A Tale of Two Rich People

Acts 16:11-15 and Luke 18:18-30
© Stacey Steck

The outrageous image of a camel passing through the eye of a needle is one of Jesus’ best. It’s a picture of impossibility far better than the ones about mountains being thrown into the sea, or tiny mustard seeds becoming huge trees. And it is comical as well, showing Jesus’ sense of humor. But it is also one of the most daunting of his images as well, because, frankly, we are that camel and the eye of that needle looks painfully small, no matter what size we are. The words Jesus speaks to the rich young ruler are some of the most challenging words in all the Bible, especially for we who have a significant share of the world’s wealth, at least by comparison, and whether or not we think our bank accounts support that claim. Can you imagine God coming to you some night in a dream saying, “Listen, you’re almost there. All you have to do is sell everything you’ve got, empty out that retirement fund, give it all to charity, and then go, follow Jesus.” Oh, that’s all, eh? It’s a wonder we don’t all go away sad, and leave Jesus in our rearview mirrors. We are rich, and if we haven’t yet asked the same question his disciples raised when they asked, “Then who can be saved?”, we probably should!

But fear not, there is good news coming out of Thyatira. Yes, there is another story in Scripture about a rich person who was saved, who did enter into the kingdom of God, and of course, this woman named Lydia came from a noble place called Thyatira – maybe not the church of Thyatira, but since she comes across as one of the biblical heroes, we’ll claim her as our own. For the sake of argument, we’ll assume that one day Lydia returned home from Philippi and became a pillar of the church at Thyatira. It would be nice if the story gave us more information about her, but the details of Lydia’s life are as mysterious as the reason this church was given the name Thyatira. There are, however, a few things we can deduce about her that are in line with the four characteristics for which the church in her hometown was later praised. She is described as a worshipper of God, which probably meant that she was not Jewish but had decided that the God of Israel was worth following. So she had faith. She seems to have been a patiently enduring woman of faith because she listened eagerly to Paul talk, and we know how longwinded he could be. She is willing to serve, as she convinced them all to come and stay at her home. And it is not a stretch to think that she did all of this with a spirit of love. So, Lydia is consistent with the shape of the church which would one day form in her hometown, and maybe she even had something to do with that.

We know Lydia of Thyatira was a woman of some means because she was a “dealer of purple,” most likely purple cloth, and purple was an industry associated with wealth. In those days, purple dye was incredibly hard to come by because its source was a very small type of shellfish, and it took something like 12,000 of these mollusks to produce the gram and a half of dye needed for a couple of yards of fabric for such things as the Emperor’s toga. To give you an idea of the value we’re talking about, “one gram of purple dye was worth more than ten grams of gold and a pound of wool dyed purple could be sold for 1,000 denarii, a sum that would take a laborer three years to earn.” Historically, Thyatira was known as the center of the dyeing industry because the characteristics of its water supply helped the dyes stick better to whatever material was being dyed, and it was best known for its red dyes that come from a local root, the kind of red you see in the famous Turkish carpets. The purple dyes come from the coastal region so it is most likely that workers in Thyatira used their local water with the purple dye from the coast to make the things that Lydia sold. In any case, Lydia was right in the middle of this lucrative industry and knew what it meant to be rich and what it might mean to give it away. She was, after all, a woman, probably an unmarried woman given the independence the passage seems to suggest she had, because there’s no husband mentioned, and she could ill afford to put herself in a precarious situation that wouldn’t pay off. But she was willing to take the risk, unlike the rich young ruler. Rather than go away sad upon hearing the Gospel, she responds by opening her home to Paul and his companions. She begins the process of giving herself away. She is willing to see what generosity is all about rather than close herself off to the possibility from the beginning. She and the rich young ruler heard essentially the same message, maybe not put as pointedly in economic terms to Lydia, but with the same punchline: that loving God and loving neighbor costs something. And she was willing to ante up.

So here we have two people who are quite similar in terms of their situation before encountering the Gospel, but who are as different as they can be upon hearing it. So getting that camel through the eye of a needle isn’t impossible after all, at least not for Lydia. But is it possible for us? Can God open our hearts the way Lydia’s heart was opened when she heard Paul’s words and was baptized and opened her home to the disciples in Philippi? Our question becomes the same as the rich young ruler: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” And clearly, the answer is simply that you have to be from Thyatira. And any Thyatira will do, right?

Well, the truth is that life, eternal and otherwise, is found practicing those four columns of Thyatira we looked at last Sunday, the love, faith, service, and patient endurance with which we approach God, which just so happen to be the same characteristics with which God approaches us. The story of the rich young ruler who went away sad is told in three of the Gospels, each with a little different twist, and Mark’s account gives us a glimpse of Jesus’ motivation. In Mark, there’s this wonderful little line that says, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him,” and then said what needed to be said. Jesus may have seen the man’s clothing and deduced that the only way he could have accumulated so much wealth as to be standing there dressed in so much finery was because he was one of those people the prophet Amos railed against who “sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals, [people] who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way,” one of those people who has missed what should be obvious, that the finer points of the law and faith include issues related to our wealth, and that we can’t compartmentalize faith and finances, that they are two sides of the same coin.

This motivation of Jesus is the key part of the story because to leave the man deluded into believing that his wealth was not a part of the spiritual equation would not have been a very loving thing to do. Love, to Jesus’ way of thinking, means speaking the truth and saying what is uncomfortable, risking rejection, jeopardizing relationships, calling people to justice. It is for this same reason that the church risks alienating each of you about this time of year when stewardship season rolls around and you are asked to consider your giving to God’s purposes through our church. It is, I believe Jesus to be saying, dereliction of duty to avoid taking about issues of money, wealth, and giving, precisely because they are such profoundly spiritual and Biblical issues. We don’t need to look any further than the conclusion to today’s story to see that money and wealth should be a part of any discussion of faith and eternal life. For that rich young ruler, the opportunity to inherit what does not perish was lost for the need to cling to what rusts and is eaten by moths.

The disciples who hear what Jesus tells the man, and hear the man’s response, start feeling a little nervous. You see, it’s the rich who usually get their way, and here is Jesus telling a rich person that it’s not as easy as it looks. And so what are they to think about their own situations? The poor never get very lucky.

But with his usual grace, Jesus tells them not to worry about it, that God’s got it covered. You see, what is impossible for mortals is possible for God. God can help us to respond, and it’s in our response that we experience the miracle. With God’s help we can love and serve and give far more abundantly than we could ever imagine, even like Lydia of Thyatira. So, how do we become more like our namesake sister in the faith? Let me suggest that we adopt the Thyatira way, that way of thinking that made a difference and opened Lydia’s heart and home. What is the Thyatira way you might ask?

The Thyatira way is the difference between thinking about stewardship as paying for some product you get at church, and giving from the grateful part of your heart even when others seem to get “more for their money.”

The Thyatira way is the difference between giving the least you can get away with giving, and somehow giving more than you dreamed possible of being able to give.

The Thyatira way is the difference between thinking about what is my share of how much the church needs and thinking about how much God is calling me
to give to grow in my faith.

The Thyatira way is the difference between giving haphazardly and from what is left after all the other bills are paid and giving with discipline and from the first fruits of your income.

The Thyatira way is the difference between giving something and giving a specific percentage.

The Thyatira way is the difference between giving at the same level as last year, and taking a step up, as Bill described earlier in the service.

As you think about the camels and needles in your life in preparation for Consecration Sunday, take this final thought home with you. When Peter asks about himself, and his place in the kingdom, since he has seemingly given it all, Jesus responds by saying that not only does Peter have a place, but that God gives back far more than we can ever give up front. Whoever leaves house or family, he says, will receive them back a hundredfold, both now and forevermore. But do not mistake this for some kind of prosperity gospel. That hundredfold return is certainly of the greatest value, but it is not the same stuff which was given in the first place. When Jesus describes a hundredfold return of houses, he does not mean Peter will become a wealthy, rent collecting property owner, but that he will experience a profound and miraculous sense of hospitality, both among fellow Christians and in heaven. When Jesus describes a hundredfold return on family members, he does not mean Peter’s family will grow in size and influence but that he will experience an amazing and miraculous community of fellow believers, both on earth and in heaven. In a way, what Jesus is saying is this: “Peter, one day you will meet a woman called Lydia of Thyatira and she will show you that with God, all things are possible.” In our giving, may we truly be Lydia’s descendants and show the world that with God all things are possible – in our day and age, and in our Thyatira, as well as hers. Amen.