What is the most annoying thing you can think of? For me, it’s a tie between a minor second in music and the smell of wet peanut butter when I clean off a knife in the sink. Those things just stick with me—I hear those tones and smell that smell for the rest of the day. This week’s lectionary reading from Acts has a similar annoyance that Paul just can’t shake. What he does about it speaks both to the emancipatory power of the kingdom of heaven and how to deal with annoyances.
The lectionary text opens with the sad situation of a young woman who is doubly enslaved. She is bound by a Python spirit (more on that below) and held in bond by human masters who exploit her spiritual situation for money. Apparently, she spent her days wandering about Philippi giving oracles in exchange for money, most or all of which she had to turn over to her masters. Talk about an annoying situation!
What is a Python spirit? The Pythian serpent (hence our snake named “python”) was said to have dwelt in the religion of Delphi and was the cause of oracular wisdom by means of repeated possession of women. After the Greek god Apollo was understood to have killed the serpent, its body was left underground to rot (puthein in the Greek—the basis of the name “python”). The very real vapors and gases that emanated from the caves surrounding Delphi may have caused ecstatic speech from women prophets standing next to the sacred chasms. In Delphi, possession by the Python spirit would probably have involved regular exposure to the gases escaping from vents near the oracle.
I always wondered why Paul and Timothy were annoyed at the woman following them since she repeatedly told people: “These men are bond-servants of the Most High God, who are proclaiming to you a way of salvation.”
But what does anything at Delphi have to do with Philippi, which today is a seven-plus hour car drive away? The answer comes from the famous writer Plutarch, who, among other things, was a part-time priest of Apollo at Delphi. Writing at just about the same time that Paul was in Philippi, Plutarch notes that all πυθωνες (Python devotees) were ἐγγαστριμυθοι (ventriloquists). That is, they made their voices seem to come from somewhere else. In Delphi, the female oracles would breathe deeply of the vapors and/or consume other material related to the dead serpent. They would then make their voices appear to emanate from their midsections—as if Python’s voice was speaking from inside of them. Next they would use their regular voices to interpret the mumbled speech that seemed to come from their lungs or stomach
Walking around the streets of Philippi, with no hallucinogenic gases or other substance to consume, the poor enslaved woman’s ventriloquism was probably more prosaic. To demonstrate that the voice was not just her, she might have had some sort of prop, perhaps an ancient equivalent of a ventriloquist dummy. This would have been sort of a pantomime of the spiritual reality. The Python spirit animated and gave voice to the woman, and the woman animated and projected her voice through the prop. Everyone knew it was the woman who was somehow speaking without moving her mouth. But the effect would have been otherworldly, sort of possession-performed-by-puppetry.
I always wondered why Paul and Timothy were annoyed at the woman following them since she repeatedly told people: “These men are bond-servants of the Most High God, who are proclaiming to you a way of salvation” (Acts 16:17). If anything, she seemed to be helping their cause! But, if the woman was using loud, ventriloquist pronunciation, seeming to make the announcement of God’s power for salvation come out of a prop, I can see how that would become annoying very quickly.
But Paul doesn’t blame the woman. He sees that she is being used by a spirit and by her enslavers. He drives out the spirit in the name of Jesus and, in so doing, greatly reduces the profitability of keeping the woman in bondage to her masters. When Paul felt annoyed by a following ventriloquist, he didn’t lash out or misdirect his aggravation. Instead, he attained his freedom from annoyance by helping the woman attain her freedom from possession. In the name of Jesus Christ, he cast out the offensive spirit, and in the process, moved them both toward freedom.
When we are frustrated or annoyed, let us not lash out with hurtful words, but speak liberation to ourselves and others from that which afflicts us, in the name of Jesus.