It’s a strange little story we’ve come across this morning. Tabitha, or Dorcas, as we are told her name is in Greek, is a woman that has a short little appearance in Acts, and it is brief. In many ways, Tabitha’s story feels a bit out place, tucked in the midst of three powerful conversion stories. Before we come to Tabitha, “we read about the startling conversions of the Ethiopian government official and Saul. And in Acts 10 Luke tells about the shocking conversion of the first gentile, Cornelius” (Bratt). Saul’s conversion to Paul alone is filled with drama and intrigue as one of the greatest villains of the early church is transformed into one of her strongest advocates. These conversions fall into line with the story of the young church moving forward, growing, alive and flourishing.
So when we read of Peter’s healing of the paralytic, Aeneas, in verses 32-35, and then of his raising back to life of Tabitha, the story seems to stall, giving us time and space to pause.
We are told very little about Tabitha in our scripture reading. We know that “she was devoted to good works and acts of charity.” Then she gets sick. And then she dies. Sometimes the writers of scripture can be irritatingly vague! This is particularly frustrating as “Tabitha bears the privilege and the burden of being [one of] the only named mathetria [female disciple] in the New Testament” (Smith). Now this could simply be a result of the oppressively patriarchal culture of First Century Palestine, though it is important to note that we are told just as little about Aeneas in the verses before, as well as many other characters in the Bible.
Of course, being the English teacher that I am, I won’t take what has been presented simply at face value! There are a few clues that shed a bit of light onto this curious woman.
Upon her death, we are told that as Peter goes among the grieving, it is “the widows [who] stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them.” That the widows are mourning her could indicate a couple of things.
First, Tabitha/Dorcas could have herself been a widow, which is leant credence by the fact that we are not told of a husband’s name. Regardless, it seems that the beneficiaries of her “good works and acts of charity” have been the widows of her community. We can even infer that her charity took the form of clothing and caring for these widows, who in this time were consistently at the bottom of the social strata, vulnerable to the powers of the world. Now that Tabitha has died, the future of those widows would be compromised.
Another clue lies in the type of disciple she was: “devoted to good works and acts of charity.” To be such a person as to be devoted to good works and acts of charity, it was likely that Tabitha was well off, at the very least, comfortable. The fact that she is known to us by two names lends itself to this idea. She is Tabitha amongst the faithful, but she is known in Greek as Dorcas. This could indicate that she was able to easily move back and forth between the powers of the culture and her community of faith.
Tabitha/Dorcas’ status, therefore, is a position of privilege. How she uses her privilege illuminates some perspective for us this morning. “When Peter arrives in the upper room, mourners and beneficiaries of Tabitha’s just acts and gifts meet him at the door (9:39). Unfortunately, it is true that there are few people, few disciples of any gender, who would risk their economic status in order to provide for the less privileged” (Smith).
How often do we throw our own comfort, our own security to the wind in order to support, care for, and lift up the widow, the orphan, the immigrant? Yes, we give out of our plenty, or even our “enough,” but the example that Tabitha provides for us this morning is to push past “enough,” to risk, that “our good works and just acts [might] challenge and transcend unjust systems” (Smith).
Every morning at school, we have twenty minutes to begin the day in what we call “advisories.” This is a homeroom type gathering where we go over the day’s announcements and check in on academic process. I co-lead the freshmen boys and most days we talk about sports, video games, or movies. The other day, the topic turned to the striking Verizon workers who have garnered national headlines this past week. We discussed some of the reasons why these workers and so many others across the nation are demanding higher wages, particularly an increase in the minimum wage to $15 and hour.
Regardless of where we stand individually on this political issue (and this year it is a hot political issue), we can all likely agree that the Pennsylvania state minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is hardly sufficient for someone to support a family on. Before taxes, someone making the minimum wage that works 40 hours a week would be making just over fifteen thousand dollars a year.
Consider that person is a single parent, even with just one child, and the quality of life diminishes rapidly. Take it one step further: that single parent gets a second job to supplement the income. Who will take care of the child? Will parent and child ever have time to simply be together? So many things we who have enough take for granted… Of course, this doesn’t take into account those workers who are dependent on tips to make up their wages: their minimum wage is $2.13 an hour.
This is an issue that E and I have begun thinking about as we are only 98 days away from baby D’s due date! My brother and sister-in-law had a baby last September. They are both teachers, and they discussed for some time whether my sister-in-law would go back to work at some point after my nephew was born. They crunched the numbers and determined that they would end up paying for her to work! In other words, all of her salary, plus some of my brother’s, would go to childcare. To be fair, they live in Brooklyn where the cost of living is higher than many other places, but the point remains the same. How can a person making minimum wage sufficiently support a family?
Turning back to Verizon: the company’s total revenue for 2015 was 2.4% higher than 2014, at 32.2 billion dollars. My question to Verizon, and to all large corporations really, is how much is enough? How much money do you have to have before profits stop being the goal, and the care and well being of employees takes precedent? I won’t even dive into the care of customers, though telling me you’ll be at my apartment some time between 9am and 6pm on Saturday is not great customer service or care (end of rant). Imagine what just one billion, 1/32 of that revenue, could do for all Verizon employees. What Tabitha shows us this morning is that when we risk of ourselves to help the other, our lives are made that much greater.
Finally, there is the event of the resurrection of this curious woman itself. Peter has notably been absent from the Acts narrative for a few chapters. Verse 32 says that he “went here and there among all the believers.” Since this is the first resurrection we have encountered since Easter Sunday, “it may be that our wonder over the resurrection may have abated somewhat. Perhaps we have heard the story repeatedly, and our hearing has grown dull” (Barreto).
Yet this raising, at this time, comes to us when we most need it. In fact, reading of Tabitha’s raising from the dead, at this time of year is quite resonating. As flowers spring forth from once cold, dead soil; as the winds shift gradually from the north to the west, we are warmed, slightly; as the pollen count shoots through the roof, we are reminded of the return of life all around us.
We have all “tasted the power of illness and the bitterness of loss… The gospel looks out over a world characterized by death, illness, and loss and yet declares that eternal life is the new order of the day, that Jesus himself embodies and assures us of the promise that death will not have the last word and that no boundary can ever cleave us apart from one another” (Barreto). This story reminds us that there is life in the face of death, that death’s hold is temporary, that it no longer has the last word.
Whether our bodies are resurrected in this life, or we live on with Jesus in the next, we hold to a faith that sings the joy of life burst forth from the tomb, and Tabitha is the first one singing, lifting up her sisters and brothers, challenging us to risk our comfort, so that all might be healed. Amen.
Barreto, Eric. “Commentary on Acts 9:36-43.” Acts 9:36-43 Commentary. Luther Seminary, 21 Apr. 2013. Web. 16 Apr. 2016.
Bratt, Doug. “Easter 4C.” Center for Excellence in Preaching. Calvin Seminary, 11 Apr. 2016. Web. 16 Apr. 2016.
Smith, Mitzi J. “Commentary on Acts 9:36-43.” Acts 9:36-43 Commentary. Luther Seminary, 16 Apr. 2016. Web. 16 Apr. 2016.
Snider, Mike. “Verizon Beats Earnings Estimate, Revenue Misses.” USA Today. Gannett, 21 July 2015. Web. 16 Apr. 2016.