Psalm 138:1-2ab, 2 cde-3, 7c-8
One of the signs that accompanied the proclamation of the Gospel in Philippi was that of an exorcism. Just as Jesus cast out demons during his public ministry, so also Paul frees the slave girl from the spirit of divination (or python spirit), casting out the demon in the name of Jesus Christ. The python represented the mystical serpent, slain by Apollo at the site of the temple at Delphi, a temple famous for its prophetic oracles. The Delphic Sibyl or priestess was known as the “Pythia” and would sometimes prophesy in a possessed state.
Even though what the demon says through the slave girl is true – “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation” – Paul, like Jesus, silences the evil spirit (see Luke 4:35). Authentic testimony comes from heaven above and not from the underworld below. The demon or “python spirit” confesses out of fear and not out of a genuine faith informed by divine love (see James 2:19).
The slave owners are angered by the exorcism because they have just lost a source of income. They don’t rejoice that the girl was released from the bondage of Satan; nor do they glorify God for his goodness and mercy. Instead, they drag Paul and Silas before the magistrates, accusing them of advocating customs unlawful for Romans to practice. Paul and Silas are judged without trial, given by the magistrates over to the crowd, beaten with rods, and imprisoned. These punishments were unlawful since Paul and Silas are Roman citizens. But Paul tactfully refrains from telling the magistrates about his citizenship until the following morning and chooses to suffer this humiliation for the name of Christ.
In the end, the magistrates recognize their error and have to redress the wrong by leading Paul and his companions out of the city. Paul insists that the magistrates come themselves “and escort the missionaries out publicly, to restore their honor after unjustly disgracing them. This action would be important for the reputation of the incipient Christian community as well as for the missionaries’ prospects for returning to Philippi” (W. Kurz, Acts of the Apostles, Baker Academic, 259).
Paul’s deliverance from prison through an earthquake recalls how Peter was twice rescued from prison by an angel sent by God (Acts 5:19; 12:6-11). On seeing the prison doors open, the jailer thinks the prisoners have escaped and that he will face disgrace and a terrible punishment (see Acts 12:19 when Herod executes Peter’s guards). The jailer mistakenly thinks that suicide is the way out of his predicament. Paul calls out to the jailer and prevents him from committing suicide. Having been saved by Paul from death by suicide, the jailer now asks Paul about salvation from eternal death: “What must I do to be saved?”. Paul’s response is simple: “Believe in the Lord Jesus”. The jailer and his household are baptized that very night by Paul and are welcomed into the community of faith.
Years later, Paul will write a letter of thanks and encouragement to the Philippians, who generously and continuously supported Paul in his mission with their prayers and with financial assistance. The members of the church in Philippi are Paul’s “joy and crown” (Philippians 4:1). Much of the letter to the Philippians challenges the community “to grow in spiritual maturity by imitating both their Savior and their founding apostle. For this reason, Paul holds up Jesus Christ as the model of humility and selfless love and himself as a model of patient endurance” (Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, 356).
In Gospel, Jesus speaks about the mission of the Holy Spirit as the Counselor. The Spirit empowers Jesus’ disciples to proclaim the Gospel with boldness, instructs them in the fullness of truth, strengthens them to bear witness to Christ in times of persecution, and defends them against the works of the devil. We see the Holy Spirit at work in the first reading. The Spirit urges Paul and Silas to proclaim the Gospel to the ends of the earth, strengthens them during unjust persecution, empowers them to cast out demons, and enlightens them in their speech. The Spirit is the one, who “exposes the sin of unbelief for what it is (John 3:20), convinces the world that Christ, though condemned as a criminal, was truly righteous (John 8:46), and makes it known that Satan and every enemy of Christ will face judgment for rejecting him (John 5:26-29; 12:31; CCC 388, 1433)” (Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, 192).
There are several lessons we can learn from today’s readings. The first is the call to renew our faith in the power of God over evil: the devil uses discouragement against us, he wants us to despair and turn our gaze from God; Jesus, though, invites us to turn to the Holy Spirit, the Counselor, who convicts the world of sin, judges the devil and shows us the path to righteousness. The second lesson is that sometimes God asks us to suffer and patiently endure injustice as Paul did. Not only are we able to join our suffering to the redemptive passion of Jesus, but we are also consoled in our suffering, confident that our sorrow will turn to joy, either in this life or in the next. The third lesson is that as a community of believers we should rejoice when our brothers and sisters encounter the faith and turn from the slavery of sin to the freedom of God’s children. We reserve judgment to God and rejoice for those who com into or return to the fold. The final lesson is the need to allow ourselves to be guided by the Holy Spirit. We can’t save ourselves or sanctify ourselves through our own efforts. Salvation and holiness are gifts of God. We are saved and sanctified through freely welcoming God’s saving grace in faith and in the Sacraments. We need to allow him to work in us, to reign in our hearts, and to send us out like the apostles to bring others into communion with him.
Readers may contact Father Jason Mitchell at firstname.lastname@example.org.