Slaves or servants? St. Paul and the Fortune-telling Slave Girl

A sermon for Easter 7 02/06/19, by Roberta Berke


“For freedom, Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” [Galatians 5.1.13

If you’re having a party, there are two people you shouldn’t invite. These two people are witty, clever, and excellent company, but whenever they appear, trouble follows. If your guests are Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, soon you’ll discover a dead body. In a similar way, whenever Saint Paul and Silas came to town, trouble was certain to erupt. Paul’s mission to Philippi began well: he converted Lydia to Christianity. Lydia was a prominent business woman who dealt in expensive purple dyes.

Wherever Paul went in Philippi, he was stalked by a fortune-telling slave girl. She had a “spirit of divination”, a spirit of Pythonos. This word for divination comes from Python, the monster serpent, which was slain by Apollo at Delphi. The temple at Delphi was famous for predictions of the future. Its priestess went into a trance caused by hallucinogenic vapours. She pronounced oracles that were obscure and ambiguous. The Greek word, Pythonos, was used to describe fortune-tellers or ventriloquists who claimed to be channels for supernatural voices. At Philippi this fortune-telling slave girl was said to have a spirit of Pythonos, that mythical serpent. This serpent reminds us of another serpent, that cunning deceiver in the Garden of Eden. Was this fortune-telling slave girl cleverly telling people what they wanted to hear? Or was she mentally ill and compulsively repeating random words she’d overheard? Whether she was cunning or demented, this girl made a great deal of money for her owners. Our human curiosity to know the future is just as strong today. Horoscopes with vague predictions appear in many newspapers. While waiting in the dentist’s office, I glance at the horoscopes in out-of-date magazines, and I laugh at how wrong their forecasts were.

This fortune-telling slave girl dogged Paul’s footsteps and she shouted incessantly. No wonder Paul became very annoyed. He was angry, not with this girl, but with the evil spirit that possessed her. She kept shouting, “These men are the slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” She was telling the truth: why should Paul want to silence her?

This girl’s proclamation of the truth was the devil’s ingenious device to twist the truth to his own evil designs. If Paul had acknowledged the spirit’s words as true, his gospel message would be tainted by association with paganism, magic and trickery. Paul would be regarded as just another charlatan magician if he allowed this evil spirit to support his message. People would be encouraged to believe every deceiving spirit. Paul warned Timothy, “…some will renounce the faith by paying attention to deceitful spirits and the teachings of demons.” [1 Timothy 4.1] Several times Jesus silenced the evil spirits who recognised him as the Son of God. Today some people use the Bible, the word of truth, to support false and harmful ideas.  You can prove anything by selecting random quotes out of their context in scripture.

Paul drove out this girl’s deceiving spirit: “In the name of Jesus Christ, come out of her.” At once the spirit left the girl. Just as Jesus promised, “by using my name, you will cast out demons”. [Mark 16.17]

As so often happened when Paul proclaimed the gospel, he provoked hostility. Now that the slave girl could longer tell fortunes, her owners couldn’t make money from their freak show. They stirred up a mob, and accused Paul and Silas of being Jews who were advocating non-Roman customs. Today they would probably accuse Paul and Silas of belonging to an international Zionist conspiracy. The magistrates ordered Paul and Silas to be beaten and thrown into prison. In response, Paul and Silas reacted to their unjust treatment by praying and singing hymns. Then an earthquake, typical of this area, shook the prison, and the prisoners were freed. But Paul and Silas didn’t run away. The gaoler and his household became believers in Christ and they were baptised. When Paul and Silas revealed they were Roman citizens, they were vindicated and the magistrates apologised.

What became of the slave girl? There’s no mention of her being freed, or of her being healed or of her being converted. Now that she could no longer tell fortunes, did her owners sell her off as a kitchen maid or as a prostitute? If you’d like to imagine a happy ending, perhaps Lydia took her into her household. This story is not  about healing, but about the conflict between Paul and the evil spirit, the struggle between the truth of God and the deceits of the devil. This story asks, who is a slave and who is truly free? This girl was twice a slave, not only to her human owners, but she was also a slave to the evil spirit that possessed her.

On the collar of a dog, Alexander Pope wrote, “I am His Highness’ dog at Kew. / Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?” Whose dog are we? Who owns us? To what are we slaves? Sometimes we don’t realise we are slaves. We can be slaves to addictions, to destructive relationships, to corrosive prejudices. We can also be chained to insidious sins, those destructive acts we commit out of habit, without realising what we are doing. The Second Letter of Peter warns us that, “…people are slaves to whatever masters them.” [2 Peter 2 .19]

Notice that the spirit within the slave girl called Paul and Silas “slaves”. “These men are the slaves of the Most High God”. The word for slave is sometimes translated as “servant” or as “bondservant”. Yet the Greek words for “slave” and for “servant” are definitely different. The girl, a slave herself, calls Paul and Silas, “slaves of the Most High God”. Paul introduces himself to the Romans as, “Paul, a slave of Jesus Christ.” [Romans 1.1]. Though often translated as “servant”, this word “slave” is the same word as the slave girl shouted. Paul and Silas are also slaves, serving their master, God. Yet because God is their master, Paul and Silas are truly free. “In his service is perfect freedom”. [-- St. Augustine of Hippo]

How can we be freed from our various kinds of slavery? Paul urged, “For freedom, Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” [Galatians 5.1.13] Because we freely chose serve God, we are not slaves but servants. “In his service is perfect freedom”. What is perfect freedom? Paul explains, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” [2 Corinthians.3.17] We are about to celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The Holy Spirit gives us freedom from our worst instincts, the Holy Spirit releases us from our destructive impulses. Let us be thankful for the Holy Spirit who gives us true freedom from every kind of slavery. AMEN.