Over the next few days we will be exploring one of my favorite stories from the book of Acts.
“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. 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.’
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.
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. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, ‘These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.’
The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.” – Acts 16:16-24
The scripture describes the girl as having a “spirit of divination.” While the story doesn’t provide much detail as to what this means the context gives us some clues. In the Old Testament, divination refers to communicating with supernatural beings for the purpose of uncovering that which is hidden. Several passages in the Hebrew scriptures condemn the practice. The instances of divination often involve some form of manipulation and destruction.
In this story the hidden element the spirit seeks to reveal is the nature of the disciples, “she would cry out, ‘These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.’” This element calls to mind when the spirit known as “Legion” in the Gospel of Mark called out to Jesus saying, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” What is interesting is that Paul does not heal her because someone interceded for her or because he felt compassion for her. Paul casts the spirit out of her because the spirit was annoying him and likely was disturbing his ministry.
The book of Acts is filled with an emphasis on the spiritual. The story affirms that power of Christ and the Holy Spirit in the apostles as greater than the spirits of the world. However, the spiritual confrontation is not the point of the story. Paul’s motives for the healing have nothing to do with demonstrating the power of God. The story quickly moves from the healing of the individual (the slave girl) to the sickness of the society (her owners). The bulk of the story is about the angry and wicked response of the owners (we’ll touch on that more tomorrow). In this way, the story speaks of the connection between the symptoms seen in individuals and the sicknesses of society.
Victor Hugo once said, “If a soul is left in the darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness.”
Holy God, as we seek to serve those who feel lost or hurting may we also address the social systems and cultural norms that dehumanize and disorient the powerless in our world. Amen.