the Apostles 16:11-15, 40
of Lydia: Piecing the Parts Together
Welcome to Stories Seldom Heard.
I especially would like to welcome the members of the Fijian communities
of the San Francisco Bay Area and those who attended the preaching
conference in Palm Beach, Florida. Since Easter we have had the joy of
rereading parts of the “Acts of the Apostles” and some of the Letters of
Peter and Timothy. Soon the first reading for Mass will return to one
of the Old Testament books. But before we leave the “Acts of the
Apostles,” it would be good to hear the story of Lydia: the purple
Many of the first Christians were not
wealthy people or well known in their communities, but the rich and
powerful were not excluded. Discipleship has more to do with open
hearts and minds than it does with labels, categories or external
characteristics. From the very beginning, as it is now, people from all
walks of life followed Jesus even though it often required tough
choices. The "Acts of the Apostles" has numerous stories of the trials,
beatings and jail terms that the disciples not only endured but rejoiced
in. Yet, these sufferings did not discourage the newcomers to the
faith. In the face of danger, converts like Lydia, made bold their
convictions. Their faith was founded on, formed by and flourished
because of the passion and blood of those who had gone before them.
Paul's travels in the "Acts" took him
many places even to the Roman province of Macedonia in Europe. Philippi
where the story of Lydia takes place was an important city on the trade
route that linked Europe with Asia. It was a city where many of the
entrepreneurs of their day gathered. There were artisans of all kinds
and merchants selling their goods. It was a bustling city not only for
trading of merchandise, but also a vibrant city for the exchange of new
ideas. If people wanted to get their businesses mainstreamed or their
ideas heard, they could not shun the great cities. Therefore, it is
not surprising to find Paul in Philippi preaching. However, Paul did
not make this decision on his own.
One night in a dream, "a Macedonian
appeared and appealed to him in these words, 'Come across to Macedonia
and help us.'" (Acts 16:10) In response Paul sails to Troas and from
there makes his way to Philippi. Since there were no phone books or
internet connections in those days, word of mouth was the way
information circulated. A visit to the city’s or village’s bazaar and
marketplace or a synagogue was the best way to find out what was
happening. However, even though Philippi was a flourishing city, it
did not have a synagogue. So when Paul arrives he heads for the
marketplace. Sure enough, he hears rumors of Sabbath gatherings of
Jewish women. So on the Sabbath Paul goes to "the river outside the
gates" of the city (Philippi) where he finds the women at prayer. There
Paul sits with them and preaches.
As we begin listening to the story of
Lydia, I would like to comment on Luke's theology. Luke often mentions
women in both his gospel and Acts. He is not unkind to women, but it
seems he most often presents them as those who support the ministry of
their male Christian companions. Luke seems to believe that, rather
than holding leadership positions themselves, women should work behind
the scenes. In contrast to their brothers in Christ Luke usually
portrays women as those who offer hospitality and/or financial support
for the mission. The women, then, often fade into the background of
the main story.
The story of Lydia has suffered from
some of these same attitudes and techniques. In fact, her story
probably would never have survived except that it supports two of the
main reasons why Luke wrote Acts. First, her story helps Luke show how
the Spirit influenced and guided the development of the early Christian
communities. In fact, Lydia is honored with the title of being the
first European convert. Second, Lydia is a solid member of society.
Even though she is a Christian, she is recognized as a responsible
citizen. Luke was writing Acts to convert gentiles. He was also trying
to convince the Roman authorities that Christianity would not threaten
their rule. "There was no guarantee in Luke's time that the church as he
knew it would endure without the support from the ruling class….Early
Christian writers such as Luke attempted to convince people of power and
high social standing that Christianity was a viable new cult, describing
conversions of such people and portraying Christianity as
non-threatening to the political establishment." (1) With this
knowledge as background, Luke briefly tells the story of Lydia and uses
it for his own purpose.
Now, let’s get back to the river
outside the gates of Philippi. In the gathering, there is a
businesswoman, Lydia, who is from the town of Thyatira, in the region of
Lydia, which is in western Asia Minor. The region is famous for its
excellent dyed goods. I am sure you can hear the connection. Lydia is
not only a well-established businesswoman, but she is also identified as
being in "the purple dye trade". Purple dye was more expensive than
other dyes. The dye comes from the veins of a particular kind of
shellfish and from antiquity purple is the color of royalty. Therefore,
clothes and other purple items were more expensive. In other words,
Lydia deals with commodities that are associated with the wealthy.
Kings, queens and prominent local leaders wore clothing made with purple
dye. Table cloths and hangings for the walls or windows were also dyed
purple. Thus, the color purple became a visual reminder and sign of the
owner's authority and power.
Lydia not only sells to the wealthy,
but is a woman of means herself. She owns a house in Philippi. She has
servants. We know nothing of her marital status. But, what we do know
is that she is a public figure, a woman of influence. She is known as a
businesswoman in a prestigious city that has been settled by Roman
citizens. All of these qualifications make her, in Luke's eyes, worthy
of mention. But there is much more to Lydia's personality than her
upright citizenship and her wealth. That is why it is important to do
some theological "digging" behind the rather flat uncomplicated story
that Luke mentions. By looking at the text more closely and studying
the historical situation, Lydia's character comes alive. It's like
piecing the parts of a puzzle together. So let's do that!
First, let’s turn all of the pieces
of the puzzle upright. Obviously, there’s a purple piece that
represents her business. I wonder if there is a shellfish to remind us
of the source of the purple dye? Since Lydia is a public person and
leader in the community, there must be one piece of the puzzle that has
a sign or symbol of her leadership within the community. The feminine
face of a Macedonian gentile is the next piece we want to connect.
There’s also a large house with servants working in the house and
cleaning the property.
The puzzle is almost complete, but as
usual with puzzles there are some gaps. So let's spread out the
remaining pieces to find and link together the pictures of the gathering
of friends, the women sitting by a river, the city gates in the
background and the man preaching to them.
Now we have most all of the pieces
connected, but there is a gaping hole in the center of the puzzle. What
is missing? Ah, there it is! This piece not only completes the puzzle,
but also makes Lydia’s story worth remembering. It’s the "God-fearing"
woman piece! Luke says Lydia is “God fearing.” Some translations say,
Lydia is a woman who "reverenced God", a "devout" woman. She is also a
woman of faith, courage and a lover of God. If you were designing this
center piece of the puzzle what would it look like? What colors would
you use? How would you not only shape the image, but also the size and
form of the piece? God fearing, devout, courageous are qualities often
expressed well through art. Perhaps you might want to stop and reread
the scripture passage and design this piece of the puzzle for yourself.
Luke’s portrait of Lydia continues
and those words “devout” and “God fearing” are for Luke code words to
identify gentiles who were "half converts to Judaism". In other words,
God fearing people were those who attended Jewish services and accepted
the Jewish belief in the one God, but did not practice the whole Mosaic
Law. (2) Lydia is one of those people. She is on the path, a faithful
seeker of truth. No doubt, that is why God could "open her heart" as
she listened to Paul’s preaching. She is so deeply touched by the
Spirit that there is no hesitation or doubt on her part. Immediately,
she, along with her whole household are baptized.
Persecution and Christianity often
went hand and hand for the first Christians. There was no lack of
information concerning the ruthless treatment of Christians by the
Romans. In fact, the next passage tells of the beating and imprisonment
of Paul and Silas. Lydia, on the other hand, neither fears the
authorities, nor the negative effects her decision might have on her
lucrative business. In fact, my suspicion is that the wealthy with whom
she did business would soon hear about her conversion from her own lips.
Lydia’s story doesn’t end here.
There is another curious detail of the story. Lydia invites Paul and
the others to her house. It certainly is not an unusual gesture;
hospitality was and is a sign of the followers of Christ. In the early
church especially, we often hear of Christians gathering in a person's
home not only because they did not own any public buildings for worship,
but also because it was a safe place to pray and socialize. But what is
striking about this invitation is the reason Lydia gives for inviting
Paul and Silas. It sounds as though she is testing Paul. "If you
really think me a true believer…come and stay with us". It seems that
Lydia is forcing Paul's hand. Lydia is not a person who likes to ride
in the back of the bus. She knows the One in whom she believes and has
wholeheartedly embraced the Christian faith. But in return she also
demands to be publicly recognized by Paul as a disciple of the risen
Jesus. It is an invitation that Paul cannot refuse for "She would take
The invitation is no surprise. Lydia
is filled with the Holy Spirit. Her enthusiasm and joy lightens the
whole community. Of course, she wants to celebrate. But as we look
back on it, is there something else going on? If Paul accepts the
invitation is he recognizing Lydia’s leadership within the religious
community? At this moment, Paul needs Lydia's hospitality. Even later
in his life when Paul gets out of prison, he knows he can depend on her
strength and trustworthiness. In his time of distress, when he needs
comfort, reassurance, security and a community of prayer, Paul
immediately seeks out Lydia. In Lydia's house he would always be
welcomed and receive the encouragement he needed. (Acts 16:40) Truly
he saw her as a faithful disciple.
We don't hear any more of Lydia's
story. But, Lydia's contributions to the development of the religious
life in Philippi cannot be underestimated. Just as her business and
political savvy made her a leader in the civic community, her strength
of character and her commitment to Christ formed her as a leader. The
community grew and flourished and we hear of the great works they
performed. Paul's letter to the Philippians calls them "his joy and
crown.” (Phil 4:1) Full of gratitude, Paul sends greetings to them.
They are not only the first European Christian community to be
established and to become stable, but their love and care for one
another overflow beyond their boundaries.
And it all began on a Sabbath when
the women were gathered in prayer by "the river outside the gates" of
the city of Philippi.
1. Women in Scripture, ed. Carol
Meyers, William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids,
Michigan/Cambridge, U.K. 2000. p. 463
2. Jerome Biblical Commentary, ed.
Raymond E. Brown, S.S., Joseph A Fitzmyer, S.J., Roland E Murphy, O.
Carm., Prentice - Hall, Inc, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1968. "Acts
of the Apostles" p. 198
Special thanks to Mary Ellen Green
and Maria Hetherton who have helped in editing this article.
"Stories Seldom Heard" is a
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