SINGING IN A JAILHOUSE
Acts 16:16-34, Psalm 97, John 17:20-26
May 24, 1998 by Tad Mitsui
A friend of ours, Fran, was an aid worker in Viet Nam during the terrible years of that war. One day when she was having ice cream at a sidewalk café, a beggar woman came by with a baby who had a cleft palate. Fran, being a mother of an infant herself, felt sorry for the mother, and offered to help to repair the deformity surgically. As soon as the interpreter told her that, she took the money and ran away. The interpreter explained to Fran that if the baby became normal looking, it would be more difficult to win sympathy. The end of a career as a beggar. That night, my friend hugged her own infant son, and cried bitterly in frustration. Exploiting other people”s deformity or disability is a terrible thing to do. But some people say that it is a reality of our economic system to always exploit some segments of population.
There is nothing more shocking than making profit out of another person”s disability. But that was what the owner of a slave girl was doing in the Book of Acts. The girl was a psychic and a fortune teller. We have psychics today too. They read cards, palms, stars, and tea leaves, and some of them making good money. I happen not to believe in those things. But I have no doubt some people do. I have nothing against those people making a living in that way. But the problem with this girl in the Bible was the fact that she was not free to make her own money with her unique talent. She was only a slave and the owner was making profit. Those people we call ”psychics” were thought to be possessed by the evil spirit, and were treated and abused in the same way as a mentally sick people were in those days. That means the slave owner exploited the girl like a pimp would do to a prostitute. But the fact of the matter is, she probably was not possessed. She likely was a person with an unusual ability to discern the inner quality of people. In the medieval Europe, such women were often accused of being a witch, and were burned at the stake. Anyhow, that”s why she could tell that Paul and Silas were persons of enormous spiritual qualities. So she pointed her finger at Paul and Silas and kept declaring in public, "They will show you the way to salvation."
Those two men were annoyed by her. Why? Probably because they were in an unfamiliar territory and they were not so sure about their standing in that city. They probably preferred to work quietly for the time being. They had been in Europe only a few days. They had managed to attract only a group of a few women so far. This is why Paul and Silas told the girl to keep quiet. She did. We don”t know what happened to her actually. She was no longer ready to be a spectacle and an object of public ridicule. So she fell silent and the slave owner lost his means to make money.
The slave owner was outraged. He appealed to the city magistrate, who also agreed that those Jewish men were disturbing the local economy. The economy based on the slave labour was indeed the foundation of the Roman Empire. Giving human dignity to a slave was an intolerable act of sabotage. As recently as about one hundred years ago, even in the United States of America, they had to fight a serious civil war among themselves resulting in the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives. Giving freedom to slaves was a grave threat to the economy of the Southern States. But it does not have to be slavery. The exploitation of child labour in sweat shops in Asia and South America, of women in prostitution and pornography everywhere are forms of slavery, too. You will be shocked to learn that the size of economy based on pornography is bigger today than the regular Hollywood movie industry, according to the Economist.
As far as the Roman authorities of the city of Philippi were concerned, Paul and Silas committed a serious economic crime by giving back human dignity to a slave. So the magistrate found them guilty without trial, ordered them to be stripped of their clothes, whipped severely in public, and to be taken to prison. The magistrate did not know that they were Roman citizens, even though they looked like Jews. As Roman citizens, they had every right to a fair trial. In fact, the city magistrate goofed.
So Paul and Silas were wounded deeply in two ways: physically from a severe beating and also psychologically from the humiliation in public. They were sitting in a jailhouse with their feet shackled like a couple of dangerous criminals. I would be furious if I were them. They didn”t do anything seriously bad to deserve that. They did not pursue the slave girl. She was the one who saw them first and pointed her finger at them. They didn”t do anything as serious as deliberately freeing a slave. They merely told her to shut up. It was her decision to stop acting like a mad woman. But worst still, the authorities completely ignored their legitimate rights and did them a grave injustice.
But instead of getting upset, they sat in the prison, prayed and sang hymns praising God. How can anyone sing a hymn in a jailhouse? They sang loudly, and other prisoners were able to listen to them. This is where we are reminded again that our faith is not a cheap religion but is the light to show us clearly the reality of life. If we can see the way clearly, we will know how to deal with hard realities of life. God does not promise to spare us from injustice and suffering. Jesus said, "Rain falls on the just and the unjust alike." There is a danger if we are preoccupied with avoiding difficult experiences at all costs. But unfortunately, we have made comfort and enjoyment our gods, and often can not see difficult and unexpected experiences as God”s way of showing a better way. Our faith is not a cheap religion which promises health, wealth, and prosperity without any cost. God does not promise a trouble free life, but gives us the strength to endure difficulties, and helps us see the God”s way, even through the shadow of the valley of death. Paul and Silas had strength to accept what happened to them as a road sign on God”s highway. This is why they could sing hymns in a jailhouse, even though many things that happened to them were completely unexpected.
The Ice Storm and flood pointed out our human limitations in the face of nature. Yet, in the process of facing those two crises – and having to accept rather than change the course of events – we discovered the kindness of good neighbours which helped us make the best of the situation. God acts with us when we find the serenity to accept what we can not change but show the courage to change things that we can. It is then we can sing even in the darkest prison and hear the message of salvation from the most unlikely voice.