Acts 16: 16-34
“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. 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.” 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. 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. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks. About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 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. 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. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas.Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. 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.”
This passage, depicting Paul and Silas coming upon a girl in bondage to both men and an evil spirit, is perhaps a little more tangible this week. The news reports of the kidnapper in Ohio who held three women for 10 years is utterly horrifying. And we see a woman in similar bondage here, although she is not being hidden but rather exploited by men profiting off of her. And what is worse, these actions are being accepted by society. Unfortunately it becomes clear here that the subjugation and exploitation of women has a long history.
The woman is bound by the masters as well as a spirit of divination. Yet in her bondage she is still able to interject words of truth. We witness her following Paul and Silas around, crying “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” She does this so long that the text says Paul gets annoyed with her. What an odd scenario. Perhaps his annoyance comes from the woman proclaiming the type of truth that can make us uncomfortable. Have you been around someone suffering from mental illness? When I worked at the food distribution in San Diego, we had a lot of people come to get food suffering from PTSD, from alcoholism, from schizophrenia. And I remember a lot of times they were able to pick up on my emotional state or anxieties and were also not shy about sharing these bits of truth.
In any case, after a few days of hearing this statement proclaimed Paul has had enough, and cures her of her illness. And we can think, thank God, shes free!! But no, she’s not free. She still remains a slave, at least for the time being. Property of the men. So there is no rejoicing, no joy among those in the community. There is anger, not just from her masters but from the rest of society. There is a call for vengeance on those who took away her special abilities. Religion has become mixed with economics, with the men’s livelihood, and in Roman society as now I think we know what wins out.
Yet the anger is disguised, couched in excuses and justifications. What they said was “these men are disturbing our city. They are Jews. They are pushing customs we are not familiar with.” Justifying their economic interests through the veil of race, of nationalism, of tradition. Blaming injustice on immigrants, on customs. Paul went against the rules of society. The crowd is saying this is just the way things work. This is the price of freedom. And the crowd falls in line behind the business leaders, with Paul and Silas, those who upset the system, thrown into jail.
But this story forces us to ask what really is slavery and what is freedom? The woman as well as Paul and Silas are labeled and shown to be enslaved in this story. Yet the woman in the story is freed by Paul, even if not from her physical status. Paul and Silas, bound in chains in prison, singing songs and inwardly free from concern. And such freedom illustrates how the people are not free at all. They are in fact slaves to the system, slaves to money, slaves to the girl who they are using for profit and entertainment.
Paul here demonstrates the power of the gospel to break open the internal structure of an unjust society. One action is enough to freak everyone out about the potential ramifications of justice. Showing this one woman the power of God completely confuses who is free and who is in bondage.
And the question this leads us to is are we truly free? We say we are the land of the free, and while I don’t think we are naive we perhaps still implicitly believe this. But we can see in this story how entrenched the power of economics is. And in the wake of this recession I would say it is even more so the case that in the recent past. School systems, city management, health services, immigration – all of these are now discussed in light of job creation and profits. And we must ask are we seeking out those in bondage? Are we the ones in bondage? Are we part of the crowd? How often do we justify our actions that inevitably use others? ‘We have bills to pay.’ Or, ‘there isn’t an alternative to this type of clothing – I can’t do anything about unsafe warehouse conditions in Bangladesh.’ Yet this story confuses the notion of who is free, and who is enslaved. Has Jesus freed you from the burden of others using you? And are you freeing others from this burden?
We see here that bondage to God is ultimate freedom. Being slaves of the Most High God is salvation. And we are free to proclaim this to others without fear of upsetting the system. We can say of course caring for the sick and the poor and the immigrant is going to impact the economy. But we don’t care because we are free, we have been freed from these petty anxieties.
I’m not sure if you heard about the events that happened at the General Assembly over the last two weeks. For the last two Mondays, North Carolina residents have been protesting the slew of recent unjust laws such as refusing to accept the expansion of Medicaid, cutting unemployment benefits, ending the earned income tax credit, and adding new restrictions on voting. 30 people were arrested last Monday, and 17 the week before. These people were handcuffed and charged with trespassing and failure to disperse, among other things. Those arrested were professors from Duke and UNC, Reverends, school teachers, students. What they are witnessing to is that freedom is not found in economics, or political power – it is found in God. As Christians we are called to expose these systems and lies and justifications and fears in order to free others from the bondage these systems create and exploit. This story from Acts shows us that Christianity is still relevant and extremely necessary. The world needs the Body of Christ to illustrate a freedom that calls for the sharing of resources, of loving, of exemplifying hope.
Being a slave of the Most High God means our lives are not our own. Our baptism symbolizes the death of self and a new life in Christ. We are no longer our own, but instead bound to the community of believers both as a local community and the larger communion that spans the earth and centuries. We have to come back to the table to become refreshed and rejuvenated through the heavenly food and drink of the Kingdom. But in these acts means we are free, free to envision and explore and proclaim to others the way that freedom is not what you might think. Freedom in slavery – what a beautiful paradox. Amen.