Thursday, May 03, 2007

The Witness of Dorcas (Acts 9:36-43)

What’s up with Dorcas?

By which I mean, why do I read about her in my Bible? There’s nothing wrong with her or her story – I’m not suggesting that someone edit her out. But her appearance is kind of curious to me.

It’s curious because I imagine Peter and the other disciples must have done many miracles that Luke doesn’t record. They even may have raised other dead people to life. But Dorcas’ story is singled out. She’s named and we learn a few things about her work as a follower of Christ. What is it about her story that prompted Luke to make his work of hand-writing a story of the early church that much longer by including it?

Well, we know Luke wanted to write his friend Theophilus with accurate information about Jesus and the early church. He wanted Theo to know the truth about Christ and the movement that followed him – that Christ was the Messiah and the church is the continuation of his work. Would Theophilus have learned those things by reading this story? Would the Holy Spirit guide Luke in his writing so that later readers like us would follow suit?

As we examine it, I think we can see he could have. First, the healing itself. Isn’t it kind of odd that Luke uses her Aramaic name, Tabitha, first and then translates it to Greek for the Greek-speaking Theophilus? If I were writing this, I would probably write her name in the language I shared with Theophilus – Greek – first, and then I would write down what that name might be in the woman’s native language.

Unless, of course, I wanted my reader to see that word “Tabitha.” Does it sound like another word? Would it remind Theophilus of another word, and where he might have heard that other word? It reminds us of one, I imagine. In Mark’s version of the story of healing Jairus’ daughter, he includes the Aramaic phrase Jesus spoke to the girl asking her to rise. “Talitha, koum,” or, “Young lady, get up.”

I have no proof Theophilus or other readers would know about Mark’s gospel, but it’s not unreasonable to expect it since Mark’s gospel was probably written first. The name “Tabitha” echoes the Aramaic word talitha, and it draws attention to how the rest of the story echoes the older story as well. The gathered people are weeping and wailing, just as they were in the house of Jairus. Peter asks them all to leave the room, just as Jesus did, and prays, and says, “Tabitha, koum.

Readers like Theophilus may have wondered about this church – perhaps they’ve heard of Jesus and they like what they hear, but who’s to say this movement that claims his name is really about him? Who’s to say its leaders follow his true teachings and are really trying to lead people in the right path? Ah, but see, Luke writes. See how the main leader of this church does almost exactly what Jesus did? How could he do that if he didn’t follow Jesus?

Moreover, this woman Dorcas, whom Luke calls a disciple? See how Luke describes her work and ministry. When she is dead, people gather to mourn her holding the tunics she had made for them with her own hands. When helping the poor, Dorcas didn’t just throw handfuls of money into the street for them to grab at. She took the time to truly know the people she helped – if only to learn the proper size to make the clothes she gave them.

The true work of these disciples, the ones who follow Jesus, was a work of love and not merely generosity. The work valued everyone as a person, because that’s what Jesus had done. In his death and resurrection, taking on the sins of all humanity and casting them away on the cross, he had shown God valued every person individually no matter their wealth or position. He had been teaching what God wanted him to teach, and he lived it out as well.

Dorcas lived out that same message, as did Peter. Peter is on the verge of his meeting with the Gentile Cornelius, when we will see the message of the church begin to spread outside its Jewish beginnings to expand to others all over the world. And like Jesus’ message along those same lines, it begins with a resurrection…

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