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Politics of Scripture

Our Wrongs and God’s Right—Acts 16:16-34

Two wrongs don’t make a right—except, in today’s reading, they do.

16 One 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. 17 While 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.” 18 She 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. 19 But 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. 20 When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews 21 and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” 22 The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods.
23 After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. 24 Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks. 25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 26 Suddenly 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. 27 When 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. 28 But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.”
29 The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32 They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house.
33 At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. 34 He 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.

Acts 16:16–34 (NRSV)

As a parent of small children, I find myself frequently quoting the folk wisdom, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” This sentiment is usually in response to the defense that one child pushed, pinched, or otherwise wronged the other because she pushed, pinched, or otherwise wronged him first. “Two wrongs don’t make a right,” I say. “Pushing back is not the answer.”

What I’m really talking about, though, is the concept of retribution. I’m telling my children that it’s not okay to hurt someone else just because they hurt you first. Some would argue it’s what Matthew’s Jesus is saying when he tells his disciples, “Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (Matt 5:39). Actually, there’s a lot more in terms of agency and nonviolent resistance that can be unpacked in that statement, but at a base level, Jesus is telling his disciples, “Don’t hurt someone just because they hurt you.” Two wrongs don’t make a right.

In today’s reading, we see a cycle of wrongs that has begun being arrested by a right.

The first offense is actually on the part of the apostles. In Acts 16:18, Paul, “very much annoyed” by an enslaved girl who has been following them around testifying to the truth of their message, casts the spirit of divination (by which she identified them) out of the girl.

Now, this needs some unpacking. Typically, in Acts or the Gospels, when a spirit is cast out of a person, it is cause for celebration. It is associated with acts of healings and considered an act of mercy, or good deed. Even in this story, some interpreters commend Paul for freeing the girl from the spirit. It is, after all, her slave owners who are upset by the spirit’s absence (Acts 16:19). Even apart from our contemporary suspicion of anyone caught up in the institution of slavery, these particular owners later play the “bad guys” in the story, going so far as to attack Paul and his associates, stripping them and beating them with rods (Acts 16:19–23).

There is no doubt that Paul is a victim by the end of this beating; but, at the risk of echoing my children on the playground, he started it. At the same time, Paul’s true offense is really not against the slave owners, but rather, against the enslaved girl herself.

First of all, rather than affirm or celebrate her testimonies on their behalf, Paul becomes annoyed at her. Perhaps his annoyance stems from her constant presence and incessant words. But perhaps his annoyance is deeper. Perhaps what really annoys Paul is that while he is attempting to establish authority and proclaim the Gospel in Philippi, the testimony of this girl (while true) is actually serving to undermine him. After all, she is young, enslaved, and female—intersecting categories that would lead one to disbelieve her in the best of circumstances. On top of that, she is associated with divination, which would have been looked upon with skepticism by some, perhaps Paul included.

In contrast, while Paul first arrives in Philippi, he associates himself with Lydia who, as both a worshipper of God and a merchant (Acts 16:14), serves as a more credible associate. So, Paul wrongfully disregards this girl because of her status; because she is not helping his cause.

Furthermore, it is not clear that the girl wishes to be relieved of her spirit. Positive or negative, the Lukan author seems disinterested in the girl’s response to Paul’s actions at all—she is not mentioned again. Had she been grateful, however, it is possible to assume that like others who experience healing in Luke-Acts, she might have at least asked to follow Paul and Silas, and this is not recorded. Moreover, whatever the girl may have thought about the spirit itself, as an enslaved person, becoming suddenly less useful to her owners was not likely to bode well for her. Since there is no description of physical or emotional pain to the girl in light of the spirit, it is therefore possible, if not likely, that in this instance she would have agreed with her owners, the crowds, and authorities in their outrage at Paul’s uninvited interference.

In short, Paul acts in annoyance, placing his own comfort and perhaps missionary success above the needs and wants of this enslaved girl who has been following him. He is wrong. He acts with bias.

And, as it happens, that wrong and bias are returned.

The charge that the slave owners bring against Paul and his companions is not that they disturbed their means of livelihood, which would have itself been a valid complaint. Instead, the slave owners charge Paul and his companions with “disturbing the city” because “they are Jews” (Acts 16:20). What follows is not retribution for an offense against the enslaved girl as property, but ethnically motivated violence—hate acts.

Paul and his companions were flogged not because they violated the rights of an enslaved girl (by law she had none), nor because they violated the property rights of her owners (though by law they did so), but because they were Jews. They were part of a marginalized religious and ethnic population in the Roman Empire during a period in which tensions with Roman authorities were continually rising, such that it was not uncommon for Jewish individuals to be targeted (as was also the case with Jesus) in an attempt to hold the rest of the population in line.

Maybe the slave owners were angry, maybe they were just scared. In either case, Paul and his companions were charged with “disturbing the peace” because they, like the enslaved girl, were not the right kind of people to associate with. They were beaten and jailed not because of what they did, but because of who they were.

A second wrong, not so unlike the first.

So, what happens next? Does the cycle of oppression, the chain of hatred and devaluation continue? When Paul and his companions find the next opportunity, do they beat and violate the jailer because of who he is, because he has chosen (or, more likely, been forced by life circumstances into) the wrong profession? Maybe they would have. But, before they get the chance, God intervenes.

Luke tells us that while Paul and his companions were in prison,

“Suddenly 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” (Acts 16:26).

I imagine that the earthquake stopped Paul and his companions in their tracks. I imagine that they considered making a run for it, escaping before the jailer knew what to do. Maybe, in between their hymns and prayers, they had even begun contemplating how they might escape, or who from Lydia’s household might be coming for them.

But then the walls shook; the foundations of the floors rattled; and their chains fell off. I imagine that in that moment, Paul and his companions felt the very presence of God in that place. I hope that in that moment they were reminded of the promise of the gospel that Paul writes about in Galatians:

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).

What Luke tells us, in any case, is that they stayed. And because they stayed, the jailer, whom we might have considered an enemy, hears the good news of God’s love and is preserved (Acts 16:30-34). Two wrongs don’t make a right. Hate only begets more hate. And so, the good news of Jesus, who was executed in hate, is that God breaks the chains—the chain of hatred and the chains that imprison. God’s love is stronger than any evil and God’s love does not tolerate hate.

If we are to be preserved in the midst of systems and societies, from the playground to the public courts and legislatures, that seek retribution, scapegoats, and condemnation, the message of Acts is one that demands a stop to the hurt and the hate. Like Paul and his companions, when the foundations are shaking, Acts calls those who consider themselves workers for the gospel to stand their ground, in love.

3 thoughts on “Our Wrongs and God’s Right—Acts 16:16-34

  1. Amy, thank you for this thoughtful piece on a text we wrestled with this sunday. what my guys (3 AA types and a biblequoter) decided was that Pauls getting annoyed with the woman was the crux of the passage; instead of zapping the spirit (exorcising it) he could have engaged the woman and not endangered her. my bit was that looked at with large eyes, perhaps the earthquake was God’s response to this dustup, a not too subtle message that God wanted Paul to be doing his witnessing not picking fights with the locals. But what a great passage and i cannot remember ever hearing it preached on! yeah I am 70 this year.

    1. Thank you for sharing your wrestling. The gift of the biblical text is that God continues to engage us with it in new ways — even 70 years in and counting! I think often we want to see the main characters like Paul as always the “hero” and that engaging the text at the point where Paul may be acting out of annoyance, exhaustion, or some other human emotion (he was human after all) can sometimes be difficult. That God continues to use Paul even in his humanness is a gospel message worth hearing, even as we can and should be careful to learn from his mistakes!

  2. Thank you for uncovering my blind spots in reading a text that I thought that I understood. I see that I should not trust my original perceptions of a pericope. Thank you for such an eye opening encounter.

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