“May the words from my lips and the meditations of our hearts always be pleasing to you O God.”
Last Sunday we heard the story of Lydia. The first European convert. A woman who dealt in expensive purple cloth. The woman we encounter today comes from a very different social position. This unnamed woman is a slave. A slave with a special gift or talent that has made her owners a very good living.
In Roman pagan practices women called Sibyls delivered messages from the Gods. Often these messages were delivered under the influence of drugs. The women would go into trances and deliver their messages. We can consider them like the young women of Delphi.
This slave girl had the gift of divination and she was incredibly valuable because of it.
Paul and Silas encounter this woman on the streets and she recognizes in them something special - perhaps she identifies with them as slave as well. She calls out that these men are slaves to the most high God and that they can bring salvation. Perhaps at first her cries were welcome. They would have brought an audience! But as the days continue so do the cries. This woman is not leaving them alone. She continues to follow them about calling them slaves of the most high who will proclaim to you a way of salvation.
And finally Paul snaps. He acts out of annoyance. He does not speak to the slave girl - he speaks through her. He tells the spirit of divination to leave her and she is silenced. Paul does not act out of compassion for this woman. He does not seem to care that she is a slave owned by others who profit handsomely by her.
Paul frees her from her possession but does not free her from being a possession.
Many commentators have hailed this act of silencing as an act of freedom. I vehemently disagree. This is not an act of freedom. This slave girl has lost her value to her owners. We have no idea what happened to her but I can imagine! She may have been returned to the slave market - sold again - and perhaps again and again and again. Would she have been used as a housemaid or menial labour or a labourer in the fields or would she have been sexually assulted? All of these are possible and even probable.
Paul has no use for her. Paul has no compassion for her. Paul was on a mission to share the Gospel but he did not share it with this woman. Paul is credited with saying that in Christ there is no longer slave or free. But that is clearly NOT the case here. This woman remains a slave but now she is a slave without the same economic value. She seems to have had quite a bit of freedom as she followed Paul and Silas all around Philippi!
But what will happen to her now that she has been silenced? Silence is not freedom. Silence is enslavement. She is not empowered by Paul’s action.
Was Paul uncomfortable with her prophetic gifts? Quite probably. Perhaps we can take this a step further and suggest he was uncomfortable with the prophetic voices of women in the Church. Throughout the book of Acts Paul silences the women prophets. The slave girl proclaimed the truth about Paul and Silas but all they had for her was annoyance. The slave girl was a commodity to her owners and she is treated no better by Paul. Paul never speaks to her. He never attempts to convert her. Is this a failure of his mission?
When Paul silences the slave girl he removes her gift, her craft, her value to her slave owners. And he gives her nothing in return. This is not a healing story. It is a story told and retold and experienced by millions of women. It is a story of being silenced.
The author of Acts shows no interest in the unnamed slave girl with the power of divination as a human being. She is only a narrative prop to show the power of God at work in Paul.
This woman was not liberated by Paul’s act of silencing the spirit of divination. As the scripture tells us “she was no longer useful to her owners.”