Healing is the name of the game in the New Testament. And nowhere is that theme better captured than by the spirit of the last female to speak in the Bible, otherwise known as the fortune-telling girl (Acts 16:16-19).
Who exactly was she? Most people haven’t heard of her. Her name was never mentioned in scripture, she was a slave, and Luke, the physician, says she was demon-possessed. Talk about the lowest of the low, especially in tough biblical times.
And there’s one more strike against her: she’s in the Bible because she was totally irritating to Paul, the great missionary of the early church. Can’t get much more of an underdog angle than this…yet the actions she took led to one of Paul’s (and the early church’s) most defining moments.
Pretend you are her, in Philippi, in about the year 49 AD.
You were sold for a few dollars by your poor parents to two men who said they would provide for you. And the reason they wanted you was this: you have the some ability to tell fortunes. You can predict the future with some accuracy. You can sometimes understand what is on peoples’ hearts. You listen, intently, then spill out what is on your mind. Part of you enjoys knowing secrets, but most of you longs to be normal.
It was bad enough to be sold, but the men never let you out of their sight. They beat you when you don’t earn enough, and you travel from town to town, often on a moment’s notice, whenever they feel like pulling up stakes. Some would say a demon is inside of you; others just call you crazy.
And what’s with those three old guys, the ones who have been hanging around the town square the last few days? You hear their names: Paul, Silas, Luke. You smile, but they ignore you. You wave, but they look the other way. Yet something about them sets off a clanging bell in your head. And then you know. Like you, they are also slaves, servants—but they belong to God.
Dashing away from your captors: you prance around the strangers, saying: “These men are slaves of God! They proclaim to you a way of salvation!” Over and over, you say it.
“These men are slaves of God! They proclaim to you a way of salvation!” You shout it out whenever you see them. You know you are annoying them, but what do you have to lose? The world has already turned against you.
Finally the one who seems to be in charge cannot take it anymore. He turns to you and shouts, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her!”
And within the hour, you are acting like your old self. You are calm, happy, breathing deeply, thankful to the man who has healed you, and to Jesus, although you’re not sure who he is. Yet your owners are upset. You have lost the ability to babble, and can’t see into the future anymore. Leaving you alone, they run and drag Paul and the others into the town square, beating them, mauling them, then insisting they be jailed.
There is nothing you can do…but run. Slipping behind buildings, weaving in and out of the shadows, you flee, thankful for both the man named Paul and the person they called Jesus, for they have set you free.*
This girl has gone mostly unnoticed in the 2000 years since she rather briefly appeared in scripture. Yet she symbolizes the heart of the Gospel: that those without power or status or even name are particularly beloved by God, and have a great role to play in the world’s redemption.
Consider her bookend counterpart, the first woman to speak in the New Testament. Also unnamed, and on the edges of society, the woman in Matthew 9:20-22 (also Mark 5:25-34 and Luke 8:43-48) had been bleeding uncontrollably for twelve years, had lost everything, and was almost out of money. Yet she fought for herself, for her own health, by pushing her way through the crowds and reaching out to touch Jesus.
They both sought healing, aggressively, although the young girl in Acts might not have understood her quest for healing as well as the bleeding woman did. Today we would say that the girl suffered from mental illness, for 21st century society is not quite comfortable with the ideas of demons infusing one’s soul. Either way, the girl–to the best of her ability–sought healing, in the only way she could, by drawing attention to herself.
Hmmm…two women, both poor and marginalized, both rejected by society, and most likely, their families, both pressing the limits in their search for healing–and both finding it in God’s name.
Women’s first and last words in the Christian scriptures not only symbolize our quest for wholeness but verify it–and God’s desire to have us whole as well.
Free will, freedom of thought, freedom of movement, freedom to know the world on one’s own terms. Created, sustained and beloved by God, such is the nature of women throughout the Bible–and such is the nature of God as well.
*Paul’s brave actions in this story should not be minimized, and we celebrate them here. Because he heals the young girl of demons, the girl’s owners become angry that their source of income has disappeared. Paul and his friends are stripped, beaten, and jailed. That very night, an earthquake shakes the town of Philippi, and Paul’s chains break loose. But he does not flee, thereby saving the life of the jailor (because suicide was the custom if prisoners escaped under one’s care).
As a Roman citizen, Paul is entitled to a trial and demands it. He is found innocent of all charges. Because of the girl’s initial action, Paul has a wonderful missionary opportunity and makes the best use of it, increasing the numbers of Christians abroad.
This beautiful butterfly, which symbolizes freedom and redemption, was photographed by the Rev. Noel Bailey, and is used her with her permission.