Friday, 10 May 2013

Actions and consequences - blurring the lines between good and bad.

Sometimes I find that when I look back on my actions I find that something good has come out of an unwise choice.  Did that make it a 'wise' choice in actuality?  I don't think so.  But our actions have consequences we cannot foresee...
Acts 16:16-34
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 market-place 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. About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.’ The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them outside and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ They answered, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.

Actions and Consequences
There is so much good news to reflect on here, but I feel that there is another story going on as well, the one which Luke tells us almost inadvertently about how badly things can go wrong when we let loose with a bad temper, particularly if we are engaged in something spiritual.  So let me begin with a story. Many years ago, when Ali and I were first married our musical tastes were somewhat more narrow than what they are now and we played in a heavy rock band. Unusually we were a four piece made up of two men and two women. Ali and I were joined by a brilliantly creative guitarist who I had known since college. Our four piece was completed by a young woman on bass guitar and backing vocals who Ali had been at youth group with. So we had a lot of history together and worked well as a team. We were all on faith journeys and were haltingly and unsteadily growing as Christians as well as musicians.

It was exciting for us because we were just beginning to get noticed, and then our bass guitarist dropped what seemed at that time like a bit of bombshell. She had decided to go back to university and would we mind not gigging very much while she finished her degree. My response was, let’s say, not altogether charitable.  There followed an exchange of letters in which I responded out of what I wanted and what I felt the band should be doing rather than out of compassion for her needs. In the ensuing split our friendship was shattered and she was deeply hurt. I had reacted out of anger because of what I wanted rather than out of compassion for what she needed. I’ll come back to this story later.

So let’s turn to that reading from Acts, and you may recall that in my last post I mentioned St. Paul’s thorn in the flesh and the speculations surrounding it. Some church people, fairly typically, have assumed that St. Paul was struggling with some kind of sexual issue. Others have suggested that it may be that his eyesight was not as healed as he suggested after his blinding encounter with Christ on the Damascus road.  But I still feel the evidence suggests that the thorn in his flesh that he was referring to was a problem with anger. Now it is interesting to note that God was able to use that anger to bring something good out of it, i.e. the salvation of the jailer and his family, but there is an innocent party in all this who simply disappears, never to be heard of again.

I am, of course, thinking of the slave girl.

Now we need to be quite clear in our terminology here as to how we describe her. Although she is often referred to by commentators as a demon-possessed woman, that is not what Luke calls her. Remember that Luke is always quite clear about what he means, but translators and commentators sometimes muddy the waters.  So translations tend to say either that she had a spirit of divination or a spirit by which she told the future but what Luke actually says in the Greek is that she had a spirit of a python, and whilst that sounds odd to us it is actually very specific when we look at what it actually means. It refers to the Greek deity, Apollo whose symbol at his Temple at Mount Parnassus was a snake.  There were there the Delphic oracle readers who were usually young women. When in a trance state they could be asked questions and would give what would be thought of as answers from Apollo.

Now we should in no way interpret this poor slave girl as being remotely on a par with an Oracle at Parnassus, but she was thought of by Luke as being possessed by the same Python spirit and it was through this that she told fortunes. Two things stand out for me in this. Firstly St. Luke makes no comment about the nature of this spirit. He doesn’t call it an unclean spirit. Nor does he call it a demon.  Given his usual attention to detail we should be cautious not to jump to any conclusion there either. Luke was of his culture. This woman had the spirit of a python and through it she told the future. That’s all there was to it.
I think that actually it’s more important for us that we acknowledge her social status. Basically she had none. She was a slave so she had no rights of her own. She ‘belonged’ to someone else and they made money out of her. She was used.  If you remember from the last post I wrote about Lydia who was a rich independent woman trader in expensive purple cloths. The slave girl is at totally the opposite end of the social spectrum. She has nothing and Luke gives her no name. So what happens next?

She latches on to Paul and Silas and follows them around. From not too far away she bears witness to them saying, ‘These men are slaves of the Most High God who proclaim to you a way fo salvation.’ She is bearing testimony to their testimony. It is interesting that she uses the phrase, ‘Most High God.’ This is more-or-less a catch-all interfaith phrase.  For the Greek they would think it meant Zeus. For the Jew it referred to Yahweh. Either way people would know what she meant. It’s perhaps worth mentioning that this title goes back a long way and followers of both religions would have recognised and owned it.

So she follows them for some time, calling out who they were and what they were doing. We have no idea what the girl’s owners were doing at this time. Maybe Paul and Silas were drawing a crowd through their words and she was aligning herself to them so that they were able to make money by offering her fortune telling abilities. Maybe she was under a compulsion because of the spirit. We just have no idea.  I don’t know that was what was on Luke’s mind as he told this tale. But for whatever reason, Paul, being very much annoyed by this woman, and without asking her, casts the spirit out in the name of Jesus. It matters not whether we think of the spirit as an evil spirit, an animal spirit or the spirit of a dead person. It was given no choice but Christ’s name and the intent behind it meant the spirit had to leave.

But this is what disturbs me:
Paul acts out of anger.
Paul asks the girl nothing about her own opinion.
Paul treats her with nothing like the respect that he treated the well-off Lydia, and Paul’s actions, however we want to judge them, make her worthless to her owners. She is no longer of any value to them.

And so she simply disappears.

Paul reacted out of anger, not out of compassion and when we react emotionally rather than spiritually then people can get hurt. We have no idea what became of this young woman but I suspect that if she went on to become a believer then Luke would have told us, given his eye for detail. Instead we are left with the sad open-ended fear that the slave-girl’s future would have been pretty bleak. 

Now of course many people would want to point at what happens next. Paul and Silas are arrested on totally trumped up charges, they get beaten into a bloody mess yet still praise God in jail through their bruises. A miraculous earthquake and Paul’s quick thinking mean that the jailer becomes a Christian and another believer and his household is added to the fledgling church at Philippi.  But I want to suggest that this is the grace of God working with the consequences of Paul’s actions rather than the will of God from the outset. It seems unthinkable to me that given all the evidence from prophecies in scripture and from the lips of Jesus about how God was on the side of the poor, that he would have caused the downfall of the slave-girl in order to save the jailer who was probably a fairly well-off retired Roman soldier.  Instead this seems to me about how God works in the midst of our worst impulses to bring about the best outcome.

Let me return to the story I began with about the band. After a little while we recruited a new bass guitarist, and following a change of direction we recruited a fiddle player. Shortly after that we were offered a record deal with a small independent label.  The new bass guitarist and new fiddle player fell in love, married and had two children, and we still play together and the band continues as we work on a new album. In other words, out from the ashes of my angry response God was able to bring something quite beautiful.

But nevertheless I am still left with a sense of hollowness, a wondering of what ever happened to our original bass guitarist.  Did she ever return to her spiritual journey? Was God able to bring something good out of that mess for her?

So for me this story is a reminder of the need for our actions to be rooted in a deep and calm spirituality; of being people who respond first and foremost with love and compassion rather than anger. We can be truly grateful that God is able, in God’s grace and love, to bring something good out of the difficulties we weave.   But we should never forget that our actions have consequences, and a sharp retort out of anger can change someone’s life forever. Our tongues have a lot of power. May we learn to use them wisely.

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