The discipleship of Dorcas has little to do with her social status. She seems to have no family but is apparently financially secure. A hint of her background may come through the dual translation of her name, but any conclusions that might be drawn are speculation. I believe her background and identity are left obscure on purpose so that her lifestyle is highlighted (not her life). Luke notes she was “abounding with deeds of kindness and charity” and that she did them continuously. Those deeds had strong ties to the Torah which was very concerned with the plight of widows. Widows were among the most vulnerable in ancient society. If there was no family to care for them, they lost all means of support and were relegated to begging for alms or prostitution as a way to support themselves. The people of Israel were commanded to take up the widows’ cause and care for them (Ex. 21:29; 22:22; Dt. 10:18; 24:19-21; 26:12-13; Lev. 18:7). For Dorcas, this concern was such an integral part of her life she practiced it “continually”. But now she is dead!
When Dorcas dies a frantic call is put out to Peter who “just happens” to be nearby. A hasty trip is made to from Lydda to Joppa (a 10 mile distance) and the scene Peter encounters is both urgent and endearing. Dorcas is prepared for burial (which in all likelihood would be taking place that evening) and on view in an upper room. We see through the eyes of the widows the kind of person Dorcas was as garment after garment is produced. The Greek word used to describe her actions designates her kindness as a quality that was profitable and useful to others and not just a nice personality trait. Dorcas did not just acknowledge that widows had a problem and the Law required their care, she actually did something to help them in their time of need. Her death is a terrible blow to them. Something must be done, but the action suddenly stops as Peter clears the room to pray harkening back to several other men of God who prayed after someone died (1 Ki. 17:8, 17-24; 2 Ki. 4:8-37; Lk. 8:41-42, 49-56).
While we don’t know what Peter prayed or how Dorcas felt when she awoke, the words are inconsequential. As a summary statement Acts 9:42 emphasizes the point of the passage. Notice that Peter and Dorcas are not even mentioned when “it” became known. True discipleship produces faith. Because the narrative forces us to see the event, rather than hear it, it is no surprise that the final three verses emphasize sight. Dorcas opens her eyes, she sees Peter, and he brings her to the saints who see her alive. Discipleship, then, is something that is seen. A sensitive reading of this narrative then would cause us to ask ourselves if we see the same demonstration of discipleship in our own lives. Are we, as Dorcas was, caring for the vulnerable, being attentive to their needs, and performing acts of kindness that benefit them? If yes, then we are living as disciples should.
Unlike cultural values which fluctuate with the millennia, the value of women is very evident throughout the Bible, and most noticeably in the words and actions of Jesus. Unlike the conventional teachers of His day, Jesus talks with women (Jn. 4:1-30), commends them for their faith (Mt. 15:21-28; Lk. 7: 36-50; 8:43-48) and even has them travel with Him as He teaches (Mt. 27: 55-56; Lk. 8:1-2). Women played a large part in the early church as well (Acts 1:14), evangelizing alongside Paul (Rom. 16:1-2; Phil. 4:2-3), training leaders (Acts 18:24-26; Rom. 16:3-5), and planting churches (Acts 16:11-15; Phile. 1:1-2). The Bible clearly shows us that women have been and always will be willing disciples whether they say it with words, or in the things they do. But discipleship is not exclusive to women. Men can be disciples too!
Dorcas stands within a line of faithful women who did not consider themselves above the people they served. By today’s standards we would want to elevate her and draw more attention to her self-sacrifice. But she was content to work within the culture of her day and live the life of a disciple as her resources allowed. In that way she demonstrates to all women (and men too) that this is our calling as believers in Christ. And if others see this demonstrated in our lives, they too will believe (Mt. 5:13-16).
Ann H. LeFevre, M. Div.