May 8, 2022
Acts 16: 16-34
One day, back when I worked at the newspaper, the newsroom was in the lull between putting the day’s edition to bed and starting work on the next day’s paper.
Three or four of us had gathered in the graphic artists’ work area to chat about something … probably what we were planning for the coming weekend. After a couple of minutes, the managing editor came through the doorway and stared at us down.
Our conversation stopped dead.
The managing editor, who was a disagreeable sort on his best days,” just said:
“I want to see who we’re going to let go next time we have layoffs,” and left the work area.
The underlying message was that we were all vulnerable … replaceable … we were disposable.
When the book ‘Disposable People’ was written ten years ago, there were roughly 27 million slaves in the world. Five years later, the International Labour Organization put the total at more than 40 million.
In the book, author Kevin Bales, examined how the global economy had entrenched the practice of slavery and how … like the girl in today’s passage from Acts and the people who were shackled or indentured a century and a half ago … people are viewed as investments in cheap labour that are easily disposable if they fail to produce to expectations or if they even dare to be sick.
Bales argues that the global economy and its expansion into developing countries has created the opportunity for exploitation of desperate and vulnerable people. It has also had the same effect in developed parts of the world, although not to the same extent.
This mirrors an aspect of today’s passage from the Book of Acts.
Paul, Silas, Timothy and Luke encounter a slave girl who was a fortune teller. She follows the group over a number of days – pestering the quartet about their identity. She recognizes their nature and proclaims it to all who can hear her.
Not only is this bringing unwanted attention to the apostles, but her proclamations annoy Paul to the point that he suddenly orders the spirit from the girl and she can no longer tell fortunes.
She was free of that spirit.
As much as she annoyed Paul, his actions annoyed her owners even more … they made a lot of money off of her abilities with little investment required on their part. That has all changed and they want to make Paul and Silas pay for their loss.
The two apostles are dragged before the city authorities. The girl’s owners make false accusations to the magistrate.
Rather than speak to their economic loss caused by the apostles, the slave owners use fear of Jewish influence … even though Paul is a Roman. The slave owners also appeal to national loyalty to get the apostles beaten and tossed into the deepest, darkest depth of the prison.
The remainder of the passage offers the story of Paul’s and Silas’ liberation from their unjust prison sentence and the conversion of one of the guards and his family.
However, one question comes to mind after all this has happened to Paul and Silas: What happened to the slave girl? We’re not told what her future became … she was discarded from the story … disposed of as the focus becomes the effect Paul’s action has on the two apostles.
The slave girl was freed from the spirit that led her to be a fortune teller … and freed from earning money for others from this ability … but it didn’t free her from being a slave.
In fact, the removal of the spirit probably made her life worse by making her more vulnerable to the whims and demands of her master.
So, perhaps, rather than focus of Paul, Silas and the jailer and how he was saved, we can consider the fate of the slave girl. After all, as a Roman citizen, the jailer was still able to earn a living after becoming a follower of Jesus.
Perhaps, we should consider how … even after all the centuries … people are still vulnerable to the whims of the marketplace … a marketplace that places a dollar value on human life based on their productivity and ability to earn income for their masters.
Slave owners … and the crowd in the marketplace …are concerned with individual wealth and not with the common good. Maybe we can consider if this is still true today.
The author of Disposable People also acknowledges that liberating people from a system that exploits them offers a mixed blessing – they are free, but they would likely face starvation or deeper poverty.
So, addressing one aspect of the issue creates other problems that need to be dealt with. Liberating someone from the control of an unfair, exploitive system isn’t easy … it is a large, complex process that starts with a single step … recognition … recognizing the injustice that is present … and seeing the person afflicted by it and understanding their situation.
Paul and Silas model how to serve God and how God uses us as vessels of grace … especially when it comes to the jailer. In the case of the slave girl, her mind is freed, but the apostles don’t seem to do any follow-up work with her.
She is still trapped in the system. There are no supports to truly free her.
Which begs the question: How often does the church do this … make offerings toward a particular effort … and then move on to something else? How often does the church just do enough to silence those pestering voices we hear?
The apostles in this story work out of the abundance of God’s grace … just as we are called to do likewise … freeing people entrapped by the forces of the world … and caring for them afterward.
And ensuring that they not only remain part of the story … remain seen … but also … through the gift we have received … change the course of their story toward true liberation and salvation … toward being freed from an unjust, oppressive system.
… to live in a system based on love and justice.