Two Women of Philippi

Wednesday, July 27, 2011 — Week of Proper 12, Year One

William Reed Huntington, Priest, 1909

To read about our daily commemorations, go to the Holy Women, Holy Men blog

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, 976)

Psalms 72 (morning) 119:73-96 (evening)

2 Samuel 3:22-39

Acts 16:16-24

Mark 6:47-56

Yesterday’s and today’s stories from the Acts of the Apostles give us an interesting contrast. They are stories of two women — Lydia and the unnamed slave-girl.

We are given two piece of information about Lydia. She is “a worshiper of God” who shows up at the place of prayer in Philippi, outside the gate by the river. This is probably the Sabbath gathering place for the Jewish residents of the city. The description of her as “a worshiper of God” could mean that Lydia is Jewish. More likely, she is among the “Godfearers,” Gentiles who were attracted to Judaism for its monotheism and high ethic, but who were not Jews themselves. Paul recruited most of his congregation from among the Godfearers.

The other thing we know about Lydia is that she is “from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth.” Purple cloth is expensive cloth, also called royal purple. Thyatira is a city in the region in Turkey where this exclusive textile was produced. So Lydia is an international businesswoman. She has a home in Philippi, a city in Greece which is on the main Roman highway connecting the east and west empires.

Lydia is a strong, wealthy and independent woman, overseeing her household and her business. She meets Paul and opens her heart and home to his words. She and her household are baptized. She then welcomes Paul and his companions into her home. Her home becomes the first Christian church in Europe. We read about Lydia in yesterday’s lections.

Today we meet a slave-girl who also lives in Philippi. She has a spirit of divination. She is probably a priestess or prophetess of the Python spirit, linked to the famous serpent oracle of Delphi. The account says that this slave-priestess “brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling.” (Ironically, Lydia’s hometown Thyatira was also a center for the Delphic cult of Python.)

Like Lydia, this slave-girl is drawn toward Paul and his companions. “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” Annoyed by the oracle’s repeated attentions, Paul orders her spirit of divination to come out of her.

“But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities.” Isn’t that familiar? It’s all about money. It’s all about power. The men play on anti-Jewish sentiment to incite a crowd. It turns into a legal lynching. Paul and Silas are severely flogged with rods and imprisoned in jail with their feet in stocks. (Today a prison cell like where they were held is preserved for tourists in the ruins of ancient Philippi.)

Two women. One an independent business woman. The other a slave-girl with a gift of divination. Lydia becomes the host for the new community of Jesus. I wonder what happened to the slave-girl. Her economic value to her owners would have been ruined. Paul had freed her from the spirit of divination that they used for their profit. Maybe she then became more centered and clear-eyed. But, in all likelihood, she was still a slave.

We are left to wonder about her. Was she welcomed into the Philippi church congregation? Although the early Christians did not publicly challenge slavery as an institution, Paul’s churches did do something remarkable and counter-cultural. In his congregations, slaves were given equal standing with free persons. They may still be slaves in their homes, but in the Christian congregation they were equal members of the body of Christ. Paul wrote in Galatians, “for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (3:26f)

It is easy for me to imagine Lydia the wealthy, independent and powerful international business woman and this unnamed slave-girl embracing as equal sisters in the congregation meeting in Lydia’s home. It is also possible to imagine this slave-girl ruined, still in bondage, but now of little value to her owners, demoted and relegated to a lower place of servitude. Maybe both scenarios could be true.

My sense of the spirit of Paul’s congregations tells me that if this slave-girl became part of the Philippi church in Lydia’s home, her fellow Christians would have helped support her in her lesser, non-priestess status. Paul wrote sharply to the Corinthian church when they violated his spirit of egalitarianism. Maybe Lydia’s wealth also became a source of help for the slave-girl, not unlike a parish’s discretionary fund can be a source of support for people in need.

I like happy endings. I can imagine this tale of two women ending well. I also know, the anonymous slave-girl might be just another of history’s discards, unintended collateral damage in the spiritual war between the Church and the Greek Temple. If I feel a yearning for Paul and the Philippi church to reach out to her to help her, I also need to recognize our contemporary responsibility for the collateral damage created in our various wars of church and state. We also have a responsibility to help.

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