Paul and his friends were in the ancient city of Phillipi, a Roman colony and a place where, guess who, the Phillippians lived; Paul would later write them a letter that appears in the New Testament.
Paul and his friends are going around the city talking about the way of Jesus. They run into a slave girl whose masters would send her out into the streets to “work.” Her job was to be a fortune teller, so people pay her money, she tells their fortune, and her fortune was the bosses get the money. This is the way power and slavery work — slaves work, bosses get the money.
But this girl seems to have been trying to escape. She starts following Paul and the others around while they are preaching and she begins shouting her own message the day after — but now she’s telling a new fortune. She says, “these men are servants of the Most High God and they are telling you how to be saved!”
It’s another story of someone finally finding her voice. The slave girl, not free to live her own life, not saved from her plight, sees her chance and speaks out.
Paul turns around and in good New Testament language, commands the spirit to come out of her by invoking the name of Jesus Christ. If we read it at face value it sounds like another magic story, not unlike what the girl was already involved in, but when we think about it we know that to take in the life and teachings of Jesus is not magic, but it is powerful.
Because the book of Acts tells stories in rapid fire fashion as a way of talking about conversion and transformation, it can seem magical. But this story of Paul and the slave girl is shorthand for saying that the way of Jesus is one that opens the door to grace and freedom from all kinds of slavery but — and this is a huge pause — it is not without cost, it’s not about magic.
So Paul and Silas and now the woman are on a different side of the ledger from her slave owners — the masters, the power brokers. They aren’t getting the money from the woman’s services anymore, so the owners drag Paul and Silas before the magistrates and accuse them — get this — they accuse them essentially of not being patriotic to the Roman way.
Paul and Silas get thrown into prison. We don’t know what happens to the woman, the story doesn’t mention her again, but it does mention that Paul and Silas only stay in jail there a few days and that before they leave the city they spend time with some of the believers there. Perhaps the slave girl found her way into that community. Perhaps they supported her and helped her re-establish a life of freedom. This little story is like several we find in scripture — it leaves the ending open for us to practice our moral imagination — so that we put ourselves in her shoes and ask what does she need, and how can we help?
To say that grace is free and always available is not to say that walking in grace is without cost. Perhaps it is to say that within the way of grace we find our voices to speak for ourselves and for others who have no voice. We find our way to come together and subvert the way of power mongering, greed, and the failure to recognize our common humanity.
Paul later wrote to the church in Phillipi. He had several things to say, but the hinge of the letter may be his words about imitating the humility of Jesus. He wrote that the faithful should have the same attitude Christ had:
He emptied himself and took the form of a slave
And became like human beings
People have different views about the humanity and divinity of Jesus, and as interesting as that might be, the thing we have a shot at living into is the idea of humbly recognizing that each of us are part of the “human beings” Paul said Jesus lived among. Humanity is a club we are all born into.
That would seem obvious, but when we think about the slave girl in the story and the willingness of her masters to use her and sell her and keep her captive, it’s clear that they didn’t see themselves as like her at all. Instead there was callous disregard for the humanity they shared with her.
And stories like that continue, we haven’t outgrown our deadly sins. Every day we hear and read about egregious acts of inhumanity. The airwaves are filled with speech that disrespects the connection to life we all share. These stifling fumes of abuse of power, which is most certainly the opposite of humility, threaten to overwhelm us.
And yet, in our story, the girl spoke out, and the way of Jesus Paul was preaching about opened up. If the girl survived after that, it was dependent on others living in the way of humility. Though humility in its root form means low, in its best practice it means realizing you are not higher than anyone else — so high that you can’t see, you can’t connect, you can’t realize your common humanity. On that level playing field our love and compassion can grow.