SEVENTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
Prayer of the Day: O God, form the minds of your faithful people into your one will. Make us love what you command and desire what you promise, that, amid all the changes of this world, our hearts may be fixed where true joy is found, your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“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.” Acts 16:16-18.
I usually trust reputable translations of Biblical texts, such as the New Revised Standard Version and its predecessors. Occasionally, however, I have my doubts. This is one of those occasions. Something about the above reading seemed a little off to me. So, I summoned up as much New Testament Greek as I could recall from my college and seminary years, pulled my Greek New Testament off the shelf along with the Arndt & Gingrich lexicon and the Moulton & Geden concordance and went in search of anything that might have gotten lost in translation. Often as not, these rare forays of mine leave me with a somewhat refreshed recollection of Greek vocabulary and grammar, but little else. This time, however, I might just have found something.
On the face of our English reading, it seems that the Apostle Paul was simply annoyed by the slave girl who, for whatever reason, was following him about and seemingly promoting his mission. But the word translated as “annoyed” in our reading is the Greek word, “diaponeomai.” Though it can be so translated, as the New Revised Standard Version does here, the word can also mean “to be greatly disturbed” in the sense of being morally outraged. In the two other places where this verb is found in the New Testament, it has precisely this meaning. In Acts 4:2, the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem were outraged that Peter and John were preaching Jesus and the resurrection. In Mark 14:4 the disciples are morally outraged by the anonymous woman’s use of expensive oil to anoint Jesus. However misguided such outrage may have been in these two examples, the point here is that the word used to express such outrage rises far above the level of mere annoyance. This is not the story of an apostle’s irritability leading him to employ the name of Jesus to quiet a pesky girl. Paul is not annoyed. He is outraged.
Paul had good reason for outrage. The slave girl was what we would call a victim of human trafficking. She was the property of her owners who were exploiting her spiritual/emotional/mental bondage for their own economic gain. So far from being impressed by Paul’s liberation of this girl from her bondage, her “owners” are angered that “their hope of making money was gone.” Acts 16:19. For them, she was a cash cow whose udders were now dry. The biblical narrative follows Paul and Silas into prison, however, and we are left to wonder about the fate of this poor slave girl. I would like to believe that the liberating word spoken by Paul broke not only the yoke of demonic possession, but also that of her servitude. I would like to believe that she found her way to liberation and freedom. But the Bible gives us no such assurance. We know very little about this young woman. Was she merely a child now abandoned to fend for herself in the streets? Or did her owners find some other means of extracting profits from her too horrible to contemplate? Tempting as it is to to follow Paul and Silas on their remarkable journey, perhaps the Spirit would have us stop at this point and feel a little Pauline outrage.
When we hear the term “human trafficking,” it calls up images of young people trapped in the sex trade. This horrific form of exploitation is surely worthy of our attention and concern. I believe, however, that human trafficking in the sex trade is symptomatic of something deeper, namely, an economic system that views human beings as “commodities” whose time and labor can be exploited for whatever compensation the almighty market deems appropriate and without regard to their needs. Once you accept the proposition that a person’s worth is measured by what s/he can earn from producing goods or services for anyone willing to pay for them, it is not such a great leap to the sale of human bodies to gratify the lust of whoever has money to buy them. A culture in which one’s value is measured by one’s employability in a profit-making venture is, in the Pauline view, demonic. Holy outrage is the only appropriate response-even if it gets you arrested.
How did the slave girl in our lesson fare once she became worthless to her owners? We don’t have to speculate. We know only too well what happens to people deemed worthless. We only have to witness the fate of the homeless in our streets. We needn’t look any further than refugee camps the world over filled with people deemed to have no economic value sufficient to justify their reception into any nation. We have only to listen to the hateful rhetoric of our president toward people coming to us desperate to escape hopeless poverty and violence. Our world has little use for people deemed “valueless.” The worst part of all this is our lack of outrage, our sense that the exploitation and disposal of people as so many commodities is somehow normal.
This is the story of an apostle’s outrage against an oppressive hierarchical economy that reduces people to commodities. It is the story of an apostle preaching good news to the poor and liberation to the captives, a word that has power to topple the pyramid of oppression and return to its victims their humanity. And yes, it is also the story of what happened to the apostle as a result. But we are not ready to move into that portion of the narrative until we experience in the depths of our souls the outrage that sparked it.
Here is a poem by Claude McKay expressing a little of that holy outrage. Read it-and be outraged.
Source: This poem is in the public domain. Claude McKay (1889-1948) was born Festus Claudius McKay in Nairne Castle, Jamaica. He came to the United States in 1912 to attend the Tuskegee Institute. McKay was shocked by the racism he encountered in this country and that experience of culture shock shaped his career as a writer and poet. McKay became a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, a Black American intellectual, social, and artistic movement centered in Harlem, New York spanning the 1920s. His poetry celebrates peasant life in Jamaica, challenges white supremacy in America and lifts up the struggles of black men and women striving to live their lives with dignity in a racist culture. You can learn more about Claude McKay and read more of his poetry on the Poetry Foundation Website.