Sermon of Sunday 28 January, 2018
Lydia, a Good and Hospitable Woman
One of my school teaching colleagues once commented that the Bible is a very sexist book. I wasn’t quick enough to respond, at the time, but I fancy that the only part she knew about was the often misquoted out of context passage from Ephesians 5, about wives seeming subservience to their husbands.
With mention of sexism, my defensive mind immediately went to the passage we read from Proverbs which praises the hypothetical, industrious, and possibly intimidating woman who is a successful business woman and horticulturalist as well as caring well for her husband and family. Along with her traditionally women’s skills of housekeeping and craft skills, she displays the many astute business attributes that a lot of us might strive for. (I might say that my teaching colleague was the bread winner while her husband was the house husband, child minder, and cook - not a very usual situation for the 1980’s.)
The Proverbial woman is amazing, and I realise to some women, quite intimidating. To my mind, there would be few, if any who would excel at all of these skills! Only the best was good enough for her. There is no doubt that she while she was great at the so called womanly skills of craftwork - anything to do with textiles, dying as well as general crafting, housework and meal preparation. She was trustworthy and generous. She enjoyed her work. She was up early to prepare food for her family. She hunted around for the very best, not wanting anything second rate for her family. Not only did she clothe her family well, but she made garments to sell, and with the proceeds, she bought a plot of land and grew crops in it to feed her family She took pride in her own work and made sure that her family was not lazy. Her husband was respected because of her character. And I read a suggestion that in this day and age, she wouldn’t have frittered away her time with TV, facebook and twitter. My colleague would have scoffed at the traditionally womanly skills but would have been impressed by the business woman and gardener.
With careful study we will realise that the Bible is not sexist. It makes it clear that women are to be respected. They are not their husband’s chattels as is the case in some ethnicities. It should be noted that there were several women who Jesus helped, some named and others unnamed. Then, of course, there is the business woman, Lydia, seller of purple from Thyatira, who lived in Philippi at the time of Paul and Silas’s visit . Being a dealer in fine textiles, she really captures my interest and I see her as one whose product would have had a 5 star rating. To Catholics, she is the patron saint of dyers. To my mind, she is much more than that. She is the ideal woman of Proverbs 31.
Normally, in Bible times, a woman would have been referred to along with her husband, so as there is no mention of her husband, it can be safely assumed that she was a widow, but no doubt, one whose diligence and ability would have made her husband proud in his life time. She was probably from a wealthy family because a widow in the Apostle Paul’s time could only inherit 10% of her late husband’s wealth. Like the woman of Proverbs 31, she was industrious and her household was well cared for. She doesn’t seem to have owned a field, but as the leader of the household, it appears that she owned her own home, and as I have said, she was a business woman - a trader in quality, expensive textiles. And to cap it all off, she was hospitable.
Because her name was taken from a city some theologians suggest that Lydia was from the servant class, but as I have already indicated, I agree with the school of thought that William Barclay follows when he suggests she was from the very top end of the social scale, and probably with a large household. In her business, she dealt in fine fabrics - purple, worn only by royalty and the very wealthy. The red and purple dye for her fabrics, extracted from shell fish was pricey to say the least.
More importantly to us, although she hadn’t embraced Judaism, she had some sort of an interest in God, probably the God of the Jews. Until Paul and Silas’s visit, it seems that her understanding of the deity was limited. In Philippi, there were so few Jews that there was no synagogue, so this group of gentile women, met to pray by the river on the Sabbath, the regular day of worship. With their sincerity, they were ready to embrace the teaching as set out in the children’s hymn, “Lord of the dance.” They were looking for a religion with a God that would be an integral part of their lives.
Paul and Silas had set out on a preaching journey, and as the result of a dream Paul had, had they travelled to Macedonia. They went to Philippi, a major Macedonian city, and on the Sabbath, found the riverside venue of Lydia’s group, their place of prayer. It wasn’t unusual for a visitor to be asked to speak, so Paul had the opportunity to share his belief in Jesus who had met him miraculously on the Damascus road. As a result of this teaching, Lydia and her friends moved from being prayerful people with some interest in God, to being true believers in Jesus Christ, who had been crucified by the Romans to satisfy jealous Jewish leaders, but who had been raised from death. So she and members of her household, were baptised into their new found faith. Scholars tell us that Lydia was Europe’s first convert to Christianity, “The Way” as it was first called.
As I said, she was a hospitable woman, and realising that these preachers were itinerants with no home, and grateful for their teaching, Lydia invited them if they believed she was sincere, to be her guests. She was persuasive, even suggesting that they didn’t believe that she was a genuine believer if they didn’t stay, so they accepted her offer.
We are not sure how long Paul and Silas lodged with her, but they appeared to be at home in her house, and enjoyed her hospitality for some time. But one day while they were on their way to the place of prayer, a demon possessed, fortune telling, slave girl, recognised them for who they were - servants of the Most High God. That changed things! She followed them daily, and frustrated them by calling out after them. At first it seems that they tried to ignore her, but her attention became over bearing, and Paul realised that she needed to be set free from her demons. Without her demons, she could no longer tell fortunes so her masters’ source of income was gone. When this happened, the men complained to the authorities and had both Paul and Silas imprisoned without trial.
Such prison conviction might have been enough to turn some people away from their new found friends and house guests, but not Lydia. After their miraculous release, they knew that they would be welcomed back by her household. Lydia’s place was home from home for Paul and Silas, so there was a time of mutual encouragement, before they went on their way to Thessalonica, leaving the group to continue in their new found faith. Not only that, the jailer’s household had found faith and no doubt also joined the group. Generosity prevailed, and after Paul and Silas moved on, the Philippian group, presumably inspired by Lydia forwarded heart warming gifts to them.
So what about us? Don’t be intimidated by the extraordinary, hypothetical woman of Proverbs 31. Grasp hold of her attributes that are achievable by you. Women and men alike should all be diligent and trustworthy with whatever talents we have been given. I think of my own mother, extremely well meaning and conscientious with a strong Christian faith. She was a gifted clerical worker, and used her abilities in Christian service, but she was unfulfilled as a housewife. Although she had some creative ideas, any sort of craft work was a chore and often went wrong. She was thrifty to the point of embarrassment and therein made some significant errors of judgement. She was reasonably hospitable, but cooking was not her forte and she had some limitations. She was sincere and did the best she knew how. At times, she had an eye to quality, but frequently, adequacy, rather than quality was her rule. She was extremely thrifty. Other people have open homes, or visit and share baking. Some teach or use music or other skills in Christian service. Hospitable Lydia sets a great example for men and women alike.
Like my Mum, we can’t all do everything with enjoyment. We can’t all be business people or crafts people. We are not all wealthy. But we can all put our trust in God as Lydia did and in whatever way is appropriate, show concern and care for people who cross our paths. The call is to be ourselves in God’s service, using the abilities we have, and we will experience two way blessing. Sometimes, we may not even be aware of the blessing we have been to others, or will find out about it years later. Lydia and her friends were blessed by Paul and Silas as they learnt from them, and Paul and Silas were blessed by the caring hospitality of her home.
Prayerfully, whatever our abilities, may we make the most of them, be a blessing to those we meet day by day. But most of all, share the joy of what Christ has done for us,
Rae Simpson 28.01.2018