The Bible’s Supporting Players: Lydia

opened bible

Did you ever wonder to whom St. Paul wrote the following inspiring words in his Letter to the Philippians? “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ” (1:6, NRSV). “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (2:5). “Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ” (3:7).

Lydia, a successful businesswoman, led the group that first received the Letter to the Philippians. The words were addressed to them.

Paul and Silas had initially met Lydia on the sabbath outside the city gate of Philippi, by the river. After the noise of town, these tired preachers must have sought a restful oasis. The disciples needed a quiet place for prayer and they found a group of women hospitable to their message. What began as a chance (or graced) encounter led to a community Paul described as “my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown” (Philippians 4:1).

They may remind us of the many spirituality groups that gather today, before work or during lunch hour. Dressed in professional clothes, they are tight on time but eager for meaning and depth. They study the Bible or contemporary authors such as Richard Rohr, Joyce Rupp, and Ronald Rolheiser.

Discussion is lively; with no time to waste, they cut to the chase. There’s little tolerance for pious platitudes but there is a genuine thirst for a more prayerful, compassionate, Christ-centered way of life.

Thirsting for More

So too, Philippi was located on the Greco-Roman trade routes and must have been a bustling place. Lydia was an influential and successful merchant; she probably sold her textiles to wealthy people.

But being “a dealer in purple cloth” wasn’t enough for Lydia. She thirsted for more. The author of Acts records, “The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul” (16:14). Lydia must have liked what she heard. Did the Christian message spill into her thirsty spirit like the waters of the stream? We can only imagine why this bright, forth- right woman responded so quickly. But we know that she and her household were baptized at once.

It’s heartening to know that Jesus speaks not just to the marginalized, for whom he had a special fondness. He appeals as well to the prestigious. The educated and probably affluent magi came to his crib, as well as the poor, bottom-of-the-social-heap shepherds. Jesus drew not only the diseased and ostracized but also the prosperous.

After Lydia’s Baptism, Paul and Silas were jailed. Later freed by a violent earthquake that loosened their chains, they went to Lydia’s house. She must have welcomed these two men with a radiant party, a fine meal, luxurious tablecloths and good wine. Christians gathered to hear the remarkable story of these disciples.

Lydia’s home continued to be a gathering place for Christians, as recalled in last July’s article “House Churches in the New Testament.” It’s easy to picture the word going out on their grapevine: “New letter from Paul!”

These early Christians would listen eagerly as Lydia read aloud: “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8).

Numerous Distractions

Like us, the Philippians lived with many distractions. In a trade center, it’s easy to get caught up in negativity, greed or competition. Lydia helped the early Christians keep their focus on what mattered. So Paul could say of her and of them all: “in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation…you shine like stars” (Philippians 2:14). Writing his famous letter, Paul might have pictured Lydia the first day they met: eyes gleaming, interest kindled, dappled light reflecting off the river onto her purple shawl.

Lydias live all around us: Beneath sleek coiffures and designer suits are shrewd minds, hearts eager for truth and spirits yearning to serve. God’s gracious welcome extends to  the MBAs as warmly as to preschoolers. So when you see the purple vestments of Advent at the end of this month, remember Lydia.

Next Month: Nicodemus

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