The Girl Without a Name

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Photo by Manu Mohan. “A Street Beggar”

Acts 16:16-34

Back in Jesus’ day, Paul’s day, they didn’t label people “mentally ill.” They said that people “had a spirit.” Generally the people Jesus and his followers encounter have “evil spirits,” but the slave girl in this story just has a “spirit.” Actually, it is a pyhtian spirit, associated with the god Apollo who was know as a snake-slayer. This spirit was said to inspire the oracles at Delphi and give them prophecies. This spirit supposedly allowed this girl to tell people’s fortunes.

So was this girl crazy? Maybe. But this “spirit” that possessed her also, in a way, provided for her. She was a slave, and her owners were able to make money off of her supposed powers. So, as a slave, she would have met with people, gone into a trance, and told them their future.

I imagine many girls who were slaves had it much worse.

This spirit compels the girl to follow Paul and his entourage proclaiming, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.”

She may be crazy, but she is also right. These men are servants of God; they are telling the people the way to be saved. Paul, however, does not appreciate her proclamations–day after day, this girl following him, yelling to the people that he is trying to talk to.

In fact, Paul yells things quite similar to what this girl yells. Paul sees visions. We could ask, is Paul crazy? Well, despite all of the nutty things Paul does in the book of Acts, despite his drastic mood swings that are obvious in the letters he writes, history has nonetheless placed Paul in the “sane” category.

And because he is considered sane, even saintly, scholar after scholar works to justify Paul’s actions in this story.

The girl, they say, was not referring to Yahweh, but to a pagan god. The girl, they say, was trying to get Paul and his friends into trouble. Paul, they say, turned to her in kindness to free her from this oppressive spirit.

But the text tells a different story. According to the writer of Acts, Paul’s motive is not kindness or love; it is not to redeem the girl; it is not to challenge the oppressive economic system that allows certain people to be owned by other people. No. Paul’s motive is that he is annoyed.

Despite what the Pauline apologists would argue, it seems obvious to me that Paul does not care about the girl.

He doesn’t look at her, she follows him around–she is always behind him. He doesn’t speak to her, he speaks only to the spirit that inhabits her. And once the spirit is gone, this nameless slave girl, now without her means of making money for her owners, simply drops from Paul’s consciousness. She disappears from the story.

I am bothered by the fact that Paul never really sees this girl, but I trust that she is seen by God.

I am bothered by the fact that Paul never speaks to her, but I trust that, in her new life, the gentle voice of the Holy Spirit comforts her and guides her.

I am bothered by the fact that we don’t know this girl’s name; but I trust that God knows her name.

And even though Paul abandons her, that possibly her owners abandon her, that even the narrative of Acts abandons her, I trust that God does not abandon her; that this slave girl continues to be part of the story of the early church, part of the narrative of God’s activity in the world.


For the full text of this sermon, click here.

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