The plot line in Acts 16 keeps shifting on the theme of who is free and who is not. Follow along. A slave girl is freed from a demon. She loses her tremendous financial value, so her masters want her liberator, the Apostle Paul, locked up. An earthquake frees Paul and Silas from their chains, but they don’t exercise their freedom. Instead, they offer spiritual release to their jailer, who was ready to take his own life, the ultimate act against being free. Finally, Paul is told he is free, but he still won’t take freedom on the world’s terms until he gets an apology for being jailed without a trial. Who is captive, and who is free is constantly shifting? The story confronts the reader with the question, how free are you?
The slave girl is doubly captive, legally and spiritually. Her lucrative labor belongs to her master. Her value comes from seeing fortunes through spiritual revelation. She reminds me of several people I know who lived on the streets of Northampton. A woman named Liz slept outside our church. We had space in the local shelter, but she was too paranoid to trust it was a safe space. I was part of a long line of do-gooders who tried to help her get her own apartment, but she always undid any plans. Living indoors felt stifling, and she preferred the “freedom” of living outside. Liz loved living by the church because she felt safe there. Like the slave girl who would shout, “These men are the slaves of the Most High God,” Liz would call out, “Pastor Todd, God works in you and loves you, and thanks for all you do. God bless you.” That very sweet, but it could cause a scene. I understand why Paul got exasperated one day and cast the demon out of her. If I could have done something similar for Liz, I would have done so. I don’t know what to make of casting out demons, but let’s just go with the story.
Paul’s liberating action was not universally celebrated. The slave girl’s master was furious because now she could no longer tell fortunes. He just lost money. He takes Paul to court. What was the crime? It’s not illegal to cast out demons. That doesn’t matter to someone who is litigious and spiteful. Notice the court charges. “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and advocate customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” This is the old power playbook. 1. They are disturbing the peace. 2. They are Jews, whom people likely held negative stereotypes. 3. They are doing things against our way of life. In summary, Paul and Silas are not us. They are foreigners, different in ethnicity and religion, and they are trouble-makers who threaten our way of life. No mention is made of the actual problem, the loss of income. When people talk about threats to their way of life, follow the money and you often find the motive.
And it works. An angry crowd gathers and frightens the magistrates into casting aside a fair trial, and Paul and Silas are beaten with rods and thrown into the maximum-security part of the jail.
Now it is midnight in the jail, and Paul and Silas are singing hymns, and all the other inmates are listening. If you were imprisoned unfairly, what would you be doing at midnight? Notice no one says, “Knock it off, you Jesus freaks.” Suddenly a violent earthquake shakes the foundations of the jail, the doors fly open, and everyone’s chains come off. This isn’t how earthquakes typically work. If the foundation shakes, the building falls and crushes everyone. Earthquakes don’t improve your property. Unless you have good insurance and want to rebuild anyway, they are bad news. The author shows this is a precision-guided liberating earthquake that opens doors and breaks chains to set captives free. Remember, this is the same author who wrote Luke’s Gospel. In that Gospel, Jesus’s first sermon said, “I have come to free the oppressed, set the captives free.” Is it the author’s intent to tell us that God’s work through the early followers of Jesus is do this liberating work? First, God releases us from the demons that inflict us internally. Second, we are set free from the chains that bind us physically. What else is the Spirit doing?
The jailer rushes into the scene. He was asleep. He sees the doors open and fears a prison break. He draws his sword and is ready to end his life on the spot. What must he feel to consider this extreme action? As a child, I marveled at a picture of the famous Greek statue of a defeated Gaul King, with his sword at his throat and his wife limp at his feet. He is a strong man, his six-pack abs ripple as he faces despair.
Is he courageous for taking hold of his own life rather than facing the humiliation from the conquerors? Is he honorable? The statue is from the same era and Greek culture as the Gospels. Perhaps Luke had even seen it in his travels and evoked it in this verse. This jailer plays a vital role within the imperial system. He enforces punishment. The penalty for his failure is death. We know this because Peter was miraculously freed from prison in Acts 8, and Herod puts all the jailers to death. A system is diabolical when it convinces you that when you fail, you must end your life. It’s the honorable thing to do. It begs the question-is the jailer a free man? Or is he really a captive to the imperial system? What is Luke telling his audience? This is what the empire makes you do, and the Gospel frees you from its captivity. But how?
We can now understand the jailer’s shock that no one has left the prison. No one leaves, not just Paul and Silas, but no one else. Why didn’t they run for it, saving themselves? If they ran, where would they go? They would be fugitives on the run. Or maybe if you sing hymns while in chains, you are already free. But this jailer is trembling and falls on the ground before Paul, six-pack abs and all, and says, “What must I do to be saved?” How do you go from being ready to take your life for the gods of Empire to suddenly falling before a battered prisoner? You would only do so if you recognized a higher power than the empire’s violent order. What must I do to be saved? Paul’s answer sounds so simple. “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your whole household.” I like The Message Bible translation here, “Put your entire trust into Master Jesus. Then you’ll live as you were meant to live.” That is so much more powerful than asking him to believe in Jesus. It’s not an invitation to join Paul’s philosophy club. If you trust the way of Jesus, then you will live the way you are meant to live. And brother, serving the empire that would make you take your life for a mistake is no way to live.
The jailer is baptized that very night. A Baptist might end the story here. We got a convert; praise Jesus! That’s our fourth one this week. But Luke isn’t done yet. The jailer now washes the wounds of his captives. Can you see this strong man now nursing cuts and bruises, dabbing at the beaten faces, cleansing scrapes where shackles ground wrists and ankles? He makes amends for injustice; even though he is not personally responsible for their injuries, he is part of the system that afflicted them.
But he doesn’t stop there. He takes them home. I don’t think jailers are supposed to take prisoners home. He even invites them to his table, and they have a feast to rejoice at becoming followers of Jesus. This is an act of restorative justice. This is the power and meaning of communion. By now, it must be three or four AM! This restoration can’t wait till morning. It is not too soon to live as you are meant to live.
The lectionary stops with this feast. We are left to wonder what happens to the jailer. He must choose his next steps and so must we as the reader. There is one last scene. The magistrates sent the police to turn Paul and Silas loose. Remember, they were never charged. Paul refuses to leave, states he is a Roman citizen, has been beaten in public, and thrown in prison without a trial. He manages to get an apology from the magistrates before he is released.
Let’s summarize. A slave girl is freed from the inward oppression of her demons. The jailer is freed from being a tool of the Empire, Paul is freed from jail with apologies, and what of the magistrates? Paul reminds them that Rome is supposed to be founded on the rule of law, not mobs. You must be better than this, better than crass nationalism and mob hatred that hides economic interests.
Imagine the incredible impact this story would have had on its first readers, who were sick of their demons, weary of empire that told them their place with the violence to enforce it, disgusted with self-interest controlling public goods, and desperately hoping to live better. How does the story impact you? Do you also feel the longing to live more freely?
Then hear the good news. Whatever chains bind you – fear, grief, injustice, hopelessness-Christ desires to liberate you so you can live as you are intended to live. The Gospel is not “live free or die” but rather “You are free. What will you do with it?”