The day before Vacation Bible School joins Paul in Athens, we’re reading one chapter earlier: Acts 16:16-34

Where are we?

We’re still in Philippi, on Paul’s second journey. This is the first time he’s been in Europe, and he’s made at least one convert: Lydia, a purple-cloth merchant, a Gentile who worshiped with the Jewish community in Philippi. Philippi is a Roman colony, so the ways of the empire are very well entrenched here.

What’s going on here?

Just as unclean spirits in the gospels were the first beings to vocally identify Jesus as the Son of God, so a spirit of divination identifies Paul and Silas as messengers of God here. As in the gospels, this spirit is right. However, Russell Pregeant notes that the Greek doesn’t use the word ‘unclean’ (or ‘evil’). This is a “spirit of Python,” which was a dragon slain by Apollo before he established the Oracle at Delphi. So there’s a level on which this is a story about Paul’s deity being stronger than the pagan gods.

It would appear that Paul just gets so angry that he casts out the unclean spirit in frustration. I think this is probably what God would have wanted done (it’s what Jesus did all the time in the gospels), but Paul’s direct motivation seems problematic. Is he using the name of Jesus Christ improperly? Is there such a thing as “improperly” freeing someone from a demon?

Under the rules of a slave-holding world, Paul has damaged property, and its (her) owners are justifiably upset. They assert their rights as Roman citizens, apparently not suspecting that Paul and Silas are citizens as well. Much like in contemporary debates over immigration, the suspicion of being an immigrant is more powerful in raising a crowd than is the reality of a person’s status. Perhaps Paul and Silas could have plead their status then and there, but they probably knew they wouldn’t get a fair hearing anyway. Safer to allow themselves to be arrested and prove their citizenship later.

Summary beatings and imprisonment were common enough that Luke (the author) doesn’t comment further, here or elsewhere in Acts.

Paul writes elsewhere that he knows the secret of being content whatever happens. The secret probably has a lot to do with praying and singing hymns in jail at midnight. Similarly, people who have lost memories or senses can still respond to the hymns they sang through their lives.

The violent earthquake that opens doors is reminiscent of the earthquake that opened Jesus’ tomb in Matthew (Luke’s gospel doesn’t mention it). In Acts 12, Peter is similarly set free from prison at night, but there’s no earthquake, and the guards are put to death for allowing the prisoner to escape. Here the guard is saved from his own hand by Paul’s assurance that nobody has actually left the prison.

Nobody actually leaves the prison. After this passage, Paul actually stays around to argue with the local Roman officials. That’s good news for the jailer, who isn’t executed. It also reminds one of Paul’s future wordplay about being set free from the Law so he can be a slave of Christ. Here he’s set free from jail so he can stay inside.

The jailer falling at Paul and Silas’ feet has overtones of worship to it, but apparently not explicit enough that Paul had to correct him (as Peter has done elsewhere).

Faith, salvation, and baptism apply to the jailer’s whole household, as is commonly the case in New Testament conversion stories. The structure of the ancient household meant that the man (or, very occasionally, woman) in charge would make religious decisions for everybody.

The first things the jailer does are to tend his prisoners’ wounds and to feed them. He’s no longer a jailer, he’s a host. Hospitality is a key marker of faithfulness throughout the Bible.

Later, after the Roman officials release Paul and Silas, they return to Lydia’s house.

So what?

It seems like everyone in this story is set free from something: the slave girl from her possession; Paul and Silas from jail; the jailer from death on account of dereliction. We play with the theme in a couple of ways. First, the slave girl is freed from possession but not from being possessed, i.e. she’s still the property of someone else. Second, Paul and Silas are sprung from jail and don’t go anywhere until after they’ve freed someone else. They’re like the bodhisattva of compassion, who would have attained enlightenment but for a vow to put that off until all sentient beings are similarly free. Or, to remain in the Christian story, they’re like Jesus who gave up his life so that everyone might live.

God’s will to free people has consequences. This story happens at the expense of the slave’s owners, foreshadowing 19th-century debates about whether the slave-holding world could afford the economic hit of abolition. It also happens to the benefit of the jailer, who would have killed himself if not for the intervention of the prisoners he thought had escaped.

The slave girl is a problem for most any reading of this text. I would want something great to happen for her, which it may have. We could imagine that, now that she’s not her owners’ “goose that laid the golden egg,” she’s been set free. I doubt it, for what this line of thought is worth. I imagine that she simply got demoted to some other kind of household service. She doesn’t seem to matter for the story’s purposes now that she’s had her fortune-telling spirit removed. And that’s the problem, because everything else about this story seems to be about liberation from the things that bind us.

Speaking of liberation (and non-obvious forms of it), one could argue that Paul and Silas are free even before the earthquake breaks their chains. They’re singing hymns and praying, whether in jail or not. That’s not just to spiritualize the whole thing – we’re talking about freedom from worldly power structures in just about every other sense here – but it is to point out that spiritual freedom is kind of the key to all the rest.