The Dead: Matthew 8:21-22

Another of his disciples said to him, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.”

Matthew 8:21-22 (NRSV)

This follows closely on the heels of another offer to follow Jesus.  In that offer, Jesus presents the stark reality of the cost of following him.  That same basic train of thought continues into this passage.

In this passage, the would-be follower wants to take care of a familial obligation, first.  This is not trivial; his father died.  We might imagine Jesus’ exasperation if someone approached him saying that he wanted to follow Jesus – and all the sacrifice that entailed – if he could just wait until after lunch.  But this is actually a weighty matter in someone’s life, and it serves to sharpen the point.  Jesus will maintain that following him is actually more immediately vital than this man’s father dying.  It is better to leave his father unburied than to delay following Jesus.

This is also important to our understanding of the passage.  The man wants to follow Jesus; he just wants a short delay to tend to something else.  It’s a very reasonable request, assuming that following Jesus is always going to be an option – or at least a viable option for the next day or two.  In Jesus’ mind, any delay is unacceptable.  The man has to leave all his present circumstances behind and follow Jesus right now.  Not tomorrow, but right now.

So, we know that, in Jesus’ mind, following him is more important than burying your recently deceased father, and no delay is acceptable.  What is behind this?  Why is Jesus so emphatic, that you need to leave everything behind and follow him right now?

Our clue is in Jesus’ statement, “Let the dead bury their dead.”

Something we often overlook in our readings of Jesus is his strong belief, that John the Baptist also proclaimed, that the wrath of God was imminent.  It was looming, like an executioner’s blade hovering above your neck.  A rather large chunk of what it meant to Jesus to save His people was to save them through this judgement that would fall on Judea, and eventually the whole Roman Empire, at any moment.  It was this imminent destruction that fueled John the Baptist’s urgent cries for Israel to repent and be baptized, and it is this imminent destruction that is behind Jesus’ urgency to follow him and be saved.

Certainly, there is a spiritual component to following Jesus even for the original followers, but for us on this side of the destruction of Jerusalem, the spiritual component is all we can really relate to, and as a result, we often forget about the very real phenomenon of people literally leaving behind everything to follow Jesus so that they might literally be saved from a literal impending judgement.

It is this that explains Jesus’ seemingly harsh response.  If the building is about to explode, you don’t have time to go back and take care of even very important things, and the people who insist on going back and staying in the building are dead.

Even in modern speech, we use that expression.  People say, “You’re a dead man” to people who are very much alive (has anyone actually said this to a dead person?) to indicate that their death is an imminent certainty.  We say, “Those people are dead,” when we watch a movie where people are put in an impossible situation where their death is certain.  Even our prisons refer to “dead men walking” when talking about prisoners making their way to their executions.

In Jesus’ mind, you can follow him and escape the building that’s about to explode, or you can stay there (or go back there) and die.  This destruction could happen at any moment, and even Jesus himself does not know when this will happen:

“Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.  But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

Matthew 24:34-36 (NRSV)

But he does know it will happen soon.  It is against this certain, imminent destruction that Jesus’ words make a lot of sense.  There is nothing the would-be follower could do that would take priority over surviving the wrath to come and living in the age to come, and anyone who decides that there is something more important is a dead man.

There is a sense in which the teeth behind Jesus’ words have been blunted with time.  The imminent destruction Jesus was concerned about happened a long time ago.  We may not feel the building-with-a-bomb sense of urgency that is behind Jesus’ perspective in this passage, and inasmuch as the destruction of Jerusalem was occupying Jesus’ mind, there’s no particular reason why we should be concerned about that specific thing.

This passage does give us an occasion to reflect on why we do what we do, the costs of doing so, and what we hope to gain.  It challenges us to examine our own priorities and compare them to what we profess to be the driving factors in our lives.

And, too, there is an amount of uncertainty about when God will act definitively in history and what forms that may take.  John’s Apocalypse puts us in an indefinitely long period of time where not a lot happens or changes, but he also foresees another period of trouble followed by another pivotal moment when God destroys Death and the evil that is in the world in favor of another age of new closeness and prosperity.  We do not know when this will happen.  Perhaps we will live out our lives and die without seeing it.  Perhaps it will start tomorrow.  Perhaps it has already started and will take some time to build to its pivotal crescendo.

But we don’t know, and this should inject our lives with a certain sense of urgency – an urgency to make sure we are being the new creation people God wants in the world, and an urgency to invite everyone we can to join up.  It is only this faithful community that God has promised He will see through age to age, and the broad terms of what God wants His world to look like have been emphasized to us for millennia.

We need to be about this project.  We need to be about it now.  We need to consider what we will give up to join up, and we need to arrange our priorities according to our hope and act on them in ways that testify to the world that God is truly our God, Jesus is truly our Lord, a new creation is coming and now is, and that we actually believe this.

Consider This

  1. How do we live consistently with the truth that we are in the midst of an indefinite period of time before the next definitive act of God as well as the truth that we are to be a new creation people in the here and now?  Should we assume we will live and die with no great change in history?  Should we assume the world as we know it will be overturned tomorrow?  What implications does this have for our actions, now?
  2. What do you hope to gain from your faithful participation in God’s people?  Where does that come from?  What would you be willing to give up for it?  Is there anything you wouldn’t be willing to give up for it?