Here Comes Trouble
After Paul accepts Lydia’s benefaction and he and his party (Timothy, Silas and Luke) are received into her home in the city of Philippi. As seems to be the case of Paul if he isn’t causing trouble then trouble finds him all by itself. On his way to the place of prayer, which we assume was the river spot where he met Lydia and the other women in their al fresco synagogue of sorts, he met another woman, this one a slave.
Slaves were not unusual, of course, in the Roman empire. Slaves were people owned to generate income for their masters. This slave had a special power, apparently, that made her quite valuable to her masters. She was known to have a spirit of divination or as Luke calls it a “python spirit” probably associated with the python of the fabled oracle of Delphi. I assume she was a fortune teller of sorts, giving advice to paying customers about the future. Apparently she was popular because her masters were making a good living from her.
This slave woman with the python spirit once she saw Paul apparently couldn’t get enough of him. According to Luke she followed him for DAYS crying out “These men are slaves of the most high god, who proclaim to you the way of salvation!”
Hearing Words Through the Audience
Christians of course read this passage and hear similar stories of Jesus’ life reverberate. These two stories come from Luke’s telling of Jesus’ life as well. In Luke 4 there is a man with an “unclean” spirit who calls Jesus “the Holy One of God” and in Luke 8 the spirits “Legion” in the famous Gerasene Demoniac call Jesus “the Son of the Most High God”. Christians commonly hear validation in this demonic outcries and some of that is what Luke intends, but it is important to ask the question “how would the onlookers in Philippi understand this woman’s proclamation?”
In this passage in Acts it is easy for us to hear Christian code talk both in the cry of the slave woman and later in the despair of the prison guard. We should pull back from these assumptions and at least pause a bit to explore how these words would have been understood in that particular historical context, to the best we can imagine.
We already know that the world story of the Jews has likely not deeply impacted the mind-share of Philippi. The ladies interested in Yhwh, unable to must enough men for a real synagogue are forced to pray outside the city by the river. This slave girl was likely a sort of a public figure in the town where clearly the wealthy and the powerful pay her masters to hear her revelations. In Paul’s wake she’s handing out samples and these samples would have been understood within the cultural framework of the audience.
Undermining Her Own Market
What market place did this divining slave woman operate within? She was a slave of the Python spirit as well as her earthly masters and the trade she plied was “salvation”. People don’t pay large sums for parlor tricks very often, but in the ancient world, and even today, they will dig deep for insider information.
Just as everyone in our world KNOWS that the insider information revealed by material and social scientists expose the inner workings of the universe and people’s minds, and with enough skill such people can make predictions about the course of the future. Everyone in Paul’s time KNEW that the spirits were one step ahead of us in knowledge and power and if you could find one willing to deal in the coin of our realm you could procure insider information from the spirit world and get a leg up on your competition. This leg up offered the buyers of this information a strategic advantage in the hopes of securing for themselves favorable political, social and economic outcomes. It was kind of like getting tomorrow’s newspaper today so you could pick the winning stocks and lottery numbers.
This transaction with the spirit world of course came at a price. I don’t know much about ancient divination but I don’t think the fundamentals have changed much in 2000 years. Divination is of course practiced in most parts of the world today, more quietly in secular regions like our own, but the transactions are simple. The spirit that we hope to offer the insider information agrees to cough up something of value if the spirit can borrow carnal enjoyment from the host. In the Dominican Republic this usually involved smoking, drinking, music or perhaps something of a sexual nature. The spirit gets to use or “ride” the “caballo” or “horse”, which is the medium, and in exchange the medium gets cash from the person looking for the data. In this case of course, the slave woman does the time, and her masters get the cash.
This woman’s market value is in her ability to sell “salvation” as would have been understood by the people of the city of Philippi. Now she is walking behind Paul and his friends announcing freely, giving it away for nothing, clearly apart from her master’s supervision, that Paul has better stuff than even her own. While she’s a slave of the python spirit, Paul is a slave of the most high god (they wouldn’t have known the name of Yhwh of course) and he is offering a way to salvation from that god. Paul’s got better juice and she’s going around publishing it!
Now we might imagine that Paul would be flattered by this. Paul IS a slave of the “most high god” offering a way to salvation, but the terms mean something very different from what the Philippians would have understood.
If you remember the story of Paul in Lystra in Acts 14 he was confused with Zeus himself and Paul didn’t care for that. Despite the potentially lucrative marketing this woman is offering for free she is giving exactly the wrong impression of what Paul is about. It seems Paul tolerates this for a few days and then just can’t seem to take it anymore, turns and commands the spirit to come out of her in the name if Jesus, and it goes.
Now there are ironies to this passage. On the first day when Paul met this girl he didn’t say “oh my, look at this poor creature in bondage BOTH to the python spirit AND to her masters, I’m going to release her.”
Paul seems to be keeping his head down, and his mouth shut and focusing his attention on working with the group of praying women at the river. He’s not looking for a fight or looking for trouble. He’s minding his own business.
A Cry for Help
It is interesting here in this story that the person crying out for help in this very unusual way is the slave woman. She is, in a sense, using the python spirit to undermine it’s own mission and it’s own end. The woman is seeking help and she will not be deterred.
In a strange way she like Lydia is asking for help and challenging Paul to come to her rescue. She is like the Syrophoenician woman of Mark 7 and Matthew 15 whose daughter is tormented by a demon. The disciples put her off and she even has to talk Jesus into helping her.
She is like the persistent widow of Luke 18 who simply will not be denied. However mission focused Paul is she will simply NOT be deterred from seeking and securing her freedom from this spirit so she will pester Paul until he finally relents, not out of mercy, but out of sheer frustration, again like the unjust judge of Luke 18.
God loves making great stories, and he usually casts his servants in uncomfortable roles. Paul frees the slave woman from her python spirit, but not from her earthly masters. We don’t know whether or not they cut her loose after she lost her market value to them, once she was no longer a profitable horse for their patrons to ride, but they would now exact a price from Paul for the deliverance he gave to their golden goose.
Deliverance from bondage usually requires payment, and Paul would pay to set this woman free with his own blood. Her masters would use the wealth, connections and power afforded them at her expense to pass the charges onto Paul. In God’s strange economy, however, the blood of the substitute just keeps freeing. More in the next story.