“These people are servants of the Most High God! They are proclaiming a way of salvation for you!” Acts 16:17
This scripture passage ends with one of Paul’s most familiar and wondrous experiences. Beaten and thrown in prison, Paul and Silas stayed up all night in their shackles, singing and praising God. A huge earthquake shook the jail, causing the doors to fly open and the prisoners’ chains to come loose! But the apostles did not take advantage of the chance to escape; they stayed, prevented the terrified jailer from taking his own life, witnessed to him of the power of God, and there in the middle of the night they baptized the astounded jailer and his family. Joy!
It’s a great story. It’s a great Sunday School story; a great flannel-graph, connect-the-dots, happily-ever-after Sunday School story of God’s deliverance, of the disciples’ obedience, of the jailer’s wonder, of a family’s salvation. Joy! Yes!
Unless you’re the slave girl.
Before the beatings, before the prison, before the quake, there was a slave girl with an uncanny gift (curse?) for telling the future and, apparently, for telling the truth. It was she who recognized the disciples, and knew who sent them, and understood what they were doing. They were proclaiming the way of salvation! In a certain sense, she was proclaiming the way of those who were proclaiming the Way of salvation.
It wasn’t all that unusual for the apostles to drive out spirits, but here the Bible spells out Paul’s motivation for driving the chatterbox spirit out of this girl: he was annoyed.
He was annoyed not because she told the truth, but because she told it loudly. And repeatedly. Maybe she was drawing unwanted attention to the apostles, even endangering them. Maybe she was interrupting their teaching and preaching, being distracting and disruptive to their work. Or maybe she just got on Paul’s nerves, plain and simple.
So he commanded the spirit to leave her, and it did. It left her worthless to her owners, who realized they’d suddenly lost a convenient source of income. We’ve heard enough of slave stories to imagine the fallout. What happens to a slave who loses her one value in the eyes of her owners? Paul may have freed her from the spirit that was cursing (gifting?) her, but she remained enslaved to her now furious owners.
The jailhouse singing, the miraculous earthquake, the jailer’s redemption are a great story. But, to me, the slave girl is a heartbreak.
If her owners saw her as useless, if Paul saw her as an annoyance, I hope we readers do not only see her as a means to an end, a mere plot device used to move the story along. Used to get Paul and Silas thrown in jail so that God could finally work a wonder. A casualty on the way to freedom. I hope we don’t see her as “just” a girl, and “just” a slave (and I hope Paul learned to see better, too; I hope he was thinking of her when he wrote “There is… neither male nor female, neither slave nor free, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” [Gal. 3:28]).
I hope when he was singing his prison songs, he was hearing echoes of her voice. I hope he felt the weight of her enslavement in his chains. And when we tell our Sunday School stories, when we remark on the miracles of deliverance and the joys of salvation, I hope we too remember that slave girl–and all those who are silenced, who are forgotten, who are left behind when freedom comes.