Lydia: A Lesson in Wealth

I write a daily commentary on the readings from Chumash (the five books of Torah) and the gospels. It is a sort of Messianic Jewish equivalent to the many fine Jewish services commenting online about the Chumash (perhaps the best known are Aish Torah and Chabad online).

You can always find my daily commentary at the link below or you can email me at and ask to be added to the Daily D’var list:

I am often tempted to write my Messianic Jewish Musings post of the day from the content I study with my first cup of coffee each morning. Often the best observations and meditations on the wisdom and greatness of our God come not from theological research but from the slow, patient reading of texts and commentary.

Daily study is rich. I shared in the not too distant past a midrash about the people of Israel being compared to a bride whose royal husband is away for years. The neighbors taunt her, but she survives the time of his absence by daily reading the ketubah (marriage contract) he left her.

The lesson is that reading scripture is for our survival in this time of God’s relative absence (he is Present in many ways, but not completely and not as our hearts long for him to be). Judaism’s reading and rereading of Chumash has been a mechanism of survival and keeping hope and covenant alive through the darkness. For Messianic Jews and Judeo-Christian minded non-Jews, the practice of daily reading Chumash and the gospels (plus Acts) makes so much sense. It is survival. Many thanks to Rabbi Carl Kinbar, a mentor who coined (as far as I know) the phrase “reading for survival.”

On Luke and Wealth
My portion in Acts today is 16:11-24. It is a story that characteristically involves, as Luke often develops this theme, the subject of wealth. I have been reading Luke Timothy Johnson’s commentary and using it often in my comments (Johnson is perhaps the foremost Luke-Acts scholar alive).

Johnson frequently notes how Luke emphasizes issues of wealth and poverty. In the gospel, the poor tend to follow Yeshua and the wealthy often reject him. Yet Luke tends to make much of wealthy and powerful people who do follow Yeshua. There is a special virtue in wealthy people who use their wealth for good and not for evil.

So, in Luke’s gospel, it is not the “poor in spirit” to whom the kingdom belongs, but simply “the poor” (6:20). In Acts, the Yeshua-followers share possessions and care for each others economic needs. The first great traitors of the faith are Ananias and Sapphira who conspire to hold on to their wealth while appearing to share in the selfless generosity of the community (Acts 5).

There are numerous examples from Luke and Acts of this theme. And the story of Lydia in Philippi is a tale of faith and the proper use of wealth, a characteristically Lucan theme to emphasize.

Lydia and the Owners of the Slave Girl
Paul and Silas had come to Macedonia, to the city of Philippi, an unfamiliar place to them. They had no knowledge, for example, of the location of the local synagogues. They knew, as was usually the case, that any major city in the empire would have some Jews and a synagogue or two at the least. Their knowledge of other towns led them to look near the river. Perhaps based on the exiled communities in Babylon, who dwelt by the Chebar River (see Ezekiel), it had become a Jewish custom to build diaspora synagogue by rivers.

Near the synagogue (or perhaps in it — Luke’s telling is unclear), Paul and Silas meet a number of women, including Lydia. It is uncertain if Luke means us to see Lydia as a God-fearing gentile or as a Jew. In any case, she is a seller of purple goods. She is part of the economy of indigo, an herb brought in from the east and which would fetch very high prices on the market. She is a wealthy woman.

Lydia became a patron for Paul. She offered hospitality and in a sense support for his work in the area. She asked him to consider her a “believer in the Lord,” meaning Yeshua.

Luke contrasts the story of Lydia with some other wealthy residents of Philippi. They own a slave girl who exhibits crazy mannerisms and enters into some trance-like state. They exploit this and have spread the story that she is possessed by a Pythian spirit.

Python is a serpent-dragon who was slain, in the mythical tale, by Apollo, the sun god.

Local legends of the time were often related to the classic stories of the Greco-Roman tradition. These stories of gods and goddesses were, in effect, the scriptures of that world.

These slave owners use the girl for profit. People come and pay a fee to hear the girl in a trance and the owners interpret her crazed words and actions as foretellings and perhaps as incantations working magical blessing for those who pay.

But after Paul casts out the girl’s demon, her owners lose their profitable position. They have Paul and Silas arrested, beaten, and imprisoned.

Wealth and the Lover of God
It is not a virtue simply to be poor and neither is it a crime to have wealth. Luke’s emphasis on the blessedness of the poor is easy enough to understand. Those who do not have enough earthly wealth to make life easy and comfortable tend to turn more to faith and tend to use relationships with others are means of survival in hardship. Those who live comfortable lives more easily use relationships treacherously and can ignore matters of faith, since money does for them what many people rely on God for.

In the intricate interplay of ethics and money in the Bible, we who are wealthy by the standards of history (the upper level of poverty in America is wealth by the standards of most of history) should look for some wisdom and examples of righteous living.

The case of Lydia, the powerful woman, the enterprising seller of purple goods, is one of those tales.

She was, evidently, a woman of prayer and part of a community of faith even before Paul came. She offered hospitality and support to a person she saw doing good works for God. She is a contrast to people who used a semi-religious phenomenon for their own enrichment. Rather, she used her means to support and be generous.

Giving alms, sharing with the community and helping with the needs of others, these are marks of godliness. And wealth is not inconsequential to God. He uses people in many ways and through many virtues. Wealth and education can be a virtue. Paul himself is an example of a person with upper class virtues that God uses powerfully: a citizen in a time when most were slaves, educated in Greek and Jewish thought in a time of poor education, and a merchant of tents in a time when many were tied to agriculture and servitude.

And when Paul and Silas were released from prison, they came back to Lydia’s house. The party of Paul was still there. Lydia’s home had become headquarters for the movement of Yeshua in Philippi. And Philippi became a successful center of the Yeshua movement. Paul’s letter to the Philippians is unusually positive. They are generous people who have given much to his fund for the poor in Jerusalem.

Lydia is there at the inception of the Philippian Yeshua community. They know how to use their wealth for good.


About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Bible, ethics, Gospel, messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Lydia: A Lesson in Wealth

  1. Speaking of misusing wealth, perhaps Sapphira is appropriately named. Her name appears to be derived from the Hebrew sapir, which is translated into the English saphire, a precious gem. I’ve heard Dwight Pryor often say, “Poverty has slain her thousands but wealth her tens of thousands.” May we never fall victim to either.

  2. flowfreetome says:

    if anyone can truly say that he who loses his life will find it it is the poor man. Its because his condition of having to find meaning when all is lost seems to closely reflect the most difficult nature of human life. When the wealthy live like the poor then economic salvation will probably be ushered in.

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