Tabitha

Acts of the Apostles 9:36-43

36 In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (in Greek her name is Dorcas). Her life overflowed with good works and compassionate acts on behalf of those in need. 37 About that time, though, she became so ill that she died. After they washed her body, they laid her in an upstairs room. 38 Since Lydda was near Joppa, when the disciples heard that Peter was there, they sent two people to Peter. They urged, “Please come right away!” 39 Peter went with them. Upon his arrival, he was taken to the upstairs room. All the widows stood beside him, crying as they showed the tunics and other clothing Dorcas made when she was alive.

40 Peter sent everyone out of the room, then knelt and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up!” She opened her eyes, saw Peter, and sat up. 41 He gave her his hand and raised her up. Then he called God’s holy people, including the widows, and presented her alive to them. 42 The news spread throughout Joppa, and many put their faith in the Lord. 43 Peter stayed for some time in Joppa with a certain tanner named Simon. (CEB)

Tabitha

In the list of Biblical names that sound incredibly unfortunate to the English-speaking ear, Gomer and Dorcas stand out as two of the worst. Gomer was the name of two people in the Bible: a man and a woman. One was the son of Japheth, the other was the wife of the prophet Hosea. And Dorcas… Well, there’s only one Dorcas. That’s her Greek name. Her Aramaic name was Tabitha, which sounds much nicer. In English her name would be Gazelle. That’s what Dorcas and Tabitha both mean.

At first glance, this story looks like a straightforward story about Peter raising a woman from the dead. It’s about the disciples and their work after Jesus’ resurrection. But that interpretation shortchanges everything Luke wrote here. It glosses over the crux, the heart, the meat, and the depth. This story isn’t so much about Peter as it is about Tabitha and her community. It offers a glimpse of what Luke claims about the gospel, and how it looks in the midst of community.

One thing to note first off, is that Tabitha is a disciple. Tabitha is the only woman in the New Testament who is described with the Greek word μαθήτρια (mathētria), which is the feminine form of the word disciple. I’ve heard the arguments from certain wings of the church that women shouldn’t be leaders in the church because it’s not Biblical. Luke says, they’re wrong. Luke put women leadership in the Bible in such a way that we cannot deny it. It’s right here. Tabitha is a disciple. This word, μαθήτρια, puts Tabitha on equal footing with the likes of Peter, John, Thomas, Nathaniel, James, Paul, and the other disciples. Tabitha is a leader in the Church. She is a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Not only that, but Tabitha gets stuff done in ways the other disciples didn’t. Earlier in Acts, we find reference to a dispute between the Hellenists and the Hebrews. These were probably Greek-speaking Jews and Aramaic-speaking Jews. The Hellenists complained that their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. (Did you know the church distributed food to widows every day? They took care of each other in ways we can’t fathom. They were a community, which is something the church today severely lacks).

So, in order to address the problem of food distribution, the Twelve called the community together and said this: “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables.” (Acts 6:2b, NRSV). Then, they selected the first seven deacons to do that work. Never mind that Jesus, himself, waited on tables as an example to the disciples of what they ought to do. He said, “For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” (Luke 22:27, NRSV).

Instead of delegating the grunt work to others, Tabitha saw a need among the widows of her community in Joppa and she got to work. She made clothing for them. Widows were the definition of poor. Much like today, the majority of those who are poor and starving are women who live in patriarchal culture. If you don’t think we live in a patriarchal culture, all you have to do is look at how we value women and their work. The gender wage gap is 21 percent. Men can say, Another day, another dollar. Women can only say, Another day, another seventy-nine cents.

Tabitha took the needs of the poor and most vulnerable upon herself. Her proclamation of the word of God was her action. Tabitha is the one who has given these poor women life! Every article of clothing she handed out to the widows was a sermon of God’s love and care, and a declaration of the gospel that Christ has come “to bring good news to the poor… to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (see Luke 4:18-19, Isaiah 61:1-2; 58:6).

Tabitha’s work challenged the dominant culture’s devaluation of widowed women. The early church challenged a lot of social norms. People didn’t stay put when the gospel got a hold of them. Many of the disciples were fishermen from Galilee, but they preached Jesus as the Messiah with authority and boldness in the Temple, in Jerusalem, and throughout the land. Right before this story of Tabitha, Peter raises a paralyzed old man in Lydda who got out of his bed and caused people to start believing in Jesus Christ.

And Tabitha heads up this assistance program among the poor in Joppa which followed the same redistribution of power that Luke set up at the very beginning of his Gospel in Mary’s Song: “He shows mercy to everyone, from one generation to the next, who honors him as God. He has shown strength with his arm. He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations. He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed. He has come to the aid of his servant Israel, remembering his mercy, just as he promised to our ancestors, to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.” (Luke 1:50-55, CEB).

Through Tabitha, God is turning the dominant system of power on its head. Her work declares that these people, whom the world holds as of no account or value are worth everything. Because of Tabitha’s discipleship, the lowly are being lifted up to their rightful place among us.

But Tabitha dies, and the work she does for these widows dies with her. Tabitha’s community feels the loss deeply. They no longer have their Tabitha to protect them, to love them, to clothe them, to give them what they need for life. They wash her body, and lay her in an upstairs room. They had heard that Peter was in Lydda, so Tabitha’s community sent two men to retrieve him. In the text, the men don’t tell Peter why they need him to come. Maybe the community doesn’t even have an expectation. But they know their need. They know their loss. And they know Peter is the leader of the church. They only say, “Please come to us without delay.” (CEB). So Peter got up and went.

When he arrived, they showed him their beloved Tabitha’s body. The widows stood outside and showed Peter the tunics and other clothing Tabitha had made for them. What’s interesting here, is that the participle in Greek for showed is in the middle voice. English doesn’t have middle voice, but what it means in Greek is that the widows weren’t holding piles of folded clothes out to show Peter what Tabitha had made. They were showing Peter the clothes that were on their backs at that moment. They were wearing the clothes Tabitha had made for them. They were holding out the hems of their garments saying, See! She made this for me!

I doubt very much these widows were concerned with theology. In that moment, they probably weren’t interested in the hope of “pie in the sky when you die” and other such future consolations. Their needs were much more immediate. These widows were too poor. They probably would have been too consumed with the need to get by a day at a time to bother with the possibilities of tomorrow.

We don’t know what they thought, or what they hoped for when Peter came before them. But we know these women needed Peter to see them as Tabitha saw them: as valuable. They needed Peter to know that much of their hope had died with Tabitha, and they didn’t know how they would survive tomorrow.

So Peter put everyone out of the room and knelt down to pray. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up! She opened her eyes, saw Peter, and sat up. He gave her his hand and raised her up. Then he called God’s holy people, including the widows, and presented her alive to them.” (CEB).

I think there’s an important reminder in here, given the way Luke crafted these words. He says that Peter called God’s holy people, including the widows. No longer would those seen as worthless be worthless. In this new community known as the church, widows are holy, the poor are beloved, the lowly are raised up, the weak are shown mercy. Peter’s prayer and raising of Tabitha from the dead is evidence that death will no longer have the final say. Death’s power has been broken. Widows will not be left to perish. The poor and powerless have become God’s holy people.

Something else we can learn here is that Luke doesn’t explain anything in this story. We don’t know how Peter’s prayer enabled him to raise Tabitha to life. We don’t know how he wrenched life from death. Today, we often wonder where God’s power is. We pray for cures. But it may be helpful to consider the distinction between praying for a cure, which seems to demand God do what we want, and praying for healing, which can come in a myriad of unexpected and often surprising ways.

The thing is, Tabitha won’t live forever. Peter won’t return time and again to restore her to life. Even Peter wouldn’t live forever. Just like Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead, one day, Tabitha would die again. It just so happened that this particular day was not her time. Tabitha’s incredibly vulnerable community needed her to sustain them a little while longer. Her being raised from the dead was for the community, and stands as a sign for the world that God is turning the order of things over. A new age has come upon the cosmos.

That’s why this text isn’t so much about Peter as it is Tabitha’s community. They wept together. They experienced distress together. The mourned Tabitha as a community. They surely celebrated together when Peter gave their benefactor, Tabitha, back to them. They shared their lives together: the joys and the sorrows. They shared life together. They lived community in ways that seem foreign to us because we’ve honestly forgotten the depth to which authentic community should invade our lives in ways that are transforming, healing, and good. We touch on it in places. We see occasional glimpses.

Tabitha lived Christian community with the poor in her midst. They loved one another. They took care of one another. Tabitha, the disciple, and her community are examples to us of what the gospel can do to transform lives and renew hope. When the Word of God comes to us, how can we be the same? The Word of God binds up what is broken in our lives and leads us to wholeness as individuals and as communities. In Jesus Christ, God has changed the game, and nothing is ever quite the same as it was before this Word invaded our lives.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

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