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Paul and Silas in Prison, Acts 16:16-40

The Bridge

"There was a man who had given much thought to what he wanted
from life. He had experienced many moods and trials. He had
experimented with different ways of living, and he had had his
share of both success and failure. At last, he began to see
clearly where he wanted to go.

Diligently, he searched for the right opportunity. Sometimes he
came close, only to be pushed away. Often he applied all his
strength and imagination, only to find the path hopelessly
blocked. And then at last it came. But the opportunity would not
wait. It would be made available only for a short time. If it
were seen that he was not committed, the opportunity would not
come again.

Eager to arrive, he started on his journey. With each step, he
wanted to move faster; with each thought about his goal, his
heart beat quicker; with each vision of what lay ahead, he found
renewed vigor. Strength that had left him since his early youth
returned, and desires, all kinds of desires, reawakened from
their long-dormant positions.

Hurrying along, he came upon a bridge that crossed through the
middle of a town. It had been built high above a river in order
to protect it from the floods of spring.

He started across. Then he noticed someone coming from the
opposite direction. As they moved closer, it seemed as though
the other was coming to greet him. He could see clearly,
however, that he did not know this other, who was dressed
similarly except for something tied around his waist.

When they were within hailing distance, he could see that what
the other had about his waist was a rope. It was wrapped around
him many times and probably, if extended, would reach a length
of 30 feet.

The other began to uncurl the rope, and, just as they were
coming close, the stranger said, "Pardon me, would you be so
kind as to hold the end a moment?"

Surprised by this politely phrased but curious request, he
agreed without a thought, reached out, and took it.

"Thank you," said the other, who then added, "two hands now, and
remember, hold tight." Whereupon, the other jumped off the bridge.

Quickly, the free-falling body hurtled the distance of the ropes
length, and from the bridge the man abruptly felt the pull.
Instinctively, he held tight and was almost dragged over the
side. He managed to brace himself against the edge, however, and
after having caught his breath, looked down at the other
dangling, close to oblivion.

"What are you trying to do?" he yelled.

"Just hold tight," said the other.

"This is ridiculous," the man thought and began trying to haul
the other in. He could not get the leverage, however. It was as
though the weight of the other person and the length of the rope
had been carefully calculated in advance so that together they
created a counterweight just beyond his strength to bring the
other back to safety.

"Why did you do this?" the man called out.

"Remember," said the other, "if you let go, I will be lost."

"But I cannot pull you up," the man cried.

"I am your responsibility," said the other.

"Well, I did not ask for it," the man said.

"If you let go, I am lost," repeated the other.

He began to look around for help. But there was no one. How
long would he have to wait? Why did this happen to befall him
now, just as he was on the verge of true success? He examined
the side, searching for a place to tie the rope. Some
protrusion, perhaps, or maybe a hole in the boards. But the
railing was unusually uniform in shape; there were no spaces
between the boards. There was no way to get rid of this newfound
burden, even temporarily.

"What do you want?" he asked the other hanging below.

"Just your help," the other answered.

"How can I help? I cannot pull you in, and there is no place to
tie the rope so that I can go and find someone to help me help you."

"I know that. Just hang on; that will be enough. Tie the rope
around your waist; it will be easier."

Fearing that his arms could not hold out much longer, he tied
the rope around his waist.

"Why did you do this?" he asked again. "Don't you see what you
have done? What possible purpose could you have had in mind?"

"Just remember," said the other, "my life is in your hands."

What should he do? "If I let go, all my life I will know that I
let this other die. If I stay, I risk losing my momentum toward
my own long-sought-after salvation. Either way this will haunt
me forever."

With ironic humor he thought to die himself, instantly, to jump
off the bridge while still holding on. "That would teach this
fool." But he wanted to live and to live life fully. "What a
choice I have to make; how shall I ever decide?"

As time went by, still no one came. The critical moment of
decision was drawing near. To show his commitment to his own
goals, he would have to continue on his journey now. It was
already almost too late to arrive in time. But what a terrible
choice to have to make.

A new thought occurred to him. While he could not pull this
other up solely by his own efforts, if the other would shorten
the rope from his end by curling it around his waist again and
again, together they could do it. Actually, the other could do
it by himself, so long as he, standing on the bridge, kept it
still and steady.

"Now listen," he shouted down. "I think I know how to save you."
And he explained his plan.

But the other wasn't interested.

"You mean you won't help? But I told you I cannot pull you up by
myself, and I don't think I can hang on much longer either."

"You must try," the other shouted back in tears. "If you fail, I
die."

The point of decision arrived. What should he do? "My life or
this other's?" And then a new idea. A revelation. So new, in
fact, it seemed heretical, so alien was it to his traditional
way of thinking.

"I want you to listen to me carefully," he said, "because I mean
what I am about to say. I will not accept the position of choice
for your life, only for my own; the position of choice for your
own life I hereby give back to you."

"What do you mean?" the other asked, afraid.

"I mean, simply, it's up to you. You decide which way this ends.
I will become the counterweight. You do the pulling and bring
yourself up. I will even tug a little from here." He began
unwinding the rope from around his waist and braced himself anew
against the side.

"You cannot mean what you say," the other shrieked. "You would
not be so selfish. I am your responsibility. What could be so
important that you would let someone die? Do not do this to me."

He waited a moment. There was no change in the tension of the rope.

"I accept your choice," he said, at last, and freed his hands."

--From "FRIEDMAN'S FABLES" by Edwin Friedman,
published by Guilford Press

Some people don't want to be helped. It's an excruciating lesson sometimes, to have to stand back and watch someone you love self-destruct. But the reality is that we can only make choices for our own lives. We cannot force another to change. Even when we can see that change will save their lives. Healthy boundaries mean we love, care, and nurture with compassion, and at the same time, we stop trying to fix others. They will choose what they will choose. What will you choose?

Narrative Lectionary Text: Acts 16:16-40

One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour.

But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.

When morning came, the magistrates sent the police, saying, “Let those men go.” And the jailer reported the message to Paul, saying, “The magistrates sent word to let you go; therefore come out now and go in peace.” But Paul replied, “They have beaten us in public, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and now are they going to discharge us in secret? Certainly not! Let them come and take us out themselves.” The police reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens; so they came and apologized to them. And they took them out and asked them to leave the city. After leaving the prison they went to Lydia’s home; and when they had seen and encouraged the brothers and sisters there, they departed.