Acts of the Apostles 16:11-15, 40
Stories Seldom Heard
The Story of Lydia: Piecing the Puzzle Together
By Sister Patricia Bruno, O.P.
Welcome to Stories Seldom Heard. I especially would like to welcome the members of St James Parish, Petaluma, CA.
Over the past few months we have been reflecting on the “Acts of the Apostles” because the first reading for daily Mass comes from the “Acts.” However, now that we are in June the Lectionary has moved on to other books in the Bible. But “Acts” has too many memorable stories and important people to lose our attention so quickly. One of the stories that reveals how the Word of God was spread and how diverse the early community of Christians was is the story of Lydia, the purple seller.
Many of the first Christians were not wealthy people or well known in their communities, but the rich and powerful were not excluded. Discipleship, then and now, 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 endured. Yet, the sufferings that the early Christians encountered did not discourage 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 (now in modern day Greece) 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 sailed to Troas and from there made 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 marketplace or 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 arrived he headed for the marketplace. Sure enough, he heard rumors of Sabbath gatherings of Jewish women. So on the Sabbath Paul went to “the river outside the gates” of the city (Philippi) where he found the women at prayer. There Paul sat with them and preached.
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. 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. 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 Holy 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 to Christianity. Second, Luke wanted to convince the Roman authorities that Christianity was not another political party that intended to overthrow their power. Lydia was a powerful example of a Christian who was not a rebel or discontent, but a woman who was recognized as a responsible citizen. She had a vibrant business and was well integrated into the social networks of the city.
Paul was fortunate to find Lydia at prayer with the other women by the river outside the gates of Philippi. Lydia was from the town of Thyatira, in the region of Lydia, which was in western Asia Minor. Perhaps that is where her name came from. The region was famous for its excellent dyed goods. Lydia was not only a well-established businesswoman, but she was also identified as being in “the purple dye trade”. Purple dye was more expensive than other dyes. The dye came from the veins of a particular kind of shellfish and from antiquity purple was the color of royalty. Therefore, clothes and other purple items were more expensive. Kings, queens and prominent local leaders wore clothing made with purple dye. Table cloths and hangings for the walls or windows in royal palaces were also dyed purple. Thus, the color purple became a visual reminder of the owner’s authority and wealth. Since Lydia dealt with purple commodities she too was associated with people of wealth and prestige.
Lydia was a woman of means. She owned a house in Philippi. She had servants. We know nothing of her marital status. But, what we do know is that she lived in a prestigious city that had been settled by Roman citizens. All of these qualifications made her, in Luke’s eyes, worthy of mention. But there was much more to Lydia’s personality than her upright citizenship and her wealth. As we explore the theological, cultural and historical influences that undergird this scene in Philippi, a rather flat uncomplicated story begins to breathe and have life. Lydia is more than just a convenient backdrop for Paul’s travels. She is an influential citizen and highly respected spiritual woman.
Reflecting on a passage of scripture, as we are doing now, is similar to putting the pieces of a puzzle together. Each piece helps us see more clearly the importance of an often brief scene in scripture. So let’s begin putting our Lydia puzzle together.
First, let’s turn all of the pieces of the puzzle upright. Now what do we see? Obviously, there’s a purple piece that represents Lydia’s 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. There’s also a large house with servants working in the house and cleaning the property. Oh and don’t forget the Macedonian who spoke to Paul in a dream. What does he look like? How was he dressed?
The puzzle is almost complete, but as usual with puzzles there are some gaps. So let’s spread out the remaining pieces of the puzzle to find and link together the ones that are still not in place: the women sitting by a river, the city gates in the background and Paul preaching to the women.
Now we have almost all of the puzzle completed, 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 “devout” and “God fearing.” For Luke these words are 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. 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 is baptized along with her whole household.
Persecution and Christianity often went hand-in-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 no refusal.”
The invitation is no surprise. Lydia is filled with the Holy Spirit. Her enthusiasm and joy lighten 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 strong Christian leader and a faithful disciple of Jesus.
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 recognized leader of the community – a community that grew and flourished. 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.
Oh, but we forgot about the last piece of the puzzle: the center piece. Lydia is a woman of faith, courage and a lover of God. If you were designing this piece of the puzzle what would it look like? What colors would you use? What size and form would you choose? How would you imagine her face, clothing and background? God fearing, devout, courageous are qualities often expressed well through art. Perhaps you might want to stop and reread the scripture passage before you design this piece of the puzzle for yourself.
Special thanks to Mary Ellen Green and Maria Hetherton who have helped in editing this article.
“Stories Seldom Heard” is a monthly article written by Sister Patricia Bruno, O.P. Sister is a Dominican Sister of San Rafael, California. This service is offered to the Christian community to enrich one’s personal and spiritual life. The articles can be used for individual or group reflection. If you would like “Stories Seldom Heard” sent to a friend, please send a note to “email@example.com“.