This week it appears just about everybody is in bondage or servitude to somebody or something else:
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. When morning came, the magistrates sent the police, saying, “Let those men go.” And the jailer reported the message to Paul, saying, “The magistrates sent word to let you go; therefore come out now and go in peace.” –Acts 16:16-36 NRSV
Let’s start with the obvious–the young woman possessed with “a spirit of divination” (or demon?) of some sort. On the surface it might appear that she was doing Paul and Silas a bit of a favor by not only drawing attention to their missionary work but by loudly announcing, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.”
We can’t be entirely sure whether Paul simply grew weary of her cries or whether it was the content of her message that annoyed him (she proclaimed that Paul offered “a way” not “the way” of salvation) but he, in the end, decided to cast out the spirit within her. However, that didn’t go over too well with her owners. who suddenly faced a loss of income.
And so they dragged Paul and Silas into the marketplace and before magistrates. Notice, however, that they didn’t mention their loss of livelihood as the reason for their dismay. No, they vehemently pointed out these foreigners who were different and strange had disturbed the public peace: “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.”
Apparently it was as true in first-century Asia Minor as it is in our 21st-century world: There’s nothing quite like blaming society’s problems on “the other” to really rile folks up. And if our lectionary passage ended right there, we could derive a worthwhile understanding of what the gospel of Jesus Christ calls us to do in such situations.
But the writer of Acts goes on to tell us how Paul and Silas were thrown in prison, how an earthquake through the night unshackled not only the two missionaries but every other prisoner, as well. But, remarkably, neither the missionaries nor any of the others escaped. Instead they sang songs praising God. This was a fortunate turn of events for the jailer, who under Roman law would have been required to commit suicide if any of his prisoners had escaped.
Long story short–the jailer became a believer and, subsequently, a gracious host to the missionaries. By the end of this story the magistrates sent word for the pair to be released from jail and to go in peace.
In becoming a “believer” the jailer most likely did not experience his own version of a “come to Jesus” moment by agreeing to a set of doctrines and theological positions. Keep in mind that, unlike the ancient Greek language, modern-day English has no verb form of the word “faith.” As awkward as it sounds coming off our lips, what that jailer did was “to faith” the message of salvation shared with him by Paul and Silas.
It is that same call “to faith” the gospel today to which we 21st-century folks are challenged. Our bondage or enslavement or servitude may be quite different from the “spirit-possessed” diviner or Paul’s fellow jailhouse occupants, but it can be just as real if not more so.
*Adapted from 2013 ForeWords archive