“She Didn't Have To Utter A Word."Dr. R. Lee Carter Acts 9:36-43 Year C: Fourth Sunday of Easter
Luke’s story of Tabitha or Dorcas (as her Greek-speaking friends would have called her) is set in a time when Christian obligation and devotion to the elderly, especially to widows, went without question. Care for widows was an essential part of the ministry of the church. This was not something novel for the people of God. For centuries, care for widows, orphans and resident aliens rested at the upper tier of the obligations of God’s people for keeping covenant.
One could hardly read the tales of Elijah or Elisha or the oracles of the great writing prophets of old, such as Amos or Jeremiah, without recognizing the central role that care for widows has always had among God’s people. The Psalmist (Psalm 68:5) speaks of God as the “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows.” Jesus cared for his widowed mother (John 19:25-17), he raised from the dead the son of the widow of Nain and returned him to his mother (Luke 7:11-17), and, in the spirit of the prophets, condemned those who took advantage of widows (Matthew 23:24).
The early church cared for widows (Acts 6). In fact, the task was so important that seven men of good reputation, full of wisdom and the Holy Spirit, were selected to be responsible for the matter. What’s more, Paul laid out clear instructions in 1Timothy 5 about how widows were to be regarded and treated.
Moreover, James did not mince words in the epistle that bears his name (James 1:27). He said, in effect, “Let’s be clear about the nature of real religion. It must be visible and practical. It visits widows and orphans in their trouble as well as maintains moral purity in an evil world.”
Widows, indeed, played a key role in the work and ministry of the earliest Christians. I Timothy 5:10 speaks of widows as well known for their good deeds, “such as bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the Lord’s people, helping those in trouble and devoting [themselves] to all kinds of good deeds.”
Our Scripture reading for today is set in in the Mediterranean port town of Joppa (or Jaffa), just south of modern day Tel Aviv. There lived a disciple named Tabitha who, according to Acts 9:36, had a splendid reputation for “always doing good and helping the poor.” She cared for the widows, who raved about her fine skills as a seamstress. She had likely designed and crafted clothes for them, garments that delighted and honored the widows and helped restore for them a sense of dignity and self-esteem.
However, this beloved Tabitha grew sick and died. In keeping with the same custom that our Jewish cousins still employ today, her body was washed, placed in a simple shroud and watched over by the other ladies. Luke tells us that she was placed in an upstairs room in anticipation of her burial later that same day.
Meanwhile, over in the neighboring town of Lydda, Peter resided. Tabitha’s friends sent two men to him urging him to come at once. Peter went with them, and when he arrived he was taken to the room upstairs. Peter sent the bystanders out of the room, then prayed and said to the dead woman “Tabitha, get up.” She opened her eyes, and seeing Peter she sat up. He took her by the hand, helped her to her feet and presented her alive to all who had gathered in the house.
This story may sound very familiar to another story recorded in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. That woman raised from the dead was considerably younger than Tabitha. In Mark’s account (Mark 5:41) Jesus called her Talitha (with an L). Don’t confuse her with this Tabitha, with a B. Talitha means “little dew drop” in Aramaic. Tabitha is Aramaic for “gazelle” or a person of great energy.
Aside from the difference in age and the slight difference of their names, the story of Jesus’ raising Talitha or Jairus’ daughter from the dead and Peter raising Tabitha from the dead bear unmistakable similarities. Both Jesus and Peter are urged to come immediately. Both deceased women were taken to an upper room. House guests were asked to leave the room. Both women were taken by the hand. Both were commanded to rise. Jesus says “Talitha, arise” and Peter says “Tabitha, arise.”
What are we to make of this? It is clear in this and numerous other stories found in the book of Acts, that the work of the church is to recapitulate or carry on the ministry of Jesus. The Gospel of Luke contains many accounts of the deeds of Jesus in meeting the needs of others. In Luke’s second volume, that we call Acts, the church continues the same work that Jesus initiated in His own ministry. That ministry, of course, is to be carried own by the imitators of Christ of our own generation.
Now, raising people from the dead is likely not something any of us has engaged in recently. But there is much in the story of Tabitha that does address the tasks that God calls us to engage in today.
The story of Tabitha is much about how Christians share their lives with each other as family. One cannot but be impressed by the way the widows in the story watch over each other, pray for each other and keep in constant contact with each other. In modern parlance, they are “there” for Tabitha and she is attentive to them. They take delight in each other and celebrate each other’s gifts.
The widows relish showing off the wonderful robes and clothing that Tabitha had made. They admired most, perhaps, her skill at embroidery or the intricacy of her stitching and tatting. Maybe what they most wanted to imitate was Tabitha’s joy of sharing her gifts with the others. Indeed, the gifts of others so often inspire and evoke our own gifts. Perhaps Tabitha gave the shyer widows the courage to discover their own creativity and to display gifts they didn’t even know they had.
Isn’t creativity our true imitation of God? Creativity is not simply a way we come to know ourselves. Creativity is a way we create community. Creativity is not necessarily about being artsy. Creativity is the freedom we allow ourselves to put our personal stamp on what we give to others.
Tabitha was fortunate to live with such a community. On the other hand, maybe it was Tabitha who understood her role in the church as one who encouraged others to join in, who looked for the potential in others and who always had an encouraging word to free others to be themselves. Any church would be fortunate to have such a person.
Tabitha was so beloved by the believing community in Joppa, that no one could imagine life without her. They demanded that Tabitha not stay dead. Her friends simply would not permit it! Someone simply had to go and fetch Peter!
Luke’s great tribute to Tabitha is that she doesn’t speak a word in the story. Her works of love and charity for the poor speak for her. We learn about Tabitha through the way the others honor her. “She was always doing good” would have been her epitaph. It was how she was best remembered. Would that others one day say that about us!
The admiration of the other widows for Tabitha forms the real heart of the story. Peter’s engagement in the miracle of restoration seems to play second fiddle. What seemed to matter most was the utter joy among the faithful in having Tabitha back.
Luke doesn’t tell us about the aftermath of Tabitha’s return to life. He does tell us that the spread of the miraculous story led many in Joppa to faith in Christ.
But did Tabitha continue loving and serving the poor? No doubt.
Did she continue exercising her own gifts to inspire others to use their own skills for the Lord? Without question.
Did she continue to create a home that was a welcome center for believers and the wider Joppa citizenry? Surely.
That leaves us with only one question:
Is there someone like Tabitha alive and among us here?
Lord, open her eyes!
About the writer: The Rev. R. Lee Carter, Ph.D., has served as pastor of the North Chapel Hill Baptist Church (Chapel Hill, NC) since 1994. He also is a professor of Religion at William Peace University (Raleigh, NC), and the William C. Bennett Chaplain.
He is a graduate of Furman University, Southeastern Seminary and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has been married to Pamela Weatherly Carter since 1975 and they have two grown children, Jonathan and Christa, two grandsons, Charlie and Sammy and a granddaughter, Leila.
Scripture and Music:
It Is Well with My Soul
All Hail the Power of Jesus Name
Rescue the Perishing
Come, Ye Disconsolate
Savior, Like A Shepherd Lead Us
Worthy Is the Lamb (G.F. Handel from Messiah)
Feed My Lambs (Sleeth)
Since By Man Came Death (G. F. Handel from Messiah)
Open thou Mine Eyes (John Rutter)
Open the Eyes of My Heart (McDonald)
It Is Well with My Soul (Fettke)
Once Upon a Tree
It Is Well with My Soul
Savior, Like A Shepherd Lead Us
Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee