Trouble Finds Him
Paul having released the slave woman from her bondage to the python spirit now has to face her earthly masters. According to Luke, Paul and Silas are physically assaulted by the her owners and brought before the authorities.
Paul has been in trouble with the Jews in previous cities, now he’s in trouble because he’s a Jew. The woman’s masters as we might imagine are crafty political and social operatives and they know how to spin things to get the outcomes they want. Xenophobia is engaged and Paul and Silas are presented to those entrusted with public peace and security as a threat. They are foreigners who are trying to subvert the Roman way in this Roman colony and now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their city. Very quickly a mob mentality takes hold, Paul and Silas are publicly stripped of their clothing (public shaming, echoing Jesus’ public stripping) and severely beaten with rods.
The officials in charge pretty quickly summed up the score. Someone had to pay for the spoiling of the profitability of the slave girl and the quickest, easiest way was with a beating, a night in jail, and giving the bum’s rush out of town. Paul and Silas are turned over to the jailer to receive the jail’s most secure hospitality. Their feet are set in stocks on the floor, legs spread apart.
Diverse and Incongruous Excellencies
In the previous story we saw Paul being frustrated by the repeated, ironic cries for help of the slave woman. Her persistent misrepresentational of Paul’s mission gets under his skin. Luke uses a word her only found twice in the Bible, the other time also by Luke in Acts of the Sadducees in their annoyance at Paul and John’s preaching the resurrection and also in the Greek Old Testament of God’s sorrow at how his created humanity had turned out in Genesis 6:6. Paul wheels around in frustration and delivers her.
We might imagine that Paul on the floor, in painful stocks, with untreated wounds from his recent beating would be filled with more frustration. We might imagine him to be bitter, angry, ready to quit. Not too long before he had been stoned outside of another town. Now he was unjustly assaulted, beaten by the town officials and imprisoned. What do we find he and Silas doing of all things, singing praises to God.
We don’t get the sense from the story that Paul was singing imprecatory psalms looking for revenge from his enemies. We more get the image of a joyful suffering. Paul, like Jesus, was fully subject to frustration and pain, yet there were also resources by which he could forgive enemies and rejoice in suffering. It’s an amazing image.
If you read commentaries about this chapter mental illness usually will come up with respect to the slave woman’s python spirit. Although there are other descriptions of demon possession in the Gospels that look like mental illness, she doesn’t qualify. Ancients were well aware of what mental illness looked like, the king of Gath upon witnessing David’s act of lunacy in the book of Samuel mutters “haven’t I enough crazy people already in my town, why add this guy?” The ancients wouldn’t have shelled out good money to hear the ravings of a crazy person, I’m sure you could get that for free in Philippi just like you can in Sacramento.
What is stranger still than the woman with the python spirit is the behavior of Paul and Silas in prison. This is a kind of insanity we all wish to possess. It would seem rational to be bitter and vindictive, but they are forgiving and joyful, praising and praying in the midst of their unjust suffering.
Jesus doesn’t take away our suffering, he makes it like his own as he is making us like him.
While Paul and Silas sing, and the other prisoner’s wonder at the strangeness of this, an earthquake hits the jail and the doors open and the chains unlocked.
Don’t forget that Luke is having Paul mirror Peter in this story. Peter was miraculously sprung from prison and now Paul will be.
The jailer comes out, asks for light, and in panic and despair reasonably assumes the prisoners will have flown the coup and he’ll be held accountable for them, his life for theirs. Paul here again, substitutes his own well being for that of another and tells the jailer that all are accounted for, especially Paul and Silas.
The next scene is beautiful. The wounds Paul and Silas have endured in his unjust beating are now washed by the jailer and he invites them into his home for a meal. Paul and Silas had been welcomed into Lydia’s household, and shared her table. Now their former enemy turned newly ransomed sets a table before Paul and Silas.
The jailer washes Paul and Silas’ wounds, and Paul and Silas wash away the jailer’s sins and the sins of his family. There are now at least two baptized households in the town of Philippi. They share baptism, and they share the meal.
Why not use the “get out of jail free” card?
The next day Paul and Silas are summoned to be given the bum’s rush out of town, but now Paul springs on the city officials that they are Roman citizens. This turns the tables of Roman law and reveals the injustice of the previous day’s events.
Many wonder why Paul and Silas didn’t prevent their mistreatment the day before when they could have. Were they unable to present their credentials as Roman citizens? We don’t really know.
Perhaps Paul would not use his prerogative as a Roman citizen to prevent his humiliation, just like Jesus wouldn’t use his prerogative as God’s son to prevent his humiliation. Paul and Silas in their humiliation were bearing witness to the new believers what the cruciform way actually looked like. Paul and Silas were free indeed, free enough to sing in suffering, yet not free from the cross of Christ.
One person who I’ve never seen mentioned at this point in the story is the slave girl. She has been freed from the python spirit but she is still bound in her slavery to her masters. Now no longer possessing a marketable capacity for divination what service would this woman now need to provide to make some money for her masters? Would she cook, clean, watch children, work in the fields, or provide sexual services? All of which would be expected of a slave. Part of me wonders if Paul suffered for her.
Paul and Silas, at the cost of their own flesh and blood bought her freedom from the python spirit, and now at the cost of their freedom bought the rescue of the jailer and his family as well.
Perhaps the drama that concludes this story mirrors the vindication of the resurrection. Paul and Silas now reveal that they suffered voluntarily for the servant woman and the jailer’s household. They didn’t need to have been beaten or imprisoned, but they did so freely, willingly, happily for the redemption of the others. Paul and Silas wanted this publicly known probably to publicly correct the misleading proclamation of the slave woman and to publicly demonstrate who and what Jesus was to the people.
Paul and Silas in this story follow in the footsteps of Christ. They shared in his ministry of freeing the bound from demons. They shared in his ministry of freeing the prisons from their chains (Luke 4). They shared in his ministry of suffering and humiliation. And now they share in his ministry of vindication.
Who and what is a Christian, even in the context of a Roman city that had little knowledge of the Jewish story? Christians are substitutionary people who willingly suffer for the wellbeing of even their enemies.
The world lives by the logic of “my wellbeing at your expense.” This is exactly what the life of the slave woman was. Paul and Silas live by the opposite equation “your wellbeing at my expense.” The do so freely, happily, voluntarily, and joyfully. In the process a woman is no longer a caballo for a spirit, and a jailer and his family find new freedom from the Roman way of retribution.