Sunday, April 17, 2016

"Luke's Embarrassment" (Acts 9: 36-43)

Luke is the author of the Gospel of Luke as well as the book of Acts. He wrote them both.
Luke wants to tell the story of Jesus. Luke wants to tell the story of how the church started. Luke wants to tell the story as faithfully as he can. I believe this about Luke.
Luke knows that women played an important role in the story of Jesus and the early church. He doesn’t leave them out of the story.
And some of those women were widows. Widows like Dorcas, also known as Tabitha.
But these widows… they’re not what you’d expect. They don’t act the way we think widows should act. And Luke is embarrassed by that.
Somebody tell me: what is the stereotypical widow like? They’re poor. Defenseless. Meek. Helpless. Dependent on others.
This stereotype is alive today, and it was alive then. And while stereotypes are often rooted in truth, there are always exceptions.
In Luke’s case, there seems to be a lot of exceptions… and Luke seems embarrassed by this.
Let’s look at the widows Luke talks about.
The first widow Luke tells us about appears very early on in his gospel, in Luke chapter two, when the infant Jesus is presented in the temple. There, Jesus and his parents are met by a prophet named Anna.
Anna was 84. It was very rare for someone to live that long in the first century. Very rare. She had been a widow a long time. And she worshiped and prayed at the temple night and day.
The way Luke describes Anna, she could very easily fit the stereotype of a poor, meek widow. Luke doesn’t show her teaching or leading or rocking the boat in any way.
Except that he describes her as a prophet. Maybe Luke thought he could slip that little bit of information by us and we wouldn’t notice. It’s just one word. It’s easy to miss.
The thing is, there has never been a prophet who did not rock the boat.
Prophets are rabble-rousers. Prophets are truth-tellers. Prophets tell the truth that no one wants to hear.
Anna may be 84 years old, but if Luke says she’s a prophet, then you know she’s got some fire in her.
Strike one against the stereotype.
Reading a little further, we come to the story of Jesus in his hometown of Nazareth. Luke describes how Jesus was at first praised, then rejected and run out of town. In telling that story, Luke writes that Jesus mentioned a certain widow of Zarephath, who was helped by the prophet Elijah many years before. 
Maybe Jesus said more about the widow of Zarephath, but if he did, it didn’t make it into Luke’s retelling. It is easy for us to just skip on by this name drop without even thinking about it, but perhaps you remember this widow’s story. It appears in the book of First Kings, chapter seventeen. There we learn that she was visited by the prophet Elijah and she helped provide for him during a terrible famine. In doing so she quietly obeyed the command of Elijah and the command of God.
But when her own son became deathly ill, this widow’s tenacity showed itself. She pleaded with Elijah, saying, “Look here: you come into my house, command me to provide for you even though I have so little, and now my son is dying.” Whatever else she said, it made Elijah – the mighty prophet – take the time to heal her son. With her son restored back to health, she said: “That’s better. Now I know that you are the man of God you say you are.”
Tenacious? Persistent? Unafraid to challenge this mighty prophet of God? Luke conveniently leaves this part of the story out, but still, it’s strike two against the stereotype.
Moving on. In Luke chapter seven, there is a widow who – like the widow of Zarephath – was watching her son die. Luke doesn’t say much about her, only that Jesus healed her son. Perhaps Luke breathed a sigh of relief with this story, because there doesn’t seem to be anything here that challenges the stereotype.
But then we come to the parable of the widow and the unjust judge. Jesus told this parable, and he said: “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’”
You want to know a secret? The English translation here is wrong. In the English translations, the judge says, “I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming,” but what the judge really says is, “I will grant her justice, so that she won’t come and punch me in the face.” This time it’s not just Luke who’s embarrassed. Even our modern translators are embarrassed. They read the Greek text, and thought it ridiculous that a judge would fear being punched in the face … by a widow. That’s what the Greek text says, but does that even make sense?
So they changed it for the English translations.
And what is the point of this parable? Luke writes in his gospel that the parable is about the need to pray always and not lose heart. Well, isn’t that nice? That certainly tames it down a bit, doesn’t it? The story of a widow who has the gall to threaten a judge by punching him in the face sure seems to be about more than just praying and not losing heart, doesn’t it?
Come on, Luke. Don’t be so embarrassed. Tell us what this story about the judge-slapping widow really means.
Strike three against the stereotype.
So now we come to the story of Tabitha, also known as Dorcas, who was devoted to good works and acts of charity.
First, I do have to say that Luke doesn’t actually say she was a widow. So maybe I’m wrong in my attempt to connect her to all those other widows.
However, there do not seem to be any relatives or family members gathered to mourn her. The only people who came to mourn her were … widows. Dorcas's friends.
Most of these widows who were there mourning were poor. With no one to support them, widows often were poor; destitute, even.
But Dorcas was not poor. She had been generous and able to financially support others. She had been a benefactor.
Does this mean that Dorcas was not a widow? No. It just means that, if she was a widow (as it appears to me), she was the exception to the norm. And, in Luke, there seem to be a lot of exceptions.  So I feel pretty confident in assuming that Dorcas was, in fact, a widow when she died.
Being blessed with wealth, Dorcas realized it was her calling, her duty, to help other widows who were not as fortunate as she.
And what love-in-action she must have demonstrated, to have so many be so devoted to her, and so devastated at her passing! When Peter arrived, they crowded around him, showing him the physical evidence of her love, all the tunics and other clothing that she had made for them.
“Just look,” they said, holding up all those items. “Look at how loving she was. Look at how great she was. Look at how generous she was. She could have spent her time and her wealth living for herself, feasting sumptuously, wearing fine clothes, maybe traveling a bit, but no. All she had, both her time and her money, she dedicated to helping those in need.”
The love she had would allow her to do nothing else. The love she had was so great, so genuine, that this was the only thing that could bring her peace. Caring for others. Living for others.
Truly, this widow was a great woman and a hero of faith.
Now we come to the climax of the story: Peter raising Dorcas back to life.
To be honest, I’m never quite sure what to make about these raising from the dead stories. Dorcas. Lazarus. Are they literally true, factual stories that really happened?
On this, scholars and religious leaders disagree.
But what is clear to me is that someone being raised from the dead is like receiving a high honor. It is a mark of God’s high approval … Just like, In the old testament, we read about people who lived exceptionally long lives: 600, 700, 800 years or more. I think attributing such long lifespans to these people was simply the writer’s way of saying that some person was truly great. Telling a story about someone in which God raises them back to life is also a way of honoring the work they did in their life.
I imagine the writer saying, “how can I write a story that shows how great this person was in God’s eyes? I know – I’ll say this person lived an unrealistically long life; or, I’ll say this person died and then was raised back to life.”
I’m not saying these events didn’t happen. Again, I don’t know. Whether they are meant to be taken literally or not, the real importance, I think, is that they show that the life the person lived before they died was exceptional.
Certainly this is the case for Dorcas. She was truly a hero of faith. I imagine her being morally strong, and determined to do what’s right. I imagine her advocating, as much as a person could in her time, on behalf of those who were poor and oppressed. Maybe she was even pounding on judge’s doors, like the widow Jesus talked about, demanding justice.
Through all that she did for others, she brought new life to many. She herself wasn’t the only one who was brought back to life. Those she helped, they would have had no hope if it hadn’t been for her. Her kindness filled them with hope, and her generosity kept them fed and clothed. She saved them from a certain death. That, in my opinion, is the real death-to-life story here.
And, if she was a widow, well, Luke doesn’t say so, but we’ve already discovered that Luke is embarrassed by strong, feisty, tenacious widows who defy expectations and are willing to boldly insist on what is right and good.
So don’t be afraid to do what you know is right. Don’t shy away from being the person God created you to be. As long as you do whatever you do with love, and as long as you follow the path of life, it doesn’t matter if you fit in to the role society expects of you. So many people today trudge along, going through the motions; they’re already half-dead, because they are trying to fit into the role society has given them.
Dorcas was a hero to many, was mourned by many, because she dared to break free from the expectations placed on her and do what she knew was right.
Not even Luke could hide how great a person Dorcas was. He may have been embarrassed by her tenacity, her boldness, her unconventional ways, but he couldn’t deny the greatness of her love. And because he really did want to be as faithful as possible when telling the story of the early church, he did not leave her story out. She is included, along with all the other widows and all the other women who, throughout Luke’s story, defy expectations, and step out of the role prescribed for them by society.
They did what was right. They did what they needed to do to show love to others. They didn’t allow anything to stop them or stand in their way. Instead of allowing society to limit them, they were bold in being who God created them to be, and they set the world on fire.

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