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 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. (Acts 16:16-34 NRSV)
There are slaves and there are slaves.
There are slaves trapped in mental illness; slaves to addictions; slaves captured by lust for other things that get in the way of their relationship with God.
The slave girl in our story certainly is enslaved. Luke doesn’t even tell us her name. She probably has a mental illness; some suggest schizophrenia. It has given her the ability to read people’s fortunes. Whether they are true or not, probably doesn’t matter, as long as she continues making money for her owners.
She is owned by others; she has no freedom; she is locked in her illness. Perhaps her fortune-telling skills tend to be truthful, because she definitely recognizes Paul and Silas accurately: “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.”
She’s also a pest. Day in and day out she catches up with Paul and harangues the crowds with her words, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” She’s relentless. Paul and Silas try to slip out the back door and through the alleyways. There she is, waiting for them. They leave home early, she’s there. They leave home late, she’s there.
No matter what they do, she continues her tirade: “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” Finally, Paul can stand no more. Is he angry at a system that uses women like her for profit? Is he embarrassed? Is he tired of her stocking him? Or has her voice finally gotten on his last nerve?
We don’t know, however he puts up with it for several days before he finally turns to speak, not to her, but to the demon. “In the name of Jesus Christ, I order you to come out of her.” And it does. This side-lined slave girl continues to be sidelined in our story. We have no idea what happened to her. Did Paul do her a favor by releasing the demon from her or not? I truly hope she found a place in the house church that Lydia supported.
With her healing, though, we’re led to the next group of slaves: her owners. They are slaves of the almighty denarius ; slaves of wealth; slaves of fear of anyone who doesn’t look and act like them. They’re anger and fear won’t permit them to marvel at the miracle of healing. No, these men have to be dealt with! They gather Paul and Silas up and take them before the magistrates.
And here we meet the next set of slaves. Government officials enslaved by power and stature. They can’t dismiss the charges or they’ll appear soft on crime. Perhaps, they too, are afraid of others who aren’t like them. Caught up in the trappings of their position, they, too, are unable to marvel at a miracle of healing.
Then we meet the jailer. He holds the keys to the freedom that his prisoners long for. But, as the holder of the keys, he is enslaved to Rome’s military who will not go leniently if he loses prisoners.
Finally, we hear a little bit about the prisoners. Those who have done things to hurt society, they, too, slaves.
Slaves of disease and illness; of money and wealth; of power and stature; of job and career. Only two men in this story aren’t slaves to society: the prisoners, Paul and Silas. They remain in the deepest, darkest part of the prison, singing hymns and praying. Don’t you wonder what the others in the prison are thinking? Yet, the text tells us they listened. It’s as if they listened and heard the message.
We’ve experienced earthquakes quite a bit the past few years. I remember an earthquake that touched my home in the dark of night. It scared me; I didn’t know what was happening. But that earthquake was only a rumble next to the one that hit Philippi that night. It shook the foundations; would the roof fall in on them? Look the doors are standing open. And how did my chains come loose? Quickly the jailer comes from his nearby home to check on the prisoners.
His worst fears have come to pass: the jail is unlocked and the prisoners have surely escaped. He’ll do the honorable thing, but he’ll do it his way. He’ll fall on his sword. Paul figures it out and calls out: “We’re all here!”
And that was Paul and Silas’ testimony: they didn’t run. They stayed where they were, not because they were guilty of anything, but because they were men of faith who would see this difficult situation through.
People of faith are like that. They see slavery in all walks of life: fear of immigrants; fear of Muslims or African-Americans or anyone who doesn’t like them; fear of our quickly changing world; love of money, prestige and power; love of anything that impedes their relationship with God. People of faith identify enslavement both in themselves and in others.
People of faith pray to God for release from those demons in themselves and others. And they keep praying, trusting that transformation is happening, day by day. They see the world around them from 30,000 feet and know there’s a better way to be. They read about Jesus and try to emulate him, even the hard stuff like eating with sinners and tax collectors.
People of faith testify to the love of Christ by simply being. Their actions speak louder than words. Their love crosses the divides of race, gender, culture, economy and stature.
When the jailer met Paul and Silas in that jail cell, free in more ways than one, he wanted to be a part of that. “Tell me what I need to do,” he asked. And his first response to his new life of transformation was to care for the prisoners. He brought them into his home and tended their wounds.
What challenges have you faced? What challenges you today? What have you done in the past to remain faithful in your response to the challenge?
Prayer. So easy that it’s almost too easy. Or is it? Sure, we can pray for the ordeal to be over. However, resting in prayer and learning to listen for Christ’s voice brings about understanding and insight. Resting in prayer brings a sense of peace and well-being, knowing that no matter how it turns out, God will not abandon and God is still in charge.
Talk with others who have come through a similar situation. Someone you can trust who can help you remain faithful and will remain in prayer with you and for you.
A friend recently suggested to me that people don’t go to church because they think they have to get their lives in order before they’re good enough to enter. If they only knew! If they only knew that sitting in those seats and pews are slaves to all manner of ailments. If they only knew that what they see are people who aren’t good enough, but come anyway. If they only knew what awaited them: hope, forgiveness, healing, acceptance.
There are slaves and there are slaves. Today, I pray that you can honor that part of you that is captured and hurting. Recognize it and honor it and spend time with God. Live into hope. Trust that healing will come.
All glory and honor be to God.