There are some powerful portrayals of women in the Bible. From Eve to at least three women who carried the name of Mary, the scriptures are not hesitant to let us know that the story of God is not entirely written by the male species. In the sixteenth chapter of Acts we are introduced to yet another strong woman, but one who has, shall we say, sort of fallen through the cracks.
If asked to name women whose stories are told in scripture, you might think of Rebekah or Rachel in the Old Testament, maybe even Deborah or Esther. In the New Testament, Mary of Bethany or Mary Magdalene might come to mind. But Lydia? You see, it is true: Lydia is not that well-known.
Even the biblical commentaries – those sometimes massive books that seek to interpret and describe what the Bible has to say – don’t seem to think enough of her to devote much space to her story. And that’s a shame.
Allow me, if you haven’t spent some time combing through the commentaries, to explain for a moment how they work. Commentary writers react to how the Bible itself is written. For those passages that provide general information, the commentaries respond in kind. They do not dwell very long on these sections of the scriptures that are rather general or narrative in nature. Information is provided and then it’s time to move on.
But along comes that passage that is just filled to overflowing with thoughts and nuances, pregnant with this meaning and that. The commentary writer puts in under the microscope, dissecting it piece by tiny piece. By the time you get through reading about this portion of the Bible you almost feel wrung out. It has been an exercise in minutiae, but you’ve done it because you know it is crucial and necessary to a proper understanding of what that particular fragment of scripture says. That is, until you come to it again some time down the road, and then it says something entirely different to you. Such is the nature of the scriptures.
For example, I’ve been reading two books lately. One is a fairly popular bestseller that is a crime/mystery novel. I’ve been reading it just for fun. The other has to do with ministry and its different facets. The first I read through quickly — it doesn’t carry a lot of weight to it. The other… well, it’s a different story. Just the other morning it took me an hour – I timed it – to read one relatively short chapter. That’s because I highlighted this portion and that, made notes in the margins, contemplated what was being said, indexed the subject matter. As I said, it’s a book on the preaching ministry. I’ve been a minister for more than three decades, but I’m still learning what it means to do it.
All of this is to say that there are things in life that require more careful consideration than others, and that is definitely true when it comes to particular passages of scripture. The story of this woman in The Acts of the Apostles, who is identified as Lydia of Thyatira, deserves that kind of attention. But go find her in the biblical commentaries. Go ahead. Mention is made of her, obviously. No way to get around it. Conjecture is offered as to what kind of woman she was. But she isn’t, in my opinion, the subject of much space or thought. Not really. So, do you mind if I try to remedy that situation somewhat this morning? I think it is time to give Lydia her due.
As I mentioned, she is from Thyatira, a city in Asia Minor famous for its textile industry. Because this industry deals primarily with only the finest linens, purchased by the wealthy and important, the city itself is wealthy… as is Lydia. When we are introduced to her, we find that she has relocated to Philippi, in Macedonia. Business has been good, but she decides to take it to a place where it might get even better. When you are in business, you go where the business takes you.
She is dressed in her own product, the finest of purple linen. It is the kind of fabric favored by royalty and people of means. Only the best will do for those who are Lydia’s customers, and since she caters to such folk, she dresses like them as well. A woman of means herself, she wears fine jewelry, makes use of the most expensive make-up, and her hair is smartly done. She has learned how to take advantage of her station in life. She knows what she ‘s doing, and when you cater to the well-to-do you better dress the part.
Lydia is a savvy, self-sufficient business woman and thus carries herself with confidence. You know the type, don’t you? In a male-dominated world, she moves with authority, an authority granted by her position as a successful business owner. She is as comfortable in a boardroom, with her attache by her side, as she is in the trendiest of Philippian boutiques.
Yet – and this is important for us to know – this does not define Lydia of Thyatira. What defines her cannot be seen with the naked eye. There is an inward quality that emerges only as one engages her in conversation, looks deeply into her eyes, listens to the pleadings of her heart.
Luke, the author who introduces us to Lydia, tells us first that she is a worshiper of God. Then, he tells us she is a searcher, one who listens eagerly to what Paul has to say when he addresses her worship group that has gathered down by the river. Then, Luke informs us she is from Thyatira. Only after telling us all this does he relate to us her profession. It is important to Luke that we know who Lydia is and what kind of woman she is, and that she is not defined by what she does. Her personal worth has nothing to do with her profession or her wealth.
We are told that she is a woman of faith who listens.
It’s amazing what listening will do for you. It often positions you to be in the place and time in which God is speaking. And sometimes you find God speaking in very specific terms. That is what we discover in this portion of Luke’s story.
It begins with a vision. Luke is big on visions, isn’t he? To him, “it is a sure sign that God’s impulse is being felt.”1 In this vision, the Apostle Paul is told to redirect his evangelistic ministry. He had been planning to travel to the familiar region of Asia controlled by the Romans. But every time he takes up his travel itinerary, the door closes. He’s like a man in a maze, constantly running into dead-ends. But now, there is a man in a dream pleading with him to bring the gospel to Macedonia, in Europe.
Paul is a pretty good listener too, especially when it comes to the voice of God, and he doesn’t hesitate to do what he is told. The first city he and his traveling troupe enter in Macedonia is Philippi. The next Sabbath, they go down to the riverside where they have heard there is a group gathered for worship and prayer. And that is where and when they encounter Lydia. By listening to the gospel story, as Paul presents it, Lydia’s faith discovers an entirely new dimension. She is introduced to Christ and life will never again be the same; largely because Lydia is a listener.
Maybe that is why Jesus was so enamored of children. You know the story. Some children try to get close to Jesus, and when his disciples shoo them away Jesus chides them. He invites the little ones to come and be with him, to be blessed by him, explaining to everyone gathered that you have to be like a child before you can enter the kingdom of heaven. This is one of those scripture passages, by the way, that has received a lot of attention in the commentaries. And we still can’t be sure exactly what Jesus means.
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But perhaps one thing Jesus has in mind is that a child is a listener. You might tend to doubt that when you observe one of our children’s sermons, but it is true. Children pick up on a lot more than we realize, even when it appears they don’t listen to anything. They’re like sponges, soaking it all in. Children are listeners, and Jesus took particular delight in those who heard – really heard – the message of the kingdom.
Lydia “was listening to us,” Luke says, and because she was such a good listener, “The Lord opened her heart…”
But I particularly like what Luke tells us next. “When she and her household were baptized…” Luke gives us the impression that it happened immediately. They didn’t schedule baptism for two weeks later. It was done right away.
Can’t you imagine?! In her finest purple linen! Think how much it would cost our church if our baptismal garments were made from linen and not cotton. You don’t wash linen with Tide and toss it in the dryer! Yet, this woman of means, of dignity… this self-sufficient CEO of her own company… throws all such caution to the wind, is baptized on the spot, emerges from the river dripping wet with her hair going in every which direction, and her purple linen business suit completely ruined. But she doesn’t care. “The Lord opened her heart,” and that is all that mattered.
But, the story gets even better. She looks at Paul and says, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.”
She offers the hospitality of her home to Paul and his friends. She is humbled at the thought that this man of God might visit in her home. “If you have judged me to be faithful,” she says. Not, “Come to my office and I can put you into contact with the movers and shakers of the city.” Not, “You know, Paul, I rub elbows with some pretty important people around here, and I could introduce you to them.” Not, “Let’s do dinner sometime.” She says with all humility and grace, “If you have judged me to be faithful.”
Lydia, for all her fine garments and confidence and leadership ability, is humble in spirit, and out of this humility offers a heart of hospitality. To ask Paul and his friends to stay in her home is her way of asking God to do the same.
When I was a boy, our church in my hometown held week-long revivals at least twice a year. Each time, my parents would invite our pastor and his family, and the guest evangelist, to come to our home one night after a service. We would have refreshments and a time of fellowship. Looking back on it now, I realize it was my parents’ way of saying, “If you have judged us to be faithful, come to our home.” It was their way of humbly opening their hearts to their friends and to God, and we were honored by their presence.
We didn’t read it for our New Testament lesson (it’s for next week), but you need to know that Lydia is seen once again in an extension of this story. As many of us do know, Paul and Silas get into a little trouble in Philippi. They are arrested and flogged, then thrown into a prison cell. After a midnight earthquake, followed by another conversion experience – this time of the jailer who was watching over them – they are released. The authorities tell them to leave Philippi immediately, but they don’t do it; at least not right away. Before they leave the city, they go to Lydia’s home. If there is one place in Philippi where they are welcome with open arms and an open heart, it is in Lydia’s home.
They once again find refuge with this one who has opened her heart to the Lord. An open and hospitable heart is the only response that can be given to the grace which God gives us, so as you can imagine, the final, probing question is addressed to you and to me. Have we opened our hearts and our homes to the Lord? Doing so, as we have seen in the witness of Lydia, has nothing to do with money or means, power or position. God is willing and able to infiltrate the heart of anyone who is willing to listen for God’s voice, and in humility invite God to come in.
These two small vignettes are the only time we read of Lydia in the New Testament. But later, Paul writes a letter to the church that is established there, possibly – no, probably – in her home. Not only does he show more affection for the Philippian church than any other he has served, but it reveals the church to be deeply committed to Christ, to Paul, and to his mission. I don’t think that’s an accident. I think it is a direct result of Lydia’s hospitable heart. And, I believe, she teaches a lesson we all need to learn.
“If you have judged me to be faithful…” In your desire to be found faithful, invite God to enter in. In such humility you will find the grace that fills the human heart and leads to eternal life.
Father, find our hearts open to your invading presence. And when you enter, may you discover the kind of humility that mirrors the Spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ. In his name we pray, Amen.
1Fred B. Craddock, et. al., Preaching Through the Christian Year: Year C (Trinity Press International: Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 1994), p. 254.
— Copyright 2004, Randy L. Hyde. Used by permission.