Good Question; Bad Sitcom (Acts 16:16-34)
It’s one of my favorite questions -and one of the 80’s more mediocre sitcoms:
Who’s The Boss?
That is also what this reading from Acts is all about: Who is in charge and why does it matter?
16One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. 17While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” 18She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour. 19But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. 20When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews 21and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” 22The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods.23After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. 24Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
25About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 26Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. 27When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. 28But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” 29The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”31They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. 34He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.
Last week we heard about a critical moment in the spread of early Christianity: that time when a man named Saul had his life forever changed on the Damascus Road. Long story short, Sau becomes Paul and spends the rest of his life engaged in a kind of missionary enterprise: spreading the Gospel and starting churches around the Roman Empire.
In Acts 16, Paul and his companions are trying—mostly failing—to do their missionary thing in the Roman colony of Philippi. They have had a hard time of it. And things are about to get much much worse. It’s a story about who is in charge and why that matters.
The story unfolds in three scenes.
I find the first scene terribly sad. On the streets of Philippi, Paul encounters a slave girl Possessed by spirit of divination; she tells fortunes and makes money for her owners. This girl is twice a slave: owned by the men who exploit her and afflicted by the voices in her own head.
Look how bad things can get when the wrong people take charge of a life.
But her madness gives her a kind of genius. The voices in her head offer insight that others do not possess. She knows exactly who Paul and his companions are: “These men are slaves of the Most High God.” That’s what the slave girl says. Guess it takes one to know one. (As Lawrence W. Farris observes, everyone in this story is enslaved).
How does Paul feel about all of this? Annoyed. “Very much annoyed.” So annoyed that he turns to her and drives the demons out. Now, that might seem like a good outcome. But I’m not so sure. Her owners are not happy. Their hope of making money from her is gone.
So we come to Scene Two. To be slaves of the Most High God puts Paul and his friends on a collision course with the Roman authorities. Angered at their financial loss, the slave girl’s owners drag Paul and Silas into court. But they don’t accuse them of interfering with commerce. Instead, they charge them with several vague sounding somethings: “disturbing the peace,” “advocating foreign customs.” The charges are kind of nebulous. (David L. Tiede takes it a little farther. He says the charges are “spurious”).
And they’re not actually convicted of any crime. The authorities in Philippi have them stripped, beaten and “placed in protective custody,” which is to say, shackled in the deepest corner of the darkest dungeon. For their own good, of course.
Hard to say what they did wrong, but this much is clear: Paul and Silas’ allegiance to God Most High renders them suspect in the eyes of Rome.
And that brings us to Scene Three. Right around midnight in the Roman jail, Paul and Silas make a holy nuisance of themselves –praying and singing hymns to God. But suddenly a violent earthquake shakes the foundations of the prison. Every door flies open. Every chain falls off. Free at last!
But one man’s jail break is another man’s career disaster. The jailer is having a bad day. Waking up, seeing what has happened, he prepares, quite literally, to fall on his sword. Think about this: in response to a situation he could not have prevented—a literal act of God—this jailer would rather take his own life then talk it over with his supervisor.
You think you have a bad boss? Try running a Roman jail.
But before he can do the deed, Paul calls out: “Do not harm yourself. We are all here.” The jailer calls for light, rushes in, falls down trembling at the feet of Paul and Silas.
“Sirs, “he says, “what must I do to be saved?”
Except…that isn’t what he says. Not exactly. Like Spanish or French, in Greek the word for “sir” and the word for “lord” are the same word. So look what happens here: His old boss has treated him badly. So he submits to Silas and Paul, figures maybe they can be his new bosses. “Lords,” he says, “what must I do to be saved?”
Maybe you can be the boss of me?
But Paul and Silas don’t want to be the boss of anybody. The jailer calls them “lords,” but they talk to him about “The Lord, Jesus Christ.” Believe in him, trust in him and you will be saved. And then they speak the word of The Lord to him.
So the jailer takes them home, washes their wounds, receives baptism at their hand. Then they gather around a table, share some food.
Rome does not run his life anymore –but neither do Silas and Paul. In his life, from now on, Jesus Christ is Lord.
The jail will be closed indefinitely. The jailer is under new management.