Sunday of the Paralytic, May 10, 2020
Acts 9:32-42; John 5:1-15
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen. Christ is risen!
In this morning’s Scripture readings, we hear about three miracles. Two of them are about the curing of paralysis—when Peter raises Aeneas from his bed as found in Acts 9 and when Jesus heals the paralytic at Bethesda, the Sheep’s Pool, in John 5.
But the third is about raising someone from the dead—Tabitha of Joppa, also called Dorcas. Her name means “gazelle.” And it’s this resurrection that I want to focus on today.
The raising of Tabitha was accomplished through St. Peter the Apostle and is also recorded by St. Luke in Acts 9. This is how the account begins:
Now there was at Joppa a certain disciple named Tabitha (which means Gazelle). She was full of good works and of charitable deeds which she did.
So who is this Tabitha? First, it is noted that she is from Joppa, which is in the Holy Land. This town is also called Jaffa or Yafa, and on a personal note, this is the coastal city where my wife’s father’s family comes from. It is still there.
Also, note that she is called “a certain disciple.” Now, disciple is a word that we are used to hearing in Christian contexts, so we probably just let it pass us by as an early synonym for believer or Christian, but we should recall that in the ancient world, not just anyone could become a disciple.
A disciple—in the Greek for this passage, mathitria, the feminine form of mathitis—was someone who followed a teacher and learned from him. The word basically means student or learner. And usually you would have to pay a lot of money to become someone’s disciple. This was basically how higher education was done in those days. And it was also very unusual for there to be a mathitria. Almost all were a mathitis. That is, discipleship in the ancient world was almost always reserved for men and particularly for wealthy men.
So referring to Tabitha here by this term disciple should tell us something about how Christianity regarded women—they were welcome to become disciples. And a disciple of Christ, whether directly or through the apostles, also didn’t have to pay anything to become one. We don’t know whether Tabitha was wealthy or not, but that wouldn’t have mattered, either.
Now notice the next thing said about her: “She was full of good works and of charitable deeds which she did.” Why? It’s because she was Jesus’ disciple. That’s what a disciple does—follow the master and imitate the master. So this statement about her is not to give her some kind of independent honor, because it’s put in the context of her discipleship. It is certainly an honorable thing to say about her, but it’s not isolated from her life of discipleship in Christ.
And this follows on exactly from how St. Luke introduces this whole book of Acts, which we heard read at Pascha. He refers to his Gospel as being about “all that Jesus began to do and teach until the day when He was taken up” (Acts 1:1). Notice he says “began to do and to teach until the day when He was taken up.” In other words, when Jesus ascended into heaven, He had only just begun to do and to teach.
So what we read in Acts is not a series of stories of amazing things done by Christians but rather the continuation of what Jesus was already doing and teaching. Jesus is still acting, still teaching. So when we read that Tabitha is full of “good works and charitable deeds,” whose were those? They belonged to Jesus Christ. And since she was His disciple, that work is all credited to Him. This is an important point we will return to.
The reading continues:
And it came to pass in those days that she fell sick and died; and when they had washed her, they placed her in an upper chamber. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, hearing that Peter was there, sent two men to him entreating him: “Come to us without delay!”
Tabitha died from a sickness, so immediately other disciples—students and followers of Jesus—sent to St. Peter and asked him to come “without delay.” Why would they do that? It is because the presence of Jesus Christ in their midst that had been manifest through Tabitha was now taken from them. And they wanted her back, if possible. And they also knew that St. Peter was another disciple of Jesus who had also been doing the things that He did.
So Peter arose and went with them. And when he arrived, they took him into the upper chamber. All the widows stood by him weeping, showing the tunics and other garments which Tabitha made while she was with them.
Here we receive an interesting detail: She was a maker of “tunics and other garments.” I cannot imagine that this was merely her means of living, otherwise those standing by and mourning would not have taken the time to show St. Peter what she had made. We can rightly assume that this was part of her good works—that she would spend her time making garments for people. And patristic writers such as St. Basil note that she was also a widow, spending her time in good works, showing her to be an example for other widows (Moralia, 74).
But Peter put them all outside and knelt down and prayed; then turning to the body, he said: “Tabitha, arise!” And she opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter, she sat up. And he gave her his hand, and raised her up. Then he called the saints and widows and presented her alive. And it became known throughout all Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.
“And many believed in the Lord.” This is where this scene is fully consummated, in more becoming disciples of Jesus. Did they become disciples of St. Peter? No. Did they become disciples of St. Tabitha? No. (And she is a saint, by the way—her feast day is October 25.) They became disciples of Jesus.
This is the point, then: The good works that these saints did—St. Tabitha in her love and good works and St. Peter in his raising her from the dead—are works of Jesus Christ. He is the Master and the Teacher. He is the One Whose saints these are.
Sometimes, people look at the honor that we pay to saints and mistake it for idolatry. They think that we are worshiping the saints. But that shows that they do not understand what a saint truly is. A saint is someone in whom Jesus Christ is working, someone who has become a true disciple of Jesus, someone who is set apart to follow Jesus and to imitate Him. So any honor or glory that we sing to the saints is ultimately about Jesus.
So why not cut out “the middle man” and just glorify Christ without mentioning the saints? But St. David in the Psalms says “God is glorious in His saints” (Ps. 68:35, LXX). Why would we ignore all the true disciples of Jesus and the work that He is doing in them and through them? It makes no sense. St. Luke therefore honored St. Tabitha by saying both that she was a disciple and also that she did good deeds and charitable works, and he sees no conflict there between that and his worship of Jesus Christ.
Likewise, when we see that the saints are fallible, when we see that clergy and other leaders and ministers in the Church are fallible, we should not ascribe those failings to Christ. But we should also not discount their good works, either. Why? Because all good things come from Christ.
Whatever good that we see, whatever love that we receive, whatever grace has been given, no matter where or in whom or through whom—these are all from Jesus Christ. When He ascended into heaven, His good works and His teaching had only just begun. And they continue even now, because He is alive and because He is with us even to the end of the age.
To the risen Lord Jesus Christ, with His Father and the Holy Spirit, be all glory, honor and worship, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen. Christ is risen!