At daily Mass, we are reading the story of St. Paul’s arrest, beating, and imprisonment at Philippi. It serves as a kind of metaphor for the radical nature of true Christianity and why it so perturbs many in this world. The Christian faith, its message, and the transformation it can effect can be very unsettling to a world that literally and figuratively “banks on” sin. Let’s consider this lesser- known story and see what it ought to mean for us if we take our Christian faith seriously and do not try to “tame” it.
Philippi was the first “European” city that Paul evangelized when he came across from Asia Minor. Arriving at the port of Philippi in Macedonia, Paul and Silas went right to work evangelizing. One of their first converts was Lydia, a wealthy woman from Thyatira who was a dealer in purple cloth; other converts followed.
Once when we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit by which she predicted the future. She earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling. This girl followed Paul and the rest of us, shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.” She kept this up for many days. Finally, Paul became so troubled that he turned around and said to the spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!” At that moment the spirit left her.
When the owners of the slave girl realized that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to face the authorities. They brought them before the magistrates and said, “These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.”
The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten. After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. Upon receiving such orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks (Acts 16:16-24).
Note the heart of the problem: St. Paul, in setting the slave girl free of her demon has deprived her “owners” of the income they derived from her sad state. They were banking on her bad condition and profiting from her trouble. In the name and power of Jesus Christ, St. Paul sets her free. His action draws deep anger from the “owners.” He has rocked their world; he has touched their pocketbooks. They find the Christian message, for it is revolutionary, to be disconcerting, threatening, and deeply unsettling.
It is a threat not only to profit but to power. In having Paul and Silas arrested, they stir up the hatred and fear of others as well, accusing them not only of preaching some strange new religion but of advocating customs forbidden to Romans. The word translated here as “customs” is ἐθη (ethe) in Greek, and refers to “religious rites or forms of worship.” In De Legibus, ii. 8, Cicero wrote, “No person shall have any separate gods, or new ones; nor shall he privately worship any strange gods, unless they be publicly allowed.” While the Romans often overlooked the private worship of unapproved gods, publicly proclaiming new and unapproved deities was an occasion for dissension and controversy and was strictly forbidden.
Frankly, the charges against Paul and Silas are true enough. In the healing they brought about, they have hindered profit. Further, they were openly proclaiming that Jesus was Lord. To our ears that is a religious proclamation, but to Roman ears it was a provocative and revolutionary statement. It was directly contrary to their proclamation that Caesar was Lord. Yes, Paul, Silas, Luke, and the others were shaking the ground in Philippi! While they were not advocating the overthrow of any government, they were announcing a power greater than Caesar, a higher King who demanded our first loyalty.
This is not the “tame” proclamation of the faith so common today. This is not a faith that is adjusted to fit into worldly categories. This is not a faith tucked in after political, philosophical, and moral preferences. This is a faith that shakes the world and brings a revolutionary challenge to its priorities. Yes, Paul and Silas pose a serious threat.
What of us today? We have gone through a long period during which we have lived the faith quietly; it generally fit quite well into the world in which we lived. Harmony and “getting along” were highly prized. Particularly here in America, Catholics wanted to reassure the general populace that our faith in no way hindered us from being full participants in the American scene and that we could fit right in and be just like everyone else. With the election of the first Catholic president back in 1960, we could say that we had made it and had been fully accepted. Finally, we fit in.
Of course the culture was not in such disrepair in those days. There was still a fairly wide moral consensus rooted in the Judeo-Christian vision. Having finally “made it,” though, we have assumed room temperature; the fire of our distinctively Catholic culture seems to have faded away. At the same time, Western culture has also largely died. (Is that really a coincidence?)
In recent years, so-called Catholic universities and other Catholic institutions have begun caving in: giving marriage benefits to same-sex bedfellows and succumbing to the HHS mandates to provide contraceptives and abortifacients. It is sad, pathetic, wrong, and cowardly—hardly the revolutionary faith that got Paul arrested.
Now we are coming full circle. We must rediscover how revolutionary our Catholic faith truly is to this world gone mad. As we proclaim healing and an allegiance to something other than this world, however, we will become increasingly obnoxious to the world around us.
Let’s consider more thoroughly the two offenses for which Paul and Silas were beaten and imprisoned:
- They ate away at profit – Paul drove a terrible demon out of a slave girl, a demon that afflicted her but profited her “owners.” There is a great deal of trafficking in sin and addiction today. Terrible demons afflict many people in the areas of sexuality, drugs, and alcohol. There’s a lot of money to be made peddling pornography; sex sells. Hollywood movie producers, purveyors of contraceptives, pimps, escort services, abortionists, and even traffickers in the sex slave industry also feed at the trough. Drugs and alcohol are big money makers as well. Huge numbers of products are sold using the demon of fear that says, “You’re not pretty enough,” “You’re not healthy enough,” “You’re getting old,” “You don’t drive the right car,” “You don’t wear the right clothes.” The demons of fear, low self-esteem, and greed all work together.
What would happen if the Church were to start effectively preaching unabridged Christianity? What if we started saying, “You don’t need to be afraid of your health, your age, or what people think of you. You can find serenity in Christ so that you won’t feel you need for those drugs. You can be set free from your enslavement to sex, take authority over your passions, and discover the beauty of traditional marriage.” What if we got back in the business of driving out demons?
Well, of course the answer is that we, like Paul, would be under attack. In fact, we are under attack. We are especially hated by the sex industry and the abortionists because that that issue has so much focus these days. To them we are public enemy number one. We threaten the vision, the addiction, and the despair that fills their coffers. If we are too successful (and for now our successes are meager) their profits might dry up. Yes, we must be dealt with.
We will only be effective if we preach the unabridged faith, not a faith that is adjusted, not a faith that is subordinated to worldly priorities, not a faith that insists on being “realistic,” not a faith that apologizes to the world no matter how much we water things down. The true faith is revolutionary in the freedom it offers from sin and demons.
Paul and Silas didn’t wind up in prison by preaching a watered-down, domesticated moral vision. They unabashedly drove out a demon that was afflicting a girl; in so doing they engaged in a revolutionary threat to a world that profits handsomely from sin.
2. They threatened power – Calling Jesus “Lord” was a revolutionary threat to the incumbent power that demanded first and full loyalty. Today, many try to make Catholics fit into tidy political categories. Both Republicans and Democrats want the Church to march in lockstep with their party platform. Even many Catholics in those parties want the Church to conform. Many Catholics in fact are more loyal to their party than to the Church; they are more passionate about their political views than their faith. If there is a conflict between Church teaching and the party line, guess which one usually gives way!
In the end, the Church will not just fit into some neat political category. The true faith is too revolutionary to fit into some worldly box.
Thus there is a lot of hatred and anger directed at the Church. Republicans say we’re too liberal; Democrats say we’re too conservative. More and more we are being shown the door, kicked to the curb; our very right to religious liberty is being threatened. Religious exemptions to increasingly pernicious laws are slowly being removed and lawsuits against Catholic institutions are increasing. It will surely get worse as secular systems demand increasing loyalty. The Church must refuse to give that loyalty.
Jesus (not the federal, state or local government) is Lord. Jesus is not Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal. He is God, and the faith He announces cannot be watered down or compromised to fit into a friendship with the world.
No domesticated Christianity will change the world. When Paul preached, the people rioted. Modern preaching too often incites only yawns and indifference.
What should we learn from St. Paul’s arrest at Philippi? That the true faith is revolutionary and threatens the world right where it hurts: in the profit and power centers. As the world becomes increasingly secular, the revolutionary aspect of the faith will become more evident.
Are you ready?