Let the Dead Bury the Dead
To another he said, "Come, follow me." But he said, "Lord, let me first go and bury my father." But he said, "Leave the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the Kingdom of God". Another said, "I will follow you, Lord, but first let me first say farewell to those at home." Jesus said to him, " No one who sets his hand to the plough and then looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God." (Luke 9:59-62)
We have seen that Jesus points his followers beyond natural family ties to more urgent and important matters. Jesus did not denigrate family ties of affection and duty, but he placed them in a far wider context.
This man is not unwilling to be a disciple of Jesus, but says, "First let me go and bury my father." Not an unreasonable request! If he was the eldest son it was his responsibility to bury his father. Jesus' retort looks very harsh. Now, it is certain from the Gospels that Jesus was not inhuman or unsympathetic. He is not callous. On the other hand, we must also be careful that we do not make Jesus less demanding of our loyalty than he is.
One explanation of his words is "leave the spiritually dead to bury the physically dead". In other words, those people who are alive to the claims of the Gospel must give them those claims the first place. One writer thought that Jesus' reply was a striking way of saying, "That business must look after itself; you have more important work to do."
In Judaism the burial of even dead strangers was seen as a highly pious work, and Catholics have inherited this sense from the Bible when we list it among the "corporal works of mercy". In this context is added the force of the commandment to "honour your father and mother", so this is an important matter. However, the sense Jesus had of the importance of following him and working for the Kingdom of God meant that this was more important even than burying the dead.
We should remember the place of this saying in the Gospel. Jesus was nearing the end of his Galilean ministry and it was clear that there was opposition to him. It was already becoming clear what his end would be. He was therefore concentrating on a small group of followers who would give up everything to follow him in order to confront people with God's demands and call for a decision. In the next chapter of Luke's Gospel we see that Jesus sent out seventy of his disciples in twos to prepare the way for his own mission. What he wanted was total commitment. In the same way, St. Francis of Assisi a thousand years and more later demanded total renunciation of the values of the world from his friars. It is this same demand that leads men and women to give up everything, including families, in order to consecrate their lives to Christ by vowing poverty, chastity, and obedience. Thus Jesus is here expressing in a most radical way the necessity a disciple has to put the service of God before any other consideration whatsoever.
Therefore we cannot make this challenge easier by saying that it was just for a particular situation, the stage in Christ's life when he had to accomplish an enormous amount in a short time. From the very beginning of Christianity - as we read in the Bible - the Christian people, that is, the Church, has recognized that working for a living and raising a family are a good and proper way of living a Christian life. Many people, however - and not just monks and nuns - have heard Christ's call to renounce normal ties of family and country, and to keep before their eyes the ideal of total discipleship. All of us should know that Christ asks nothing less than whole of our heart and life. No half measures, or when we are judged we shall hear him speak in the words of Revelation 3:16. His discipleship is not something that can be undertaken lightheartedly.
E-mail this article to a friend
The Hard Sayings of Jesus copyright © 2004 Fr. Francis Jamieson.