Jasmine, my Phoenician-born slave, often took me collecting seashells as a child, but not for making necklaces or bracelets like my friends wore.
She awakened my interest in life’s finer things and shaped my chosen career - which ironically broke her countrymen’s trade monopoly - for she often spoke of a greater beauty from these shells…
My whole life changed the day she tipped a pile of them into a stone dish, grinding them with a heavy stone pestle, until I saw traces of dark liquid at the bottom.
“Purple!” she whispered, her eyes shining; “the colour for kings and for Caesars - worth more than gold! It’s made my countrymen rich; and you Lydia, have the patience and the teachable spirit that gaining such wealth requires!”
My dear father was so sweet. His Judaism was deep, pragmatic and lacking male prejudice. A daughter’s enterprise in dyeing cloth could also be blessed. And why not; when loose change like quadrans and semis quickly became serious money like sesterciae and denarii?
In Thyatira, our home town, the river’s crystal-clear water makes our dyes a byword for consistency. This consistency - and being closer to Rome - edged out the Phoenician traders in Tyre as we competed for government contracts.
At first consignments went to remote northern outposts like Gaul, or to trouble spots like Galilee and Judea. But after the first order from Caesar’s Praetorian Guard, we began supplying robes and drapes to all of Rome’s nobility.
Caesar Augustus obliterated piracy by gaining control of the Great Sea, and his Pax Romana – the Roman Peace – has ensured safe travel across the empire. So in Athens, Corinth, Carthage and Alexandria I may trade with Gentiles and worship with Jews, whose family roots were scattered in the great Diaspora centuries ago.
Scholars travel as well, and Greek philosophies often arise from the koine, or common, Greek that Rome adopted as a business tool. After all, it helps if we can understand each other.
Business success continued after my father’s death, but I never sought marriage. Some men could see themselves living well at my expense; while others seemed threatened.
Some, however, were openly malicious, like the centurion with an order from Judea. “You and your purple: so powerful, aren’t you princess? But remember; political favours are very temporary!” he snarled, tossing a purple cloth at my feet.
”A little while back we fixed up a fool who thought he was a Jewish king. That purple rag is all that’s left of his royalty; so princess, you’d better be careful!” he hissed, and was gone
As I picked up the cloth, my pride in its familiar weave became dismay at its shredded condition. Then I saw its bloodstains, and my breath caught in my throat.
I kept ‘that purple rag’ as a reminder for caution. It clarified my hearing when debtors made their promises; and it helped me to see through the superficial glamour of parasitic sycophants who applauded Emperor Caligula’s depravity. But gratitude eventually overtook wariness …
Some fifteen years later, across the Aegean Sea for an extended stay at Philippi with my Macedonian clients, I was enjoying regular breaks from business pressures to worship with the women in a park by the river.
But one Sabbath, two earnest-looking men interrupted us. The older one asked a few Pharisee-type questions, but caught my attention with mention of a Galilean rabbi recruiting disciples for “a kingdom that was not of this world.” I was transfixed as he continued: a sadistic beating … crucifixion … returning to life … filling his followers with the Spirit of the Lord!
“As Saul the Pharisee I persecuted Jesus’ followers - until I met him! He has changed me into Paul the apostle, and he can change you too. Turn from your sins, and I will baptize you in his name, right here in the river!”
Realising now that there was far more to Jesus’ royalty than ‘that purple rag,’ my heart was pounding as I hurried towards the river to be baptized. As Paul lowered me into the water I suddenly felt forgiven; then I returned to the riverbank; completely new on the inside!
That evening, as we celebrated over dinner, I quietly showed Paul and his friend Silas ‘that purple rag.’ As we passed it to each other, our eyes overflowed with tears: tears of grief for the pain Jesus endured; and tears of joy over the eternal life he had given us.
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