, existed in a hierarchy. They were required to obey the more powerful spirits. They were also required to obey the agents of more powerful spirits. Paul is not uniquely powerful, but rather invokes the name of Jesus, who as the Son of God is able to order a lesser spirit around.

I know this sounds a bit weird, but it seems that is the way first century people understood these things.

The divination pimps were not happy that she had now lost her value. So they went to the magistrates of the town who had Paul and Silas severely flogged and had them imprisoned. Note that today, if a pimp lost control of a victim of human trafficking, the magistrates of our day would help the victim! The Roman system was one that supported the enslavement of human beings. By freeing this young woman from this spirit of divination Paul was challenging the whole system of enslavement.

In prison, Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns. This is not, it seems to me, a moment of cute pietism, but rather all they could do with bruises, welts and cuts on their backs. It was all they could do to find comfort in the night.

Overnight an earthquake shook the prison so hard that the prisoners’ chains were released from the walls. They had a chance to escape. But they stayed in their cell anyway. The jailer came running and as about to kill himself for fear of the torture that awaited him for failing to keep his prisoners. It seems the jailer was captive to the system of slavery, too. Paul yells for him to stop, as all the prisoners were still accounted for.

Paul and Silas saved his life and probably the lives of his family by their willingness to stay in prison. In the tradition of nonviolent leadership, Paul accepts the unjust punishment while remembering his own dignity.

The jailer tends their wounds, feed them and is baptized: they become a part of Jesus’ new and beloved community. The text says that his family rejoiced that he had been freed from the culture of domination. One can only imagine what a obedience to a culture of enslavement of others taught him about how to order his family.

We are becoming increasingly aware of the number of young women and men who are victims of human trafficking in our own time. Exploited by the pimps and the johns and then discarded when their “value” is used up.

I don’t know if Paul was annoyed or grieved. Maybe he was both annoyed and grieved. Maybe he was so focused on his mission to the people Philippi that could not see that his mission included her. Perhaps he was so overwhelmed by the culture of domination, the degradation of human beings in so many forms, that he could not see he until her cries finally got through to him. Maybe he was so grieved to see a young girl, vulnerable and exploited that even knowing that a flogging and imprisonment awaited him, he could not keep silent any longer.

Perhaps we experience all of these reactions when we are faced with the reality that one million young girls are exploited by the sex slave trade in the world. I know I do.

What is challenging is that while Paul and Silas engaged the injustices of this city, there was not systemic change as the result of their work. We don’t know what happened to the girl. Did some even greater injustice happen to her? We don’t know what happens to the jailer. Did he get in trouble for releasing Paul and Silas?

What I like about the story is that God was working in Paul and Silas to free everyone in the system from the crushing demands of the Empire. They made a public witness to the freeing power of God. But it could be that their small public witness evoked a new kind of imagination in Philippi that shook the shackles of fear and inaction from others, and the young girl and the jailer were but the first to remember their belovedness. Perhaps they were like seeds of freedom and hope for all those in that town, even if sown by imperfect sowers.

This can free us up to see ourselves as people through whom God is sowing seeds of hope and freedom and love for others.