Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, ‘Please come to us without delay.’ So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, ‘Tabitha, get up.’ Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. – Acts of the Apostles 9:36-42
We are once again in the throes of confusing and unsettling messes that threaten our lives, well-being, and security. Dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic has been a strain on all of us globally. Here in the United States, as in other countries, death, disability, grief, and anger have followed in the wake of the pandemic, which has not yet completely left us.
One thing that I hope has come out of the COVID-19 pandemic is the importance of community. Looking at the destruction in Ukraine, not only of property and safety but the bonds of community between people who lived, worked, raised their families, prayed, and laughed together, we see what loss of community can mean. In times of stress and loss, members of the community usually come together to support and console each other.
This is how it was in Joppa when an older woman named Dorcas (Hebrew gazelle), also called Tabitha (Gk. gazelle), died. She was a well-known, respected, and loved member of her community, known for her good works and acts of charity. She had been a female leader in the area, living an exemplary life in ways that reflected her faith and commitment to the teachings of Jesus. It must have been a blow to the people who looked to her for guidance and assistance, much as we would feel at the death not only of a loved one but a person of high standing.
Luckily, or more likely providentially, Peter the Disciple was in a town only about a dozen miles away from Joppa at the time. Two men were sent to him with the news and the request for him to hurry. They may not have known what Peter could do, but perhaps he could guide them through their time of grief. When Peter arrived, he went to the upstairs room where Tabitha’s body lay, surrounded by the widows with whom she lived and worked. Peter cleared the room and knelt to pray.
In words reminiscent of those spoken by Jesus to the daughter of Jarius (Mk. 5:41), Peter said, “Tabitha, get up.” He took her hand and, as she stood up, he showed her to the whole community. Through this miracle, many new converts to the infant Christian movement came. No doubt, the community rejoiced and thanked God for her restoration to them.
Tabitha was probably not a preacher, but we know she was influential because of the regard with which her circle of neighbors and fellow believers held her. They loved and respected her because of the life she led rather than just her words. This was the kind of life Jesus was getting at when he taught that his followers should love their neighbors, not just their friends, family, and fellow believers. Tabitha’s example is one of a woman in a man’s world, teaching by doing and helping to bind the community together in peace.
Women in the Bible were generally an overlooked group unless they were mothers or wives. We don’t even hear Tabitha’s story very often except in sequential Bible readings. Stories like hers deserve more hearing to inspire both women and men to act as Jesus taught and Tabitha exemplified.
Who in our own communities are the Tabithas? What do they show us? How do they represent their faith in a clear, unequivocal way to those in need? How can we foster more Tabithas? How can we become one ourselves?
These are questions for us to consider. The strength of our communities and our outreach depends on it.
Image: Guercino – San Pietro che resuscita Tabita (1618), by Giovanni Francisco Barbieri (1591-1666), also known as Guercino. Found at Wikimedia Commons.