“The meaning of slavery”
Highlands Presbyterian Church
May 12, 2013
"The church is close, but the road is icy. The tavern is far, but I will walk carefully" - Russian Proverb
As Paul tells the story, he and some others were going somewhere to pray. Along the way they encountered a slave girl. This quickly becomes a story about slavery, theirs and hers. There were then, as there are now, many forms of slavery.
Captives who were taken during warfare were often compelled to become slaves, and this was seen by the law code of the book of Deuteronomy as a legitimate form of enslavement. Poverty compelled some people to enter debt bondage. They would agree to become slaves in order to ay off debts.
Furthermore, in the ancient Near East, wives and non-adult children were viewed as property, and were sometimes sold into slavery by the husband/father for financial reasons. The Code of Hammurabi specifically permitted debtors to sell their wives and children into temporary slavery for as long as three years. Covenant Code instructs that if a thief is caught after sunrise, and is unable to make restitution for the theft, then the thief should be enslaved.
The slave girl Paul and his friends encountered was likely either a poverty slave or a girl sold into slavery by her father. In any event, her owners used to her make money by fortune telling.
She annoyed the heck out of Paul by following him day after day and screaming, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” The slave girl called them slaves. She knew a slave when she saw one and these men were slaves…unlike she who was enslaved by men, they were slaves to God.
Isn’t it curious that Paul would have been annoyed by that salutation since that is exactly what he considered himself to be… Paul begins his letter to the Roman Christians by identifying himself as “a slave of Christ Jesus.”
Romans 1:1… “This letter is from Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus. The Greek original of Romans contains the word doulos, which means “slave.” Paul identified himself as “a devoted slave of Jesus Christ.” So why does he become so annoyed with the slave wman who says he is a slave to God?.
In any event, when he’d had his fill of her, Paul stopped, turned around 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.
Her days as a slave were over. Her reaction is, interestingly, not recorded but the displeasure of her master is. There was no longer a return on the investment they had made in this girl. Without the spirit of divination, she wasn’t worth a single denari to them. They turned on Paul and Silas and dragged them before the judges in the marketplace.
The marketplace as the venue for their trial is poignant. The case against Paul had to do with the economic value of the slave girl…before and after the casting out of the spirit.
“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.”
That is a curious charge. What customs were Paul and Silas advocating that were unlawful for them and the Romans to observe? What we should note is that the charges against them include their Jewishness…their accusers make note of the fact that these men are Jews…and are advocating customs that are inconsistent with Roman law.
They were speaking of the Roman laws regarding slavery. Slavery in ancient Rome played an important role in society and the economy. Besides manual labor, slaves performed many domestic services, and might also be assigned highly skilled jobs and professions. Teachers, accountants, and physicians were often slaves. Unskilled slaves, or those condemned to slavery as punishment, worked on farms, in mines, and at mills. Their living conditions were brutal, and their lives short.
Slaves were considered property under Roman law and had no legal personhood. Unlike Roman citizens, were subjected to corporal punishment, sexual exploitation (prostitutes were often slaves), they could be tortured and summarily executed.
Slavery was then as it is now…an evil institution that denies human beings not only of their freedom but also of their dignity.
The Roman economy depended on slaves…in much the same way our own economy depends on the work of undocumented workers and unskilled labor who must work for minimum wages…and on teenaged girls working in unsafe clothing factories in Bangladesh and China and elsewhere. Look at their fight today…where is Paul today to cast out the spirit that enslaves these workers?
Why can’t we hear there voices crying out to Christians the way Paul heard the voice of this slave woman? Are the benefits we receive from their work drowning out their cries for justice…aren’t they asking the slaves of the most high God to free them…to speak for them…
…it’s no small thing to give those people, those slaves, a safe work place, a livable wage and the dignity of citizenship and economic security…
…and it was no small thing in those days for these Jesus-loving Jews to free this slave girl…to take from the business men who owned her the ability she had to make money for her owners. The Roman businessmen could see that if this became Roman policy, their income and their riches would be endangered. Sound familiar?
So it is no surprise that others in the marketplace felt threatened by the freeing of this slave. The crowd readily joined in attacking Paul and the others, 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.
All in all…it’s a rather odd story. Paul doesn’t cast out the demon for a particularly theological reason…he does it because this slave annoyed him. But Paul’s annoyance achieves a theological result. She’s following him, telling the truth about Paul and the others…they are slaves to the most high God and she is telling everyone…making noise and making a spectacle of herself. Paul can’t tolerate it any more and puts a stop to it by casting out the evil spirit…and in casting out the spirit, he frees her from the unjust system that enslaved her.
Perhaps the lesson here is that even the truth, when proclaimed through an abusive or exploitive system, ends up being distorted. She is owned by men of evil intentions. The spirit that possesses her enables their evil intentions.
Paul realizes that the evil intent of the slave owners is served by the credibility the slave woman gets by being a part of Paul’s group…the credibility she gains by telling the truth about these men. Her recognition of Paul and the disciples makes her other predictions more believable, more profitable. It’s an effort to manipulate the truth to their own evil designs.
So what does this mean to us?
Are not the souls of the 1200 young girls killed in the predictable collapse of that clothing factory calling out to us…hey you who claim to follow the most high God…are you going to do anything about this? Or are you just going to quietly keep buying the low cost clothing?
And what about the children in the apartment houses surrounding our church…living in poverty…in homes with no father…where mom is working more than one minimum wage job? Can we hear their voices crying out to the flowers of the most high God?
And those who are denied the basic civil right of marriage, those who are marginalized by the color of their skin or the way in which they worship God or those who live on the edges of life because they are elderly or disabled or simply different?
How about the fast food workers around the nation whose work makes their owners and shareholders millions of dollars…they are going on strike until the slave owners pay them enough of a wag to live on…will Christians support them or will those who claim the most high God support the owners?
These workers and others, like those who care for the elderly in rest homes, those who clean our houses and serve meals in restaurants…they all live lives in some form of the modern-day version of globalized slavery…and they mimic us who call ourselves the followers of the most high God when we claim that God…but fail to serve that God…
…their slavery continues because we allow it to continue, because it somehow benefits us, we like the low prices that comes from the work of low paid workers…and when someone like a disciple like Paul demands their slavery end…we drag them into the marketplace and beat them over the head with arguments about how paying a fair wage will destroy the economy…when undocumented workers fill jobs that no American will take and help build the economy…we call them “illegals” and pretend we want them deported knowing that farms and ranches and restaurants and motels would close their doors without these workers.
How often do we encounter those who claim to serve the most high God while using the scripture to manipulate the beliefs and feelings of others? To demean others? To create God in their own image?
You see the slave woman got her talking points from the slave master, the one who benefited from her work…many of the voices opposing justice today get their talking points from those who have so much at stake in making sure the poor remain poor, that the poor provide a stable workforce for businesses that won’t pay livable wages…and worse, those who choose to interpret scripture in a way that supports their political and social views of the world.
And so in the end…this is a story about how easy it is to become a slave to the lies, especially when they are told by those who cloak themselves in religion and what sounds like truth though it is self-serving.
Are we slaves to the most high God…or are we making slaves of others? AMEN