Tomorrow’s lectionary reading includes the story of Lydia, the rich trader in purple dye, in the book of the Acts of the Holy Spirit. Why does the story appear where it does, and why does Luke tell it the way he does?
First, a little recap of the passage, Luke 16:9-15.
Paul, frustrated “by the Spirit” from pursuing goals apparently of his own making – see verses 6 and 7 about being forbidden “to speak the word in Asia” and about being disallowed “to go into Bithynia” – sees a vision. He discusses the vision with his travelling companions. They agree about its meaning. They “go on into Macedonia” – a reversal of direction. A reversal which will lead to the gospel entering and spreading in what we now call Europe.
They board a ship. They arrive in Neapolis. They walk 16 kilometres to Philippi, a Roman city filled with retired military men. It’s the Jewish Sabbath, a time for worship. They look for other worshippers. Outside the city, along a river, they find a group of women. Paul shares the gospel. The boss-woman, the rich, God-fearing but non-Jewish “Lydia” – this may not be her real name – submits to the Lordship of Christ. She and her “household,” probably meaning her slaves, are baptized. She insists that Paul and his companions become her guests. They accept.
The lectionary selection ends there, but Luke intends for us to read the Lydia story together with the next story. The backdrop is the same: the story begins with the missionaries going to a place of prayer. But this woman is not given a name, she’s just “a slave girl.” Inhabited by a fortune-telling “Python spirit,” she repeatedly, loudly, proclaims that Paul and his companions are servants, like her. Except, she serves the evil one, while they serve “the Most High God.” Paul gets so annoyed he casts the evil spirit out of her. She loses her power to predict the future. Her masters lose their earnings from her. The missionaries are subjected to citizens’ arrest. They are accused before the city governors, called “magistrates.” They are charged because they disturbed the balance of power. They are humiliated, beaten, and jailed. (Later, they’ll be miraculously released and prevent suicide of their jailer; he’ll care for them; they’ll baptize him – see verses 35-34.) The effect on the missionaries of the liberation of rich Lydia is very different from the effect of the liberation of a poor girl entrapped in slavery and exploited by her employers. The result of the former was hospitality, the result of the latter was brutality.
Why is all of that recorded for us? What are we to make of the seeming wrong-direction, re-direction, and the tale of the two women?
About what I’ve termed wrong-direction and mis-direction John Stott says:
From this we may learn that usually God’s guidance is not negative only but also positive (some doors close, others open); not circumstantial only, but also rational (thinking about our situation); not personal only, but also corporate (a sharing of the data with others, so that we can mull over them together and reach a common mind).
About the tale of the two women, Willie James Jennings writes:
As the disciples journeyed toward prayer they gained a co-traveller who haunted their prayer walk. Such haunting is necessary and of the Spirit, as the tormented cries of the enslaved must always encumber the pious actions of the faithful. This young woman spoke a tangled word, one that wove together the old order with confused sight of the new order. She was a slave girl and nameless. These realities went together, because in the ancient world to be a slave was to be only a commodity, only a body in use, and a site of penetration. Yet she followed these disciples of Jesus, announcing their mission. But here the entanglements are severe and expose the often mutual indwelling of religion and slavery, and of religious discourse and captivity to an economic order. It is no accident that she is drawn to these disciples, because the enslaved are often drawn to those who are religious, either as an echoing sign of their own enslavement, deepening further the power of that captivity, or as a hopeful possibility of their emancipation.
Do you have a tale of non-direction? Of re-direction? A tale of being haunted, encumbered by the tormented cries of the afflicted? Of entanglement and captivity in an economic order? Of enslavement? Of emancipation? Do you tell your stories like Luke does?
 John Stott says: “The reference is to the snake of classical mythology which guarded the temple of Apollo and the Delphic oracle at Mount Parnassus. Apollo was thought to be embodied in the snake and to inspire ‘pythonesses’, his female devotees, with clairvoyance, although other people thought of them as ventriloquists.”