Jesus Cares for the Poor and for Those Who Care for the Poor

Acts 9:36-42 shows us how there are nameless saints who care for nameless sinners. And Jesus loves them. Jesus Cares for the Poor and for Those Who Care for the Poor. May 17, 2009.

            You ask just about any Lutheran, including just about all of these Lutherans, to identify the most important Jesus Christ ever did, and the answers are going to be pretty much the same.  One Lutheran might say “Jesus died for me,” another Lutheran might say “Jesus forgave my sins,” and another Lutheran might say “Jesus rose from the dead for me,” but all three of these Lutherans would be saying about the same thing.  We believe that the most important thing Jesus did for us was to give his life and death as the payment for our sins.  When Jesus died on the cross, God declared us “Not guilty,” and he forgave our sins.  That’s the Bible truth we put our faith in.  It’s the Bible teaching we call the gospel.

            But if you asked that question in a lot of other churches, even churches right here in Milwaukee, I’m not so sure you’d get the same kind of answer.  If you asked people to identify the most important thing Jesus Christ ever did they might say, “Jesus showed us how to care for the poor and the pitiful” or “Jesus gave us a model of mercy for the oppressed.”  These people have a different definition of gospel.  They wouldn’t call the gospel good news for sinners like we do.  They would call it good new for the diseased and disabled and disadvantaged people in society.  We call this kind of good news social gospel.  Social gospel isn’t the kind of gospel Lutherans like us proclaim or promote.

            If you asked just about any first century follower of Jesus, including the followers of Jesus we heard about in the First Lesson today, to identify the most important thing their master ever did, their answers would sound pretty much the same as the answers we Lutherans give.  On the Day of Pentecost, when the people were all confused about the tongues of fire and the sound of the wind and when they asked Peter what they should do, Peter pointed straight at Jesus: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.”  There wasn’t any doubt in Jerusalem about the most important thing Jesus did. 

            There wasn’t any doubt in Joppa, either.  Joppa was a town not very far from Jerusalem, actually Jerusalem’s port on the Mediterranean.  A group of Jesus’ followers lived there, and they all knew the most important things Jesus did while he lived on earth.  But there was a problem in Joppa.  One of the best-loved members of the congregation had died.  Her name was Tabitha. 

            What do we know about Tabitha?  Well, she must have been pretty well-known in Joppa, because Luke mentions her Jewish name, Tabitha, and her Greek name, Dorcas--people on both sides of the social tracks must have known her.  Luke tells us she was a disciple, which means she was someone who was a student of Jesus.  We get the impression she was part of that larger group of men and women who often followed Jesus around.  She wouldn’t have had all the experiences the 12 apostles had, but she may have witnessed many of Jesus’ miracles and heard a lot of his sermons.  But here’s what grabs our attention--did you hear what Luke wrote?  She was always doing good and helping the poor.  Literally, “she was filled with good works and acts of mercy for people who had to beg.” Luke gets more specific later in this story.  When Peter arrived and went to the room where Tabitha’s body was lying--listen to Luke: All the widows stood around him, crying and showing him the robes and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was still with them.  So here’s the deal.  Tabitha was a Christian woman--and we don’t know if she was married or single--who made a special effort to take care of the poor.  This is an age when most women relied completely on their husbands for support.  Men often died young, and nobody had ever heard of Social Security or life insurance. Unless she had a wealthy son, a woman who lost her husband was more or less a beggar.  Those were the people Tabitha reached out to.  And her compassion wasn’t just in her head or in her heart; with her own two hands she literally gave those women the shirts on their backs.

            Whatever got Tabitha involved with widows?  Well, there were a lot of widows in those days, and she might have known some of the widows in Joppa.  But she could have found other things to do.  She could have spent more time taking care of her own home and maybe her own husband and family.  She could have joined a health club or a book club.  She could have traveled.  There were some business women in the ancient world; she could have sold expensive purple cloth like Lydia did (check that out in Acts chapter 16).  What made Tabitha use her time and talents to take of poor widows?

            It’s obvious, isn’t it?  Tabitha was a disciple.  She heard Jesus speak, she watched Jesus work, and she learned from Jesus.  She knew what he said about humility and mercy, she watched him care for people who were paralyzed and blind, she saw him heal people who had mental and physical diseases, she heard him invite people who were outsiders and outcasts.  And even if she didn’t actually hear the words we heard in the Gospel for today, she knew what Jesus had said to the twelve the night before he died: My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.  You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last.   And that’s what Tabitha did.  Just as Jesus did, Tabitha went out of her way to care for the poor.  And she wasn’t unique.  What Tabitha did in Joppa was a way of life in the early church.  Luke describes the way the first Christians lived: All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.

            Of course, times have changed.  It’s not so many years ago that just about every Lutheran church had a Dorcas Society, a group of ladies who sewed clothes for the poor and blankets for the aged.  They’re the ones who served the ham and potato salad at the funeral lunches, too.  Not many churches have Dorcas Societies anymore.  I’m not being critical; nobody has time these days. I’ve never handled a ladle at a soup kitchen.  I’ve never volunteered to be a big brother.  But it isn’t just the time, is it.  Sometimes it’s the inclination.  We tend to stay away from the poor sections of town, and we tell ourselves that Milwaukee is too cold for homeless people.  We give to the United Way or the cancer society and kind of feel we’ve covered our bases.  And we pay our taxes--a lot of taxes--and watch the great American security blanket kick in for the poor.  And it happens sometimes that we see other church-goers or churches doing the kind of things we don’t do--you know, those social gospel things like helping the diseased and disabled and disadvantaged people in our society--and we kind of turn up our noses a little and say: Our church proclaims the real gospel, the genuine gospel, that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners.  You know what Lutherans say: Hopeless men well-housed are hopeless still.  We give people the saving message, not just a social massage.

            Of course times have changed, but Tabitha reminds us that once upon a time the Savior’s followers not only believed that Jesus gave them the hope of eternal life with God, they also believed Jesus had given them an example for taking care of the hopeless and the helpless.  Those first Christians didn’t get their priorities mixed up for a minute; they knew what was most important, and a lot of them gave up their lives confessing that Jesus was their Savior.  But they didn’t put their confession of Jesus and their love for the less fortunate in two different compartments.  Faith in Jesus and love for people came from the same heart.  For them, faith and love worked together.  Faith moved their lips in confession; love moved their hands to action.

            When Tabitha died, the church leaders from Joppa knew they had to do something.  Peter was nearby in the town of Lydda, 12 miles away.  They covered those 12 miles as fast as their legs would carry them, and then Peter ran back to Joppa just as fast.  He knew he had to do something.  He still must have been breathing heavy when he got to the upstairs room where the body was waiting for burial.  Peter sent the people out of the room; then he got down on his knees and prayed. What did Peter pray?  Did he say, “Lord Jesus, we need Tabitha; we need her work in this congregation.  The widows need her, but we all need her.  She’s our example; she reminds us how to help others.  You have to bring her back to life again.”  Did he wait a split second to see if Jesus would do something?  Did he start begging for help?  Did he say “Jesus, give her life.”  Did he think, just for a second, “Could I do this?”  It was preposterous; no one but Jesus had raised anyone from the dead.  What was Peter thinking?  “I saw him do it.  I saw him raise Lazarus from the dead.  I saw him raise the little girl, Jairus’ daughter.  I was there in the room; I even remember what he said.  He said Talitha cum--little girl get up.  Did Peter’s eyes widen when he realized what was going on here?  Talitha: little girl--Tabitha. One letter different.  Was there a sparkle of anticipation in Peter’s eye?  Was he ready to do what Jesus did?  Turning toward the dead woman, he said, “Tabitha cum--Tabitha, get up.” She opened her eyes, and seeing Peter she sat up.  He took her by the hand and helped her to her feet. Then he called the believers and the widows and presented her to them alive.

            Jesus cares about people who care for the poor.  Jesus knew that Tabitha was happy in heaven.  But he also knew there was more work for her to do.  He cared about Tabitha but he also cared about what she did.  She was an extension of his love in her congregation.  She showed his love to people he had redeemed.  Peter must have felt the same.  So Peter prayed and Jesus empowered and Tabitha went back to work again, caring for the poor.

            They don’t make much noise or get a lot of intention.  They visit criminals in their jails and sit with the dying at their bedsides.  They administer meds in the middle of the night and take meals to the homebound.  They don’t flinch at filth or turn away from poverty.  They are nameless saints who care for nameless sinners.  And Jesus loves them.   He loves them because they show the kind of love he had for people, a love so deep it led him to die for people--not only respectable people or well-off people or people in nice homes and apartments, but all people.  And he loves them for more than that.  He loves them because every tear they dry and every hand they hold and every smile they share opens up a window so that Jesus can enter with the most important thing he ever did.  Jesus died on the cross for these people, too, these who are not only the last and the least, but also among the lost.  He forgave their sins and he rose from the grave to give them an eternal life with God.  So it is good for us to remember today that we need to care bout the people who care for the poor like Jesus did.  More than that, we need to admire them and look up to them and pray for them and even thank them.  And then perhaps, with Jesus’ power we will become like them--perhaps even like Tabitha who was filled with good works and acts of mercy for the poor.  Amen.

Preached at Grace Lutheran Church, Milwaukee, WI (www.gracedowntown.org) on May 17, 2009

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