The businesswoman who made a choice
Our reporter, Aemilia Metella, interviews the business woman, Lydia, who invited Paul and Silas into her home.
A well turned out slave in a green tunic opened the door of the imposing townhouse and showed me a room to wait. Five minutes later, his soft-soled shoes made no sound when he returned. He coughed to gain my attention, and I followed him to the atrium.
A scribe bent over the lady, nodding his head as she spoke. Lydia read from a wax tablet then turning to an abacus, did a quick calculation and wrote something on the tablet before handing it to the scribe. He nodded and left. Lydia rose in greeting and showed me a couch to sit on. More slaves placed platters of food onto a low table and poured two glasses of wine. I sipped and nodded appreciatively; it was far better than I could afford.
With a tinkling of gold bracelets, she leaned over to pick up an olive and popped it into her mouth. Then wiped her fingers on a white napkin and leaned back with the glass in her hand. I sat admiring her long, dazzling white tunic with purple edging at the bottom. A scarf of a matching purple colour fell from her shoulders to rest on her forearms.
“What do you want to speak to me about?”
I coughed before saying, “I appreciate the time you are taking out of your busy schedule to speak to me.”
She handed me a plate of stuffed vine leaves. “I am looking forward to talking to you. Please ask your questions.”
“I am interested in your meeting with Paul and Silas, the Christian teachers who passed through Philippi last year. You were one of the first to speak to them, I hear.”
Lydia smiled and relaxed. “Yes, I have had many important meetings in my life, but none as life-changing.”
“Before we get into that. Can you tell me about your life?”
“There’s not much to tell.”
“That’s not what I hear.”
Lydia frowned. The interview had not started well, and I feared she would dismiss me. Instead, her laugh echoed around the atrium.
“Don’t believe everything you hear. Many in this town begrudge a woman taking over what they view as a man’s business. Especially when I became more successful than them.”
“Are you from Philippi?”
“No, I am from Thyatira, and moved here after my divorce.”
“Can you tell me about that?”
“There’s not much to tell, and I mean it this time. I married my husband because both our families were in the dying business, and my parents thought it was a suitable match. We never had children and parted on amicable terms five years later. When I suggested using the purple dye obtained from sea snails, my family dismissed the idea, saying I knew nothing of business. So, I moved to Philippi, with nothing more than a small travelling bag and one maid. And now.” She waved her hand around her home.
“When was this?”
“Ten years ago. It was hard at first, and it still is.” Her laughter drew you into her story. “I visited the dyers of the city, bought up scraps of material which I sold on a market stall. After a while, I made enough money to buy larger quantities and sold them further away in Athens. Each deal brought more money to reinvest. When the dyers guild refused to sell me anymore, I set up my own workshop, and now the Emperor wears a toga made from my purple cloth.”
“The colour of your shawl is stunning.”
“Do you like it?” When I nodded, she draped it around my shoulders “It’s yours.”
I tried to give it back, but she refused. “Thank you, it is beautiful. You must be pleased with your success.”
She looked away, towards the fountain in the distance. “You would think so, but no.” She turned back to face me and continued. “The more success I had, the more I wanted. If I sold three bolts of cloth one month, I wanted to sell five the next. The more money I made, the more I needed. I worshipped Mercury, the god of business, and Plutus, the god who bestows wealth. There was a shrine to them over there.” She pointed to where a tree now stood.
“One of my business associates follows the Jewish faith, and she explained to me their unique belief in one God. This attracted me, and I felt free from the rounds of chance and fate. Every Sabbath, I met with them by the river, where they hold their meetings. Their scriptures and songs tell of a God interested in his people, who wants to bless not curse.”
“Tell me about the morning when Paul and Silas arrived.”
Lydia smiled. “The day started like any other Sabbath. I met with a group of women and we were discussing the scriptures when these two men arrived. They asked us what we were reading and then one of them, Paul, answered the questions we had been discussing for many weeks.”
I leaned forward, the food on my plate forgotten. “What were you discussing?” I asked.
“A passage from the prophet Isaiah had puzzled us for a long time, and no one we asked gave us a satisfying answer.” She took a deep breath and continued. “It is about the Lord’s servant. Isaiah says, ˋYet, it was our weaknesses he carried; it was our sorrows that weighed him down. And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God, a punishment for his own sins! But he was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins. He was beaten so we could be whole. He was whipped so we could be healed. Yet, the Lord laid on him the sins of us all. ˊ
“Starting with Isaiah, Paul explained who the prophets spoke of. One, who had already come into the world as a man. This man, Jesus, took all our failings on himself when he died on the cross. Imagine that! A cross, where criminals, and those guilty of treason, are executed. Paul stayed with us by the river for a long time, answering our questions. One by one the women returned home until I was the only one left. He looked at me and said, ˋWell, Lydia, what do you say? ˊ”
“What did you say?”
“I remember mumbling something about wanting to learn more and then surprised myself, by inviting them to stay in my home. It was here in this atrium that I decided to follow Jesus. They stayed here for several weeks, each day going out and meeting with people. Sometimes in the city forum, or the marketplace, or the taverns down by the port. Anywhere people gather. Each evening they returned here with those who wanted to know more.”
“Did you ever go out with them?”
“Yes, many times. There was a scruffy, dirty slave girl who followed us for several days. She had the gift of telling fortunes and continually shouted out that these men were servants of the most high God and were here to tell everyone how to be saved. On this particular day, it became too much for Paul. He rounded on her and shouted at her to stop. Then commanded the demon, who enabled her fortune-telling abilities, to come out of her. She dropped to the floor like a stone thrown from a roof. Then when she sat up, she could no longer tell people’s fortunes.
“This made her owners furious because they were only interested in their profit. They stoked the mob as you would a fire to make it burn brighter. I tried to get Paul and Silas back home, but Paul pushed me away to safety, while they refused to move. Soon, a mob surrounded them, screaming, and shouting that they should be punished. Eventually, soldiers arrived to take them to jail.
“That night, a massive earthquake struck the city. My home only sustained minor damage, but the prison was severely shaken. The chains holding Paul and Silas sprung open as did the cell doors, but they did not run away.”
“Why did they stay?”
“Because they knew they were innocent. When they told the jailer they were Roman Citizens, he informed the magistrate.” Her laughter frightened a dove who flew out of the tree. “This terrified the magistrate because he should have checked that my friends were Roman Citizens, before imprisoning them. What they did was illegal. They told Paul he was free to go, but suggested he leave the city.”
“Did they leave?”
“They returned here to collect their bags and left that day. Before leaving, they asked me to continue their work, which I am honoured to do. Since that day, a small group of believers have met here each Sabbath to worship, pray, and read the scriptures. It is very exciting. Why don’t you visit and see for yourself?”
“Thank you, I think I will. What changes have there been since then?”
Lydia thought before answering, “The dyers’ guild was unhappy with me muscling in on their male-dominated world before. And now, it is even worse. Both because I decided to follow Jesus, and because I still lead the group meeting here.”
“Do you regret that decision now?”
Lydia looked me in the eye. “Certainly not! The most important changes are those within myself. I am much more content with who I am and what I have, and no longer strive to get more or be better. My business has suffered, but that is no longer important.”
“Where the slave girl is now?”
“I can see you have a nose for a story. You are like a hunting hound of my father’s. Once he has a sniff of prey, he is off. I can arrange an interview. What about next week?”
We agreed I would return the following week, and with the smell of Lydia’s perfume lingering on my new purple shawl, I left her home. Impressed by the businesswoman who once would have done anything for a sale, but now who serves a different God.
Aemilia Metella is my fictional Roman journalist whose mission is to bring to light those first women disciples, and the contribution they made to the growth of the early church.
This is her article for the Philippi Post, and follows on from last month’s post about Lydia. The incident it is based upon is from The New Testament book, Acts of the Apostles, chapter 16.
Is there someone you would like Aemilia Metella to interview? I’m thinking of women in the New Testament who usually don’t get much attention. Let me know in the comments and I will see if they are available!
“This man, Jesus, took all our failings on himself when he died on the cross. Imagine that! A cross, where criminals, and those guilty of treason, are executed.”
“They stoked the mob as you would a fire to make it burn brighter.”
“That night, a massive earthquake struck the city.”