Reading – Acts 16:16–34 (NRSV)
16 One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slavegirl 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.
Our long reading this morning begins with an exorcism of a demon from the slave girl, features a court trial, jail scene, earthquake, dramatic conversion, and ends with a household baptism.
It is an exhausting text to read and hear. More happens in these few verses than happens in my life in weeks.
This morning, however, I wish to focus on the exorcism of the demon from the slave girl.
I find this passage very curious, as have many others. We note that Paul does not cast out the demon when he first encounters the girl. He only casts out the demon once he becomes annoyed. And then he impatiently exorcises the demon. Why does he do so? Is he annoyed with her calling out, or is he concerned with her claims about their God?
Both of these two possibilities focus on her effect on Paul. On the face of it, there is good reason to do so, as Paul is very much annoyed. But, one would have to infer, in the absence of any precise textual evidence, about what Paul was very much annoyed with.
Perhaps a better question could be asked: “Who was Paul annoyed with?” Was he annoyed with the girl? Or, was he annoyed with the demon, who might be said to posses the girl, and control her? A third possibility also exists: Paul was annoyed with the girl’s masters who possessed her in another way, and who were responsible for her being in his path on the way to prayer every day.
Perhaps Paul’s annoyance was a combination of these factors, which built up over several days. I prefer to think of Paul’s annoyance more as righteous anger at the injustice of this situation rather than petty annoyance at being followed and being shouted at. He put up with much more than that in the course of his ministry. In this light, it is interesting that the King James translation has Paul as “grieved” instead of being annoyed, suggesting he felt sorrow for the girl.
Another reason to think that the Paul’s annoyance lies in the state of affairs that affects the girl, is that in the exorcism Paul invokes the name of Christ.
There are two important points to note here about Paul casting out the demon in the name of Christ.
The first is especially important at this point in the church year at the end of Easter. Jesus has resurrected and ascended to heaven. He is not around to exorcise demons as he did when he was with the apostles. Recall that in Luke chapter 8 Jesus exorcises demons from a man and put them into the herd of swine.
No. Jesus is no longer around, but his name retains its power. Significantly, it is Paul who uses the name of the Christ here. While Paul never knew Jesus personally, he can, nevertheless, use his name to exorcise this demon. Jesus is gone, but the power of his name remains to all those who follow him. That includes us as well.
The second point to note about Paul’s use of the name of Jesus is the contrast he makes with the girl’s owners. Whereas they used a spirit and the girl to make money, Paul invoked the spirit of Christ, not for his own gain, but to liberate the girl, putting an end to exploitative moneymaking.
In doing so, Paul follows the example of Christ. For when Jesus used his powers in miracles and exorcisms, he did not do so for his own benefit, but to benefit others. For example, he did not turn stones into bread in the desert to satisfy his own hunger, but he was willing to perform the miracle of feeding the 5000. If Jesus did not use his power for himself, it is unlikely that Paul would be able to use Jesus’ name to exorcise demons merely so he could walk to a prayer meeting unmolested. No. Jesus’ name was effective for Paul because he was freeing the girl from bondage.
After Paul rids the girl of the demon, her worldly masters, having lost their source of profit, take Paul and Silas to court on trumped-up charges. They are found guilty, stripped beaten and put into prison.
Their treatment is parallel to the treatment of Christ before his crucifixion. The trial and judgment is unjust. Fortunately, they are not killed. But as at the time of the death of Jesus there is another earthquake. Instead of the temple curtain being torn in two, here the symbol of the civil authority, the prison, is torn apart and the prisoners could escape.
Paul and Silas do not escape, and by remaining put they have the chance to witness to the jailer and his entire household who were baptized that very day.
Returning to the theme of the slave girl, there is more that can be said on the alliance in the story between the exploiters of the girl and the legal authorities. Is there any more up to date tale for our time?
The exploitation of girls (and boys) is one of the tragedies of our time. Children continued to be enslaved by the greedy for the making of money.
The International Labour Organisation estimates that worldwide there are 5.5 million children in slavery, trafficking, debt bondage, forced labour, forced recruitment for armed conflict, prostitution, and pornography. [Source]
Paul frees just one child in such a situation, but sends a message of judgement against all such crimes. Yet it is he and Silas, not the slave-drivers, that end up in jail.
The fate of Paul and Silas is one that many activists have faced over the years. To interfere with the exploitation of children for the pursuit of profit is to incur is to disrupt those with earthly power. There are few things more dangerous in this world than to disrupt the flow of profits and money to the already wealthy. It does not matter whether those making money are a band of criminals, a legal corporation, or even a church. If you get in their way, there will be serious consequences.
It almost doesn’t matter what the charges were in this case as they bore no relationship to the so-called “harm” the girl’s owners had experienced. The consequences for Paul and Silas were severe. They faced an unsympathetic court and were jailed. Here we see the law operating in the interests of rich slave-drivers and not toward any recognizable form of justice.
This is also a factor of our world today, the law working for the rich and the powerful against the poor and the advocates of the poor and oppressed. Sadly many advocates of justice and peace are silenced and imprisoned in our world today. Often those who speak for those without a voice are killed. One estimate is that two people are killed each week defending the environment [Source]. Few of the perpetrators are brought to justice as it suits the powers in our broken world to keep making money at the expense of our children and our climate.
On Saturday, one my heroes died. Daniel Berrigan was Catholic priest and radical Christian. He became famous for his opposition to the Vietnam War and in one protest poured his own blood on military draft cards. He also initiated the modern plowshares disarmament movement. Taking the text from Isaiah 2:4, that we should beat swords into plowshares, as a command of God, Berrigan and friends broke into military bases and disarmed weapons of death and imperialism. His life’s mission was to cast out the demons of killing and violence; a mission which, upset the establishment and landed him in jail several times.
We might not have the opportunity to cast out the spirits of divination from slave girls. But as modern prophets like Berrigan, we have opportunities to resist the enslaving spirits of consumerism and violence that makes others rich and powerful.
We can also try to rid ourselves, our churches, and nations of the enslaving spirit of corruption where we invoke the name of Christ for the benefit of ourselves, rather than using the name of Christ to liberate others.
The ascended Christ is with us, supporting us and guiding us, just as he was with Paul and Silas. Our challenge is to witness to his power to transform lives and nations.
Picture credit: https://www.pubhist.com/w8409