Prophets versus profits

Image by Mediamodifier from Pixabay

Money talks, and its language is advertising. That’s the reality of living in a market society. Advertising is everywhere. Go on the Internet; visit a website; do a Google search. Invisible programs track your behavior and feed them into algorithms that learn your preferences, the better to throw the most tempting clickbait possible in your direction. Hey, you looked at this earlier today — ready to buy it now? Or maybe you’d like this instead? Here’s a coupon to help you decide!

(Evil and nefarious? Perhaps. Just remember that you invite much of this when you agree to a site’s “Terms of Use.” Just saying.)

Even ministry conversations can be affected. We come together with the best of intentions to discuss outreach strategies: how can we reach more people with the gospel? But often, without recognizing it, we begin to talk and think in ways that are more about capturing market share than discerning the will of God.

It’s significant, then, that one of the earliest enemies of the gospel — right from the beginning! — was the profit motive. In fact, as we’ll see, I think I can make a case for considering the apostle Paul one of history’s first known ad-blockers.

We’ve already encountered money-related problems earlier in the book of Acts: Ananias and Sapphira in chapter 5; Simon Magus in chapter 8. And now, in Philippi, money is at the root of yet another conflict:

One day, when we were on the way to the place for prayer, we met a slave woman. She had a spirit that enabled her to predict the future. She made a lot of money for her owners through fortune-telling. She began following Paul and us, shouting, “These people are servants of the Most High God! They are proclaiming a way of salvation to you!” She did this for many days. This annoyed Paul so much that he finally turned and said to the spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I command you to leave her!” It left her at that very moment. Her owners realized that their hope for making money was gone. They grabbed Paul and Silas and dragged them before the officials in the city center. 

Acts 16:16-19, CEB

The incident may have happened on the Sabbath, as Paul and his comrades were heading to the place of prayer. On the way, they encountered a young slave girl with a peculiar gift: she could predict the future. What Luke actually says is that she had a “python spirit.” Luke’s Greek readers would have associated the underworld spirit of the python with the oracle at Delphi. The slave, in other words, was a poor man’s prophetess — but good enough at what she did to rake in money from people who wanted their fortunes told. She began following the evangelists around, loudly proclaiming them as servants of “the Most High God.”

At first blush, this doesn’t sound like such a bad thing. So why wasn’t Paul glad to have a bit of free advertising?

Because it was the wrong kind of advertising.

As suggested in the previous post, there was no synagogue and only a scant number of Jews in Philippi. People would not have heard the slave girl proclaiming the God of Israel, but some other unnamed god (albeit one atop the divine food chain). Moreover, advertising “a” way of salvation suggested that these strangers were simply offering one more choice in a vast spiritual marketplace.

And if they happened to do anything remarkable, well, it certainly wouldn’t hurt her reputation. After all, “I told you so” is good for the fortune-telling business.

Paul put up with it for a while. But finally, his patience gone, he wheeled around and cast the pythonic spirit out of her, in the name of Jesus.

The spirit left immediately. And with it went the profits the girl’s handlers were used to making. Luke, with a humorous touch, actually uses the same verb in both cases, as if to say, “The evil spirit flew out the window, and so did the cash.”

Not surprisingly, this upset the slave’s owners. Nobody was going to deprive them of one of their steadiest sources of income — especially not these foreigners, these bumpkins, these… these… Jews. They dragged Paul and Silas before the magistrates, ready to put them in their place.

They had no idea whom they were dealing with, as we’ll soon see.