Acts 16:16-24 tells the story of Paul and Silas being jailed in Philippi.
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.
But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the market-place before the authorities. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, ‘These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.’ The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
In this story we see a radical message – that when the kingdom of God is proclaimed and where it is unfolding, the status quo will be upset. Often in Scripture we see a linkage between evil and profit-making at the expense of humanity. Profit itself isn’t evil – profit-making at the expense of humanity is.
And in this story we see it vividly. The owners of this woman only cared about her as long as they could exploit her and make money off of her. And when they could not do that, it wasn’t her well-being they were concerned with. It was the fact that she no longer made money for them. She became worthless to them.
They saw it as an attack on them and on their profit motive – or really, their abuse, manipulation, and power trip.
Paul and Silas literally affected the economy of Philippi through their proclamation. This is what happens when God’s kingdom comes near. The status quo is flipped on its head. And many weren’t happy about it. When people’s money is affected, people start to pay attention. They know that what is happening is real – and they see that they are not in control.
But as long as the economy is humming along – allowing some to benefit at the expense of others – many turn a blind eye.
When money becomes prime in life and society, humanity suffers. When money is more valuable than people, then everything is out of whack. People are not valued for who they are, but rather for what they produce. Humanity ends up with a price tag.
When money takes this type of central role, then it becomes an idol, a god. No wonder Jesus spoke about money more than any other subject.
But making money into an idol, a god, has deeper ramifications than this – When producing becomes the prime directive, then the Sabbath is broken. Sabbath doesn’t mean sitting around doing nothing all day. It’s about resting from work in order to pay full attention to God – to focus on God and listen to what God is calling us to. If there is no room for Sabbath, then there is no room for God. Instead of listening to God, we listen to what the almighty dollar instructs us to do. And people suffer.
We are no longer made in the image of God, but rather, we are just workers whose purpose is to make a profit. We snuff out the Imago Dei in which God created us.
This is why Paul and Silas were beaten, stripped, and jailed – upsetting the entire belief system that worships money. It was an act of defiance against the entire empire, its economic system, its message that salvation comes through the empire and Caesar. Paul and Silas’ proclamation meant that the empire, Caesar, and their economic system of exploitation were empty and valueless.
Jesus knows that the greatest obstacle to entering into and living in the kingdom of God instead of under the reign and rule of man is our own economic self interest. When we are dominated by economic self interest it’s like squeezing a camel through the eye of the needle, and it’s hard.
For several decades our politicians have been giving us a message that needs to be weighed against the Gospel. Sometimes it comes through a question – “Are you better off than you were four years ago.” And other times it comes in campaign slogans – “It’s the economy, stupid!”
The economy is a powerful pull. It has the power to determine our elections more often than not. Candidates, politicians, and presidents of both political parties are often very flawed – caught in controversy, investigations and scandals, sexual philandering, and dehumanizing rhetoric, supporting policies that do not support the general welfare they are sworn to uphold, but rather to support the status quo where some benefit at the expense of others – where people are valued for what they produce, rather than who they are.
But if the economy is humming along, many are willing to overlook these character flaws. Many are willing to put blinders on to the plight of our neighbors because “the economy.” Many are willing to rationalize away dehumanizing policies and rhetoric because there is more money in some people’s pockets – maybe even our own.
But Jesus has a different message. An upsetting message. A message that conflicts with our own economic self-interest as we turn a blind eye to our neighbors’ plight. A message that doesn’t always match up with our national narrative and what we value politically. Ouch.
Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
Jesus is asking us – what’s more important, the economy or humanity? Money or God? And he is speaking in economic terms – savings, profit, gain, return. Jesus directly confronts the economic systems that exploit others and those that maintain these systems and benefit from them. Maybe that doesn’t sound very American. But then again, Jesus wasn’t worried about wrapping himself in the flag. He had another kingdom to advance – one that is everlasting.
Or as Jesus once said in the Sermon on the Mount:
‘No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.
So which is it?