The New Testament gives us a bird’s eye view of the earliest followers of Jesus trying to discern the implications of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus means for their lives and their life together. The book of Acts provides us with a narrative account while the letters let us listen in on one end of a telephone conversation between the apostles and fledgling communities of faith trying to figure out how to live as a resurrection people in a world where death seems to maintain a firm grasp.
In the first reading for this fourth Sunday after Easter, Luke zooms in on a small congregation in Joppa. The brevity of the glimpse we are given of this community is deceiving. The nooks and crannies of this passage are filled with gestures towards a deep love shared within this congregation and extended to those beyond its membership. And it is all centred around a disciple with two names—Tabitha (or, in Greek, Dorcas).
Luke inscribes several connections between this passage and other narratives in both the Old and New Testaments, all of which are dripping with intention and meaning. While I do not have the space here to point out all of them or give them the kind of treatment they deserve, I will take a moment to name a couple of examples, some of which are already echoing one another. This is a significant way that the authors of Scripture intended meaning to be discerned, so it is important to be aware of them. First, Peter’s raising of Tabitha imitates Jesus’ raising of the Widow of Nain’s son (Luke 7:11-15) and Jairus’s daughter (Luke 8:49-56). Both Jesus and Peter’s work here echoes miracles performed by Elijah (1 Kings 17:17-24) and Elisha (2 Kings 4:32-37).
The story of Lazarus is also a possible connection, even though there are several differences to be noted (perhaps they had heard of Jesus’ tarrying after he heard news of Lazarus’ illness and did not want to risk Peter’s imitation of Jesus in this regard). The setting of Joppa should bring to the reader’s mind the story of Jonah and, while the significance of the setting will not be revealed until the next chapter, it is important to note that the events in this pericope are part of the bigger picture of what takes place in Joppa (spoiler alert: the gates of qualifications for being a part of God’s people are thrown off their hinges!).
It would be a grave oversight not to point out that Tabitha is named as a disciple in this passage. This is not a title that is doled out lightly in the New Testament, and Tabitha is the only woman to specifically receive this designation. There were, undoubtedly, other women who were disciples of Jesus, but for some reason she is the only one so named. Perhaps the combination of her devotion, her continual acts of goodness and charity, and her death was what set her apart as the exemplar. Whatever the case may be, she is named a disciple and her status as such points not only to the place and importance of women as leaders in new-creation communities, but also to the new ways of identifying ourselves within the community first-fruits of God’s new creation that go beyond the old standbys of gender, race, class, etc. The importance of women in the ranks of the church is reiterated by Peter’s prompt response and his presence in that house in Joppa.
Tabitha’s life reflects the life of Jesus. She apprenticed herself to Jesus and the pattern of his life became the pattern of her own. It would appear as though she were a woman of some means (perhaps a widow herself, though we are never told as much). While widows were a vulnerable group, it was possible for a widow to receive an inheritance if named in a will, so a widow of means is not out of the question. Whether she was a widow or not, she cared for them just the same and they claimed her as one of their own. With echoes of the hymn found in Philippians 2 bouncing around in our heads, we can see Christ reflected in Tabitha’s holding of her resources with open hands, pouring herself out into the lives of these widows, sharing not just her material resources and skills with them, but her time and attention, too. Simone Weil said, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” Tabitha cared for these vulnerable women deeply, counting them as friends and sisters and nourishing their lives with her own until her own life was given back to God. The loss of any life is sad, but the loss of a life that fights to make the world a better place is a bitter loss, indeed. Perhaps we should not be surprised that Tabitha is the first disciple to partake in Christ’s resurrection power in this way, since her life was built on the pattern of Christ’s own life. The way of Jesus is a way of life that death has no power over, even when everything would lead us to believe the opposite.
Such a life (both of an individual like Tabitha and of a congregation like that of Joppa) is a witness to the gospel all on its own. The use of names in this passage points us to the impact of the life of Tabitha and the congregation on the community of Joppa. At the beginning of the passage, we are given not only Tabitha’s Hebrew name, but the Greek rendition of her name, as well—Dorcas. When my family and I were working with Arabic- and Kurdish-speaking communities in Greece, in the camps I was usually called “Yaqoob” or “Abu-Elias”. When Peter speaks to her, he uses her Hebrew name, but the widows mourning her death and displaying the evidence for why Peter should intervene call her Dorcas, her Greek name. There is an argument to be made that these widows were Greek converts, drawn into Joppa’s new-creation community by their devoted action and the deep fellowship they were welcomed into. This could even serve to foreshadow the events that will unfold in the next chapter between Peter and Cornelius.
I’d like to imagine that Tabitha is the one who recommended to Peter that he should stay at the tanner’s house. Simon is a Jewish name, and given Peter’s conversation with Cornelius, it is safe to presume that Simon was a Jew, but the profession of Tanner was most likely and unclean profession. A tanner processes animal hides, preserving them and turning them into something a usable material. Handling dead animals and the materials required to preserve the hides would have made Simon unclean. Peter, by staying with him, would have been made ritually unclean. I imagine this was a struggle for Peter, but we are told he had some time to wrestle with it before Cornelius’s servants come to retrieve him. Perhaps Peter had heard of the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch, a person, neither male nor female, whom Scripture forbade from ever being a part of God’s people. Perhaps Peter is wrestling with Tabitha’s relationship with these Greek widows and the nature of the community he encountered in Joppa when he encounters Cornelius. Whatever the case, these events set the stage for the gates of “who’s in and who’s out” to be blown off their hinges as God’s people discern the implications of the new thing that God is doing in the world in and through Christ.