“Healing” – a disability reading of Acts 16:16-34 and John 17:20-end.
2nd June, 2019 – Revd. Cate Thomson
What the enslaved girl needed:
- to be remembered by name;
- To be recognised as having value beyond her status as property;
- To be liberated from the abusive setting and structures which didn’t even recognise her as a person, and which exploited her for profit.
What she received:
- a ‘cure’ that caused an increase in her suffering.
This is not a story of how Paul healed a poor, abused slave girl, or how he delivered an evil priestess-witch from her demon of prophecy – no, this is not a healing, it’s a brutalisation.
Now, my interpretation of this text from Acts is very much that – mine – in fact, all the commentaries I consulted left me shouting and swearing at their injustices against this poor girl.
Interpretation is very much coloured by who we are. The commenters that so incensed me – Barclay, Bock, Bruce, Henry, and Wright – are all of a certain demographic which they share with Paul. I do not. Personally, I feel like I have more in common with the girl – young, female, and (most important for my interpretation here) I am disabled.
I have a genetic condition called Hypermobility Spectrum Disorder – it’s a disorder in the collagen in my connective tissues. My joints can’t hold themselves in place – they shift and dislocate. With this comes limited mobility, chronic pain, and related fatigue. This is why I often need to sit during services and can’t run around doing heavy lifting!
There is no cure for my condition. And you know what? I don’t want to be cured – I was made this way, and I believe I am better off for it.
My condition forces me to be sensible about my time, energy, and capacity.
My experience of pain and discomfort gives me a well of compassion, forgiveness and understanding for the pain of others.
My weakness causes me to plumb the depths of God’s grace daily, because I cannot do this by my own strength.
I do not speak for every disabled person, but for me to be cured would not to be healed – in fact, it would be a curse.
And this is what I bring to my encounter with Paul, and Silas, and this girl who is not even given the dignity of a name. I’m going to name her Verity – which comes from the Latin for truth.
Slaves in ancient Roman society had no legal personhood. They had no personality, did not own their own bodies, had no ancestors, no name, no family name, no possessions, and their testimony was not legal in court unless they were tortured into giving it.
In Philippi, Verity demands to be heard. “Look!” she says, “these men are also slaves – like me – but they are slaves of the highest God – not humans, and not against their will – and they bring the testimony which will lead us all to freedom.”
Paul is everything Verity is not – free, privileged, educated, and a Roman citizen (among others). I wonder how he felt, being singled out as like her? To be called a slave?
Paul, in his weakness, lets his well documented temper get the better of him. He is hot, tired, and annoyed. He does not care to talk to her, to see her as a person, to ask her how he could help her. He turns and addresses not Verity, but the spirit within her. “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to leave her.” And she stops prophesying, and that is the last we hear of her.
Her owners, however, are livid. They have Paul and Silas arrested, beaten, and imprisoned. How much worse must they have treated this girl who they considered their property. Before, she was prized for her gift. Now, what little worth she had to them is gone. I am convinced that Paul’s ‘cure’ increased her suffering – I cannot in any conscience see that as healing.
Healing respects and restores personhood. It considers the spiritual, social, psychological and physical elements of wholeness and inclusion. A disabled person in first century Palestine needed curing to be fully accepted into the spiritual and social spheres of society. Not so today.
Paul’s mistake was that he saw not Verity but her ‘spirit’ – he saw a problem and reacted accordingly. His heart was hardened.
Here’s how I hope the rest of the story went.
How the girl healed Paul through their encounter:
The consequences of Paul’s actions played out. God softened Paul’s heart and prompted him to understanding. As he was arrested and stripped of the clothes that marked him as a Roman citizen, as a person, and as he suffered injustice and abuse, in that moment when his situation mirrored that of the girl he had met, he realised that he had been no better than her in anything but circumstance. He needed healing from his arrogance, from his egotism, from thinking he was better than others. They were equal in all the ways that truly mattered. The girl was not a problem to be solved, but a person to be loved, and to learn from.
And some further fantasy – I hope with all my heart, in this best of all worlds, that Lydia (whom Paul had recently met) took Verity into her care and saved her from the abuse of her ‘owners’.
We may all be different, but we are all equal to God. In our diversity, we have different skills and gifts which – when united together – form the greater whole. In our Gospel reading, Jesus prays that we may all be one in him – and that through our unity with him and with each other, God’s glory will be revealed.
Really, we are all disabled without each other – we all have things we cannot do that others can, and things we can do that others can’t – and that’s good. The body of Christ would be no body at all if we were all hands, or heads, or feet, or hearts. We should celebrate our differences, rather than seeking to heal each other from them – because it is those very differences which help us to share equally in our joint ministry.
There’s no point having a church full of preachers if no-one knows how to turn the lights on, or how to listen – we’d all just end up shouting in the dark! And no point of a church full of the best bakers and tea brewers if no-one invites people in to eat and drink.
As a community united in Christ, we should pursue wholeness and inclusion together – listening to each other and sharing our limitations and capacities honestly and without judgement. Balancing out our weaknesses and strengths. A whole Church, a healed Church, makes room for brokenness and seeks to remove any barrier that prevents anyone from accessing and participating in the worship and work of our faith. That is how God’s work gets done.
Our theology is better off for our different experiences and interpretations brought into conversation with each other – at the very least, by encountering views with which we disagree (like those commentaries which made me so angry I was tempted to throw them across the room) we come to understand better the things that matter to us, and can begin to uncover what we ourselves believe. The more we compare our individual pieces of the puzzle, our glimpses of the divine, the better our collective understanding becomes. Our image of God becomes more detailed the more we compare what we each perceive.
This is how we will find healing – healing from the things that divide us, which oppress us, and which exclude us, and which cause us to exclude others.
And so, as Verity cried out her testimony over Paul, so this is my testimony to you:
“Look! Before me are God’s broken people – together, we will become whole.”
 The girl is described as having a πνεῦμα Πύθωνα (pneuma Pythona). πνεῦμα (pneuma) is most frequently in the NT spirit but is also breath or wind. This word is multi purpose as reference to the soul (the breath of life), a literal movement of air, as well as spirits greater than humans but less than God (encompassing both angels – ἄγγελοι -and demons – δαιμόνια). πνεῦμα is also the Greek word used for the Holy Spirit. Πύθων (Python) was a mystical serpent said to have guarded the oracle at Delphi, slain by Apollo – to ‘have a spirit of Python’ was to be skilled at divination in the vein of the oracle priestess Pythia. Whether this appellation is a cultural descriptor following the girl’s function as a fortune-telling slave, or is naming a specific possessing spirit is, to me, ambiguous.
 For more information about my condition, see http://hypermobility.org/
 The casting out of the spirit is not necessarily wrong (if that is indeed what was happening), but the lack of concern for the girl and her future wellbeing most definitely is. In this instance, the ‘cure’ is utterly divorced from any consideration of the wider impact and issues which have their hold over the girl. We do not hear what happened to the girl next, because it was simply not something that mattered to Paul at that moment – the girl is not instructed to ‘go and be free’, her owners are not appealed to to release her from their abuse of her – the entirety of the interaction is between Paul and the ‘spirit’.
 At least, it does not need to be. Society (and the Church) still have a long way to go. A growing movement of disability theology and activism is starting to address this as we try to break the association of disability and ‘badness’ (whether that’s an association with sin or spiritual weakness, or the concerning and abusive society structures which place people with disabilities in the position that they have to prove that they are not ‘scrounging’ off of the system.