Commentary on Acts 16:16-34
Project TURN courses (Transform, Unlock, Renew) create spaces in theological education where incarcerated people and full-time seminarians learn from and alongside each other. Sarah Jobe is a prison chaplain who has administered the program for over ten years. Her recent review of Ryan Schellenberg’s Abject Joy: Paul, Prison, and the Art of Making Do asks a seemingly simple question: why was the apostle Paul in prison so often? Drawing on Schellenberg’s argument, Jobe suggests that the frequency of Paul’s imprisonment is not descriptive of a heroic political prisoner. It describes someone “poor, homeless, and of an ethnicity that marked him as part of an occupied people.” Jobe notes that, in these ways, Paul “looked a lot like those who get overpoliced and thrown in jail today.”1
The story of an imprisoned Paul and Silas, singing songs and praying at midnight, is a beautifully familiar story for those in the church. It is a frequent metaphor for the power of worship to shake the foundations of despair. I once heard a powerful sermon on this passage that recounted a preacher’s debilitating stroke. He remembered lying in a hospital bed, unable to move certain limbs or find words to form the sentences in his head. But he was able to sing. Familiar hymns flowed from his lips, even when he was unable to speak his name. It was precious testimony.
But Acts 16:16-34 is about more than the freeing power of worship. It is about powers and principalities, about economic interests and prejudice. It is about the power of God—and it is about prisons. When I was invited to teach preaching through the Project TURN program, this text was a recurring conversation partner in the sermons of the incarcerated preachers. It was no metaphor for them. It offered astute analysis of interlocking injustices that they knew well.
The economic roots of slavery and violence are explicit in the text. The unnamed slave-girl who tells fortunes by a spirit of divination “brought her owners a great deal of money” (verse 16). The words she speaks about Paul and Silas are technically true. They are “slaves of the Most High God who proclaim … a way of salvation” (verse 17). Her words might have even been useful to the apostles, drawing a curious crowd. But Willie Jennings notes the dangers of “mindless praise”—particularly praise couched in religious language—that “masks demonic activity.”2 Paul’s exorcism of the young woman is the first example of exorcism in Acts, and it actively rejects the benefits that may have accrued from this woman’s bondage.
When the slave-girl’s owners realize that their revenue stream has been disrupted, they go to the magistrates with a complaint that seems unrelated. They accuse Paul and Silas of “disrupting” the peace. They name them as “Jews,” cultural outsiders who are “advocating customs that are unlawful for Romans” (verses 20-21). Oddly, economics comes nowhere into their argument. Jobe’s point, however, is on full display. Acts 16 narrates a leveraging of cultural superiority and social fear for the preservation of an economic system that grounds the status quo. The torture, beatings, and social isolation of prison are powerful technologies in that mechanism. Paul and Silas are not imprisoned because they break a law. They are imprisoned because they are imprisonable people—vulnerable people—who threaten the bottom line of the powerful.
This unmasking of the moral posturing of carceral systems would be subversive enough. But the narrative has a more subversive thread. Structurally, it is introduced by the fortune-teller’s words, describing Paul and Silas as “slaves” to God. Her description raises a question that hovers throughout the text: who is a captive and who is free? The magistrates and town populace have the power to commit violence, but they are manipulated by the slave owners like puppets on strings. When Paul reveals his Roman citizenship in the verses that follow this passage (verse 37), the fear in magistrates’ responses makes explicit the shadow of Roman power that circumscribes any definition of “freedom” in Philippi. The powerful are afraid, and the powerless have more power than supposed.
This inversion is clearest in the interaction between the jailer and his prisoners in the text’s “midnight hour” (verse 25). When the earthquake comes and the chains of his prisoners fall away, the jailer’s fear of dishonor and death overwhelms him, and he is ready to take his life. But Paul and Silas and their fellow prisoners do not run. They offer a message of salvation, and before the night is over, a meal is shared, wounds are washed, and the jailer’s household is baptized.
On this seventh Sunday of Easter, this text provides a powerful opportunity to speak to your own church’s response to incarceration and incarcerated people. I encourage preachers to move away from imprisonment as a metaphor and be concrete. How does this text illuminate the carceral system in the U.S.? How does our system fuel fear and violence—even as it promises to create safety and order? How might your church better respond to persons newly released from prisons? How might the church outside prison walls better attend to the preaching, singing, and prayers of carceral congregations? How might we bind up wounds, share meals, and receive instruction for our salvation?
- Sarah Jobe, “Why was the apostle Paul in prison so often?” Christian Century, March 23, 2022, https://www.christiancentury.org/review/books/why-was-apostle-paul-prison-so-often.
- Willie Jennings, Acts (Louisville: WJK Press, 2017), 160.