The seller of purple
We heard in the second lesson about the meeting between Paul and a woman called Lydia in the city of Philippi. And we were told that Lydia was a dealer in purple cloth. Now, on the whole I prefer modern translations of the Bible, but they let us down a bit here. The old Authorized Version, sticking closely to the Greek, says that she’s a seller of purple. Just that. A seller of purple.
What does purple mean to you? What does it say? Maybe it makes you think of the first line from that poem by Jenny Joseph - "when I am an old woman I shall wear purple, with a red hat, which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me". A dramatic colour, but a dangerous colour. Easy to go a bit over the top.
It’s that moment in every episode of Changing Rooms where the designer prises open the lids of the paint tins and the participants gasp in horror - because almost invariably one of them is a violent shade of purple, especially if Laurence Llewellyn Bowen’s involved. It’s not a colour you can ignore, purple.
The cost of purple
These days we’re used to being able to get any colour we want. If you’re attracted, rather than repulsed, by the decor on Changing Rooms you can take your purple cushion cover into Homebase, they’ll scan it into a machine, and mix up a paint exactly the same colour. If you want a shirt or a blouse in a shop they have all of the colours in all of the sizes.
It didn’t used to be like that. Dyes were natural, not synthetic, and the dye for purple was made from a juice found in minute quantities in shellfish. It took thousands of crustaceans to make a yard or two of purple cloth. So it was very expensive, worth its weight in silver it was said. It was a statement of status and wealth, the Gucci handbag or the Rolex watch of Roman times.
And that’s what Lydia is selling. She’s selling purple; purple cloth, purple robes, the power of purple. She’s not local. She’s from Thyatira, a town well known for making purple cloth. She seems to be the head of her household, there’s no husband around, even though she’s a travelling trader. And if she’s a seller of purple, she’s not poor, because she couldn’t have afforded her stock.
She’s not Jewish, but she believes in God. She’s what the Jews knew as a ’Godfearer’ - someone who worships in the synagogue, but hasn’t coverted completely to Judaism.
But to have a synagogue you need ten men who will meet together to say prayers. Phillipi, it seems, doesn’t have a synagogue. If there’s no synagogue, then any Jews that happen to be in the town or passing through know to meet near the river on the sabbath to pray. That’s where Lydia goes, and it’s where Paul and Silas go too.
So here is this rich, confident woman, meeting Paul for the first time. Who was never rich, and must have been anything but confident at that point in his ministry.
It had all started so well. Paul and Barnabas had travelled through Asia, founding churches and setting people on fire for the gospel. But they had come back to a less than rapturous welcome from the Jerusalem church, who wanted to know why they were baptising Gentiles. Then Paul had fallen out with Barnabas, and set off on his next journey with Silas instead.