This picture is from our family’s visit to ancient Philippi 15 years ago. It is of a crypt, probably a water cistern, mistakenly identified in the fifth century as the jail cell where Paul and Silas were held. It became a place of worship and frescoes were painted on the back walls. Now, though it is not the actual prison, it is an apt reminder of the story and of the practice of incarceration down through the ages.
One of the blights on the face of American society is the surge in private, for-profit prisons that began in the 1980s. The fact there is money to be made by filling prison beds has likely contributed to a growing rate of incarceration. America now has the highest incarceration rate in the world. While the U.S. is home to about 4 or 5 percent of the world’s population, our nation’s prisons and jails hold over 20 percent of the world’s prisoners. Private prisons negotiate contracts that require states and communities to fill 90 percent of prison beds or pay penalties for the empty beds. The profits made are used to expand prison facilities even further.
All that privatization costs the taxpayer, with levies and taxes for prisons being supported as making society safer and getting tough on criminals. Yet as we lock up more and more people, we ourselves are being locked into a system that is costly, inefficient and unjust. We lose our freedom as we take away the freedom of others.
Paradoxes like that are at the heart of our text for this week in Acts 16:16-40. But the paradoxes are also reversals. A slave girl is in bondage to an evil spirit, but after she is set free in verse 18, we see in verse 19 that it is her owners who are truly in prison, the prison of their own greed for the money the girl made them as a fortune-teller. So the slave goes free and it is her owners who are actually enslaved to sin.
Likewise when Paul and Silas are thrown into prison, their good spirits and singing in verse 25 demonstrate their inner freedom. It is the jailer who is so captive to the system that, when the prisoners are freed by an earthquake, he almost kills himself in verse 27, despairing at the loss of his position and at the punishment he will receive when prisoners escape.
The ultimate reversal is when the jailer realizes that he too needs to be set free in verse 30 and cries out, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” What follows is a sweet story of he and his family receiving true freedom in Christ.
Lessons abound for us about recognizing our own incarcerations in sin, prejudice, desire and greed. If we imagine we are free when we are doing what is wrong, that is when our imprisonment is deepest and most dire. Thanks be to God for Christ who gives freedom to all, especially to prisoners sitting waiting for Him in the dark.