It all begins with a young woman, who is already oppressed through slavery and is then being further exploited by her owners for financial gain as a fortune-teller. The words the scripture uses is that she possesses a 'spirit of divination'. In the Bible, being possessed by a spirit or a demon is code for one of any number of conditions that were not well understood in those days, most usually referring to some kind of mental illness.
This slave-girl has been following the apostles for several days loudly proclaiming that they are servants of God who teach the way to spiritual salvation. Which is true. So here's the thing: this girl, in spite of her condition and circumstances, speaks with real insight. She maybe someone who is psychologically unwell, but she is well able to discern what Paul and Silas are all about.
Poor mental health, and the unpredictable behaviour that can arise from it, is very much better understood today — yet not necessarily much better accepted socially than it was in first century Europe, where this episode takes place. Society still has much to learn about how to empathise with and support those who are under psychological pressure of one sort or another. I know this both from my own experience of depression, as well as from my pastoral encounters with others. Sometimes frank and blunt talk is coupled with remarkable insight into other people. Why wouldn't it? Those who have had to, out of necessity, navigate their way around their own mental terrain might sometimes be well placed to recognise what is driving the actions and behaviour of others around them.
I can well see that a spirit of divination in this slave-girl could be precisely the sort of insight arising from her own mental state. As someone once said, in adaptation of a Leonard Cohen lyric, blessed are the cracked for they shall let in the light.
Which isn't to say that people who are a bit disturbed can't also sometimes be quite annoying. I remember coming home after being away from the parish for precisely a day and a half, to find that the same person had left seven telephone messages on my voicemail, written me two emails and had pushed a note through the Vicarage letterbox. It's hard not to feel slightly cramped by such persistence. St Paul clearly feels this, and after several days of being followed around by this girl shouting at them, he has had enough. In some way he is also able to recognise whatever it is that she is captive to and calls it out of her.
This echoes what Jesus did a number of times in the gospels. As Brian McLaren has written:
Thousands come to Jesus with various afflictions and internal oppressions, and Jesus draws into the light whatever oppressive, destructive, disease-causing, imbalancing, paralyzing, or convulsing forces hide within them so they can be freed and restored to balance and health . . . The demonic gives us a language to personify and identify these covert forces that enter groups of us, using us, becoming a guiding part of us, possessing and influencing and even controlling us.
What is is that holds us captive and oppresses us in today's society? The addiction of consumerism? A culture of individualism? Globalisation and power over governments by multi-national corporations? Managerialism and the increasingly excessive burdens and policies of the workplace? The judgementalism of family and friends?
In the slave-girl's case she is controlled by those who own her and exploit her condition for financial gain. Somehow Paul is able to liberate her from this, at least in part, which really annoys her owners.
Today we may be appalled by the idea that a person could be in the possession of another, a commodity to be bought and sold. But slavery is never very far from our presence in 21st century Europe. Not only do many in this congregation have forebears who were enslaved, but it is a practice that continues around the world as we speak. There are domestic slaves living in households in London today, forbidden to leave the house and with their passports confiscated. Women and girls are trafficked to this country to be sex workers. Children abroad are forced into service in the supply chain for products that make their way onto our supermarket shelves and high street stores.
Ten years ago, a good friend of this church, Steve Chalke, set up Stop the Traffik. Today the campaign he founded is an international coalition of activists who remain determined to 'disrupt and prevent human trafficking, its harm and abuse to human beings.' On their website you can read more about the way that people are 'tricked into situations where they are bought, sold, abused and exploited for financial gain.'
Christians believe that we are all equal in the sight of God, that we are all made in the image of God: that there is something of the divine within each of us. And of course you don't have to be Christian to simply believe in the dignity of all humanity.
Just as St Paul does in 1st century Philippi, and as Jesus does before him in Palestine, it remains our calling and our duty to continue to help liberate people from whatever is holding them captive, and from whoever may be exploiting and abusing them.
And that is a risky business. Standing up to vested interests takes courage, as those with power and wealth can bring a great deal of pressure to bear in thwarting those who threaten their activities. The commandment of Jesus to love our neighbours as ourselves compels us to put our necks on the line for others.
The owners of the slave-girl trump up some false charges against Paul and Silas and have them thrown in jail. But are they down-hearted? No, they are not! The apostles, like many persecuted Christians in the intervening two millennia, understand the difference between physical freedom and spiritual freedom.
In one of his letters St Paul wrote:
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? ... No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8.35,37-39 (NRSV)
Paul and Silas, rather than licking their wounds and feeling sorry for themselves, take this spiritual truth to heart. There they are in prison singing hymns and praying in front of the rest of the, presumably bemused, prisoners.
The earthquake that shakes the prison, opening the doors and loosening the prisoners' chains, is probably metaphorical rather than literal. The point being made here is that even imprisonment cannot contain the spiritual freedom that Jesus' followers enjoy.
The jailer who observes these events is so disturbed by witnessing this spectacle that he wants in on it. And why wouldn't he? To see these Christians so centred and anchored by a faith that even serious tribulation cannot shake them. This is Jesus' gift to us, the unity with God that we enjoy through him.
But this is not some thing we keep to ourselves, for ourselves. Like all spiritual gifts it is given to us so that we can be a blessing to others — a blessing to those around us who are held captive, imprisoned, oppressed, exploited, abused, abandoned, hungry, diseased, disturbed; all who yearn for the freedom and liberation that God desires for all his children.
Scripture quotations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, and are used by permission. All rights reserved.