Casting Out Demons (Acts 19: 8-41)

Prioritizing profit over the well-being of people seems like a bad idea, for businesses, for society at large, as well as for religious sects. Two stories contained in Acts chapter 19 remind us of this self-evident truth providing an economic lesson. Both concern religious sects that struggle against or outright oppose “the Way” as taught by Paul. My argument here is that each sect takes issue with Paul following his advice would mean that they could no longer enrich themselves at the expense of others.

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Members of the first religious sect are called magicians, numbered among their order are the seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest. After observing the power displayed by Paul, these magicians use Jesus’ name in an attempt to expel demons from the demon-possessed. But the exorcism backfires, and the demon-possessed turned against the exorcists. Like Jesus running merchants out of the temple (Matt. 21:12–17; Mark 11:15–19; Luke 19:45–48; and John 2:13–16), the magicians are tossed out of town — by the men they were attempting to heal. Because of this embarrassing episode, many followers abandoned the magicians, burning their sacred texts, which are found to be worth upwards of 50 thousand silver pieces (each silver piece being worth an average day’s work).

Although we’re not sure exactly how the magicians were using Jesus’ name incorrectly, their amassed fortune briefly mentioned at the end of the story provides some evidence about their character which I believe helps explain what went wrong. An educated guess would say that they were using religion to enrich themselves at the expense of others and when they tried to do this using the name of Jesus, their efforts backfired and they were driven out of town. No doubt the magicians saw the power of Jesus’ name as an opportunity for profit. After all, many people would come from far and wide, and pay premium prices, to have a sick family member healed.

The second story begins with a religious sect speaking ill of “the Way.” Made up of prominent artisans and business people, this sect is angry with the way Paul’s teachings are hurting their business of selling silver shrines and promoting the temple in Ephesus. It turns out that their loss of business is so infuriating that the crowd is whipped up into a riot, causing Paul to flee with his disciples.

Religion, in both of these stories, is being co-opted for profit.

Gaining and maintaining wealth, however, is not “the Way” of Jesus taught by Paul (or the author of Acts). Followers of Paul burn the magicians’ sacred texts, rather than sell them for a pretty profit which would also risk others being deceived by the spells contained within. Further, the author of Acts goes out of his way to condemn the type of behaviour that puts profit before people. In Acts 2-4 the author describes a community of Christ-following Jews and Gentiles who hold things in common, making sure no one in the community has a need. Clearly, by using religion to enrich themselves, the religious sects described in Acts 19 are acting contrary to “the Way.”

Comparing the wealthy merchants from the second story with the demon-possed from the first reveals a frightening irony. While the demons expel charlatans peddling trumped-up spells, the wealthy merchants expel Paul, whom the author of Acts has just confirmed as doing the Lord’s work. The humour of this observation pales when we see ourselves in the shoes of the wealthy merchants.

Is economic life today, a system supported by many in the church, organized in such a way that caring for the vulnerable is at the centre? Or is the way we conduct business an excuse for exploiting the powerless? To begin such an analysis, I’ll conclude with the following parable:

Once upon a time, there was an entrepreneurial software engineer who desired to sell his programs at the market. Upon arriving, he traded his wares for the equivalent value of nutritional products. After a few years of similar trades, the engineer started to exchange his products for cash, which made it easier for him to get all the things he needed.

One day, the man’s father died leaving him a large inheritance. The man, being a responsible entrepreneur, decided to find a way to invest this inheritance. He desired to have his newfound fortune work for him. So he took the money to market and rather than buy just the materials for programming, he became a job creator and hired skilled engineers for his business. The first year was a success, he was making more money than ever before, but he was also working harder than ever and was taking on substantially higher risk.

While in his office the evening after completing his first tax return after his expansion, the man was approached by a spirit. At that same moment, he realized that for every dollar less he paid his employees, he could pay himself one more. Before the spirit left, he made a second crucial discovery: the profits of his company were his business alone, no one outside of his office had access to his books. More importantly, only he knew exactly how much value his employees contributed to the end product. Since his employees have little knowledge of what their labour is worth, tricking them into working for less than what they contribute was a temptation hard to resist, and, done right, they’d never be the wiser.

Encouraged by the laws of the land and society at large, the man slowly succumbed to temptation. Each year, he found ever more innovative ways to push the scale in his favour. He hired more employees, he developed better technology aimed at increasing the intensity of their labour and outsourced where possible. From everyone’s perspective but his own and Gods, the return on his investment was not only impressive but morally commendable. Finally his money was working for him through the free labour he received from his employees.

Today, 25 years later, the man makes 1.2 million times that of his average employee, whom he pays $28 000 annually. Last year alone, the man-made $19.3 billion which is the equivalent of $52 million per day, over $2 million per hour, or $36,000 a minute.

With this fortune, the man not only bought new businesses, he eventually purchased the market, which we today call the internet. I can practically guarantee that if you’re reading this blog you’ve contributed to this man fortune in the last hour. His name is Jeff Bezos and the economic system supported by us all, champions his behaviour, mindset, and spirit.

It’s worth asking if Paul were a travelling preacher today, would the church join or oppose the merchant class in their condemnation of the Way?

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