Commentary on Acts 16:16-34
Paul and Silas crossed the border into Europe to get to Macedonia, a Roman colony (16:2) because of the invitation they received from a man (aner, biological male), who, in a night vision, pleaded for their help (16:9-10).
In Acts men receive visions, but women do not. Cornelius and Peter both received visions resulting in Peter preaching good news to Cornelius and his household and their subsequent conversion (10:1-44).
But in Acts chapter 16 only Paul receives a vision that orchestrates the encounters between him and two females (and later the jailer and his household) — Lydia, the leader of a synagogue connected with her household and the nameless slave girl who proclaims oracles inspired by a Pythian spirit (16:11-16). This bias in favor of males fulfills 2:17 where the prophet Joel promises that the young men (neanioi) will have visions (cf. 7:58b where Saul [his Hebrew name; Paul is his Roman name] is referred to as a neanios); the same is not promised for young women. The preacher might note that this narrative an ideo-theological bias and omission does not negate the reality that God deposits dreams and visions in both females and males.
After he met with and spoke to the women who, under Lydia’s leadership, worshipped at the synagogue by the river on the Sabbath, Paul baptized Lydia and her household (16:14-15). And because Paul agreed that Lydia was “faithful to the Lord,” he continued to visit her and her proseuchae (house of prayer) (16:15). In their daily walking to and from Lydia’s place, Paul and Silas would encountered the prophetic slave girl (Greek, paidiske) (16:16, 18) as she offered an oracle/word to all who would listen. She is not the first paidiske (slave girl) in the New Testament to unabashedly name the nature of the relationship between Jesus or God and the apostles, albeit with unfortunate consequences.
When Jesus had been arrested and taken to the High Priest Caiaphas’s house, two different slave girls (paidiske), who apparently served the High Priest, accused Peter of being one of Jesus’ companions (Matthew 26:69-71). Peter, denying any affiliation with Jesus, implied that the paidiske was untruthful or mistaken (stereotypically, slaves were not considered trustworthy or credible as witnesses).
In the New Testament, we see a pattern of truth-telling slave girls (paidiske) confronting and annoying certain apostles. Peter was so irritated that he not only denied the truthfulness of the second slave girl’s statement, but he swore (Matthew 26:72). In Acts, the narrator informs his readers that Paul is annoyed (diaponeomai, 16:18; cf. 4:1-2) by the slave girl. This self-centered emotion that Paul feels is, like Peter’s swearing, coupled with a speech act.
But instead of swearing, Paul performs the speech act of an exorcism. Facing and speaking to “the spirit” in the girl, Paul commands the spirit to leave her. The narrator says the spirit that gave the slave girl her oracles left her within that hour. The proof that the speech act was effective is in the loss of profits to the slave girl’s owners (16:19). Who will pay for what does not come true, for false prophecies? Historically, the Pythian spirit was connected with the oracle at Delphi (in Greece). Devotees of the Greek god Apollo regarded the Pythia as genuine and god-inspired.
This was the case with the Pythian slave girl’s oracle; it was true. Otherwise, she would not have been able to yield a profit for her owners through her gift. The gift was real. And the prophecy she spoke about Paul and Silas was not false. She described Paul and Silas as “slaves (douloi) of the most high God who are proclaiming to you a way of salvation” (v.17b) In fact at Luke 1:76-77, Zacharias prophesied that the baby Jesus would be called “the prophet of the most high,” “preparing the ways of the Lord to provide salvation.” Paul refers to himself in his letters as a slave of Jesus Christ (see Philemon 1:1).
Some readers negatively judge the slave girl’s credibility by the effectiveness of the exorcism Paul performed. The preacher might consider offering a caveat to his audience that we should be cautious about attributing to God what might be ascribed to human fallibility. Other people performed miracles (magic from the perspective of one’s opponents), including exorcisms (see e.g., Acts 8:9, 10; cf. Exodus 7:8-13, Pharaoh’s magicians could “throw down” too). The preacher might consider that sometimes we, as Christians, can accomplish powerful acts and speak efficacious words but with the wrong motives, simply because we are irritated. We can misuse our office, power, and authority, which can result in an unjust impact on the livelihood and spirit of others.
Some readers will conclude that as a result of the exorcism, the slave girl is free. Free to do what in a slave society? A useless slave did not become a freed slave, but as an exposed slave, she was left to fend for herself with no means to take care of herself. Yes, the owners profited from her gifts, and yes slavery is wrong no matter where it is found — on the pages of a sacred text or on American soil. Paul and Silas treated the slave girl similar to how her masters’ treated her — as an object that annoyed them, but not as a human being.
The preacher might consider that our gifts, our mission should never condone inhumane treatment of other persons. Slaves were dispensable in a slave society, and slave women doubly so. They were commodified and objectified. And it is easier to treat the nameless in inhumane ways, to be indifferent toward those for whom we have no names, to render them invisible, or treat them as pawns in the war between good and evil. Paul was not perfect; so we need not preach him as if he was. Sometimes we have to preach against the grain and in between the lines because that is where our people live; it is where life happens, where we struggle with and against oppression.
The slave owners do not take this financial loss lying down. Paul and Silas are ultimately arrested. Ironically, Paul eventually appeals to his own Roman citizenship as proof of his innocence of the charges against him and of the lack of due process granted to him in the violation of his civil rights. Yet no due process was afforded the slave girl; she could not appeal to any citizenship rights. To his credit, Paul does not play the citizenship card until after he is incarcerated and after the jailer and his household have been converted. Sometimes our humanity gets in the way and the harm is real; and sometimes God can use our imperfections and our physical limitations to set others free.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
God of freedom,
Paul and Silas worshiped you, even when they were flogged and imprisoned. Transform our hearts so that we may also rejoice in you at all times and in all situations. Amen.
You have put on Christ ELW 211, UMH 609
When our song says peace ELW 709
When in our music God is glorified ELW 850/851
Blest are they, William Beckstrand