Today's reading from the Acts of the Apostles introduces a few new characters into the story; namely, a woman named Lydia and her household. St. Paul happened upon her when he and Barnabas were looking for a "place" to pray. Actually, they were looking for a "minion." In Jewish circles, it was necessary to have at least ten men in a gathering for prayer. Paul and Barnabas were in the Roman colony of Philippi and were looking in a place where they thought they might find some Jewish residents. During their search they ran into Lydia, a dealer in purple goods (a term that refers to togas and such cloth). When she and her household accepted baptism, it simultaneously provided them with a base of operations in what was to become one of their most famous Christian communities.
While we may not think anything of it in our day and age, this represents a little bit of "stretching" on the part of Paul and Barnabas. Admitting women into the circle of prayer and/or speaking to women in public places was risky behavior for them. This kind of behavior wasn't done. However, then neither was extending the faith to Gentiles.
St. Paul is now known as the Apostle to the Gentiles. Perhaps we should include "Apostle to Women" in his list of accomplishments. It is possible for us to forget how revolutionary this was. Paul broke down barriers that existed for centuries in this daring behavior.
At the same time, it is helpful to be clear about Paul's motivations. In the beginning, his motive was based upon a very human notion. Paul writes that at the beginning he was really trying to antagonize his Jewish brothers into accepting the Christian faith. He reasoned that because they were being so stubborn in refusing to accept Jesus as the Messiah that they might do so if they say the Gentiles coming into the faith. He was counting on their age-old prejudices to get the juices flowing. It worked to some degree, but not exactly as Paul had envisioned. As time went along, he turned his full attention on the conversion of the Gentiles and let the matter of preaching to the Jews to someone else.
This brings us back to the old issue of "expectations." We all carry them around with us. It is almost a cliché to say it, but God is constantly asking us to stretch our human boundaries, to reach beyond our comfort zone, to be daring in preaching the Gospel. A friend of mine is fond of saying that the Gospel was meant to bring comfort to those who are uncomfortable and to make the comfortable uncomfortable. God's Word is, after all, a two-edged sword.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator