Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Apostle and the Slave Girl...

I'm glad I had an opportunity to reflect on the slave girl in this week's reading. I have no conclusion to what happened to her, but to ignore a troublesome piece of Scripture is to be unfaithful to that Scripture. If one is to preach and believe what's written, one must not ignore the difficult bits. Those parts are where we learn.

As usual, comments and constructive criticism is appreciated.

Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21

"See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone's work. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end."
"Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates."
"It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star." The Spirit and the bride say, "Come." And let everyone who hears say, "Come." And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.
The one who testifies to these things says, "Surely I am coming soon." Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.

John 17:20-26

"I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.
"Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them."

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 is the Word of the Lord.

This account of Paul, the slave girl, and the jailer is remarkable in a lot of respects – both for what it says, and for what it leaves unresolved. There’s something fairly unique about the exorcism that Paul performs on the slave girl. If you compare it with the Gospel accounts of Jesus healing and casting demons out of people, they’re in the midst of torment, most of the time they, or someone responsible for them, requests healing or exorcism, and that healing brings joy and peace and restoration to them, and they almost always leave praising God, or at least in a better place than they were when Jesus met them.

Now, Paul is in Phillipi, staying with his fellow missionaries in the home of Lydia. Phillipi was a Roman city, populated by descendants of Roman soldiers, veterans of the civil war that sprang up following the assassination of Julius Caesar. There were very few Jews in that city, and apparently no synagogue; the “place of prayer” appears to have been a spot at a river west of the city. Within that population, people like this slave girl, diviners or, as they were also called, “mantics,” were thought to be able to predict the future, and were sought after for that quality. According to Paul Walaskay, this girl “would have been accepted as a more or less ordinary member of society serving a useful function for people in that culture.” She was a possession of men who stood to make a lot of money from her divinations; and while she was also possessed by an evil spirit, she was not particularly tormented.

What she was, apparently, was annoying. She followed Paul and the others around, repeating the same phrase: “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” That’s all well and good, because it was a true statement, but the repetition, and very likely the volume at which she said it, got in the way of Paul’s praying and teaching and everything else. Eventually Paul had had enough of it and cast the demon out of her: an act she hadn’t requested, and which rendered her – a slave and thus dependent in large degree for her very life upon her ability to serve her masters effectively – useless. Being set free from one thing and not the other – free of the demon but still the property of others – is not really being set free, is it? Walter Cronkite once said, “There is no such thing as a little freedom. Either you are all free, or you are not free.”

In any case, we never read another word about her.
I have to be honest, even though I know that, given the location and the age in which this happened, there is little Paul could have done to set the girl free from her physical slavery, when I read this account I want Paul to have set her completely free, not only spiritually but physically as well.

It may be, as Reverend Laura Becker suggests, that the slave girl’s purpose in this narrative is simply to serve as an explanation for why Paul and Silas are in jail. To be sure, the fury that erupts around the incident drowns out any opportunity for follow-up with the girl, who was nothing more than a cash cow to her owners, but we see in very short order that there are a lot of people in this narrative that need to be set free, and in a big way.

Ron Hansen and Kate Huey note that the owners of this slave girl don’t want to recover the money they lost with the slave girl, they want revenge. They want retribution, but what they need is to be set free from the slavery of financial idolatry… and the gathering crowds need to be set free from the slavery of xenophobia and anti-Semitism… and the magistrates need to be set free from slavery to the of fear of public opinion…

In fact, isn’t it fascinating that, even in the agony that followed the beating, bleeding and bruised, with horrible muscle cramps from hours in the stocks, and locked tightly in a prison cell, the only people in the entire account who really are free at all are Paul and Silas! The night wears on, and Paul and Silas pray and sing hymns, and while you might expect the other prisoners to hurl insults at them and demand peace and quiet, they are listening to every word. They are apparently so enthralled by Paul and Silas that, even when the earth shakes and the doors fly open and the chains fall off no one moves!

Yet there is one more person in the narrative that needs to be set free: the jailer needs to be set free from slavery to the system… and out of everyone we meet in this narrative, from the slave girl to the owners to the raging crowd to the magistrates, the one person who receives the freedom he so desperately needs is that one jailer! And that is simply because instead of accusations and demands and declarations and condemnations, he asks the most important question in all of Scripture – in all of life: “…what must I do to be saved?”

Ronald Cole-Turner poses this question for each one of us, personally: “What must I do,” he asks, “to be saved from what destroys me? What must I do to be saved from my particular bondage, my oppressive addiction, emptiness, or boredom? There are countless ways to lose our way in this world or to be in bondage, just as there are many different threats from which we need to be saved.” Kate Huey notes that “one of the most powerful captivities of our age… 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.

“How amazed the jailer must be, just as he's about to kill himself, to see that the prisoners are still there! Fear almost leads to death, but compassion leads to his life, and his family's life, being transformed.”

Notice that there’s no requirement that the jailer give up his service to the Roman Empire; there is no expectation that he’ll let Paul and Silas go, although, and make no mistake about this, in that day and age what is required of him may well cost him everything. All they tell him is this: “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”

We could spend a lot of time this morning reflecting on what that word, “believe,” really means. Certainly, it implies more than simply agreeing to a set of doctrines, adhering to mental assertions, saying and thinking and doing only those things which will make us look like proper Christians. In twenty-first century America, saying “Jesus is Lord” won’t get you anything; in the Roman Empire before 312AD, it might well have gotten you tortured and killed. Belief speaks against the slavery to financial idolatry, to xenophobia, to classism, to racism, to popular opinion, and to the system. In Galatians, the Apostle Paul writes that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

While this is not at all a complete description, Cole-Turner writes that “Believing….means becoming decisively aware that our small lives are swept up into a great drama, God's story line. God is indeed reaching out to us in Jesus Christ, taking our lives into the gospel story of transformation and redemption.”

There, after all, is where true freedom is found.

No comments:

Post a Comment