Jesus said to him, “Let dead people bury their own dead. You go and tell others about God’s kingdom.” – Luke 9:60
“Wait … I’m not ready!” How often have you heard (or said) that when a deadline looms suddenly? Buy more time, ask for an extension, make up a great excuse (like we all did at least once in high school) – anything to get out of doing the one thing we should do right now.
Some of us (myself included) tend to be world-class procrastinators. Others are simply afraid. Still others of us feel ill-equipped. Whatever the reason, we often find reasons why can’t face something head on.
I was reminded of this while reading through the verse from Luke at the beginning of this message. In the story (whether the Luke 9 version or the Matthew 8 version), Jesus is speaking with his disciples about the cost of following him. One disciple speaks up and asks if he can go bury his dead father before joining the journey. Jesus responds with the well-known phrase “Let the dead bury their dead.”
Many people find this passage a little harsh, even disturbing. The guy’s father had just died! What could Jesus have been thinking?
The answer lies in Jesus’ perspective on the question. In fact, Scripture indicates that much of what we view as compassion would be considered by Jesus as little more than misplaced caring for the “walking dead.”
For context, we need to remember where this passage occurs. In Matthew Jesus had completed a series of healings (a man with a skin disease, a Roman commander’s servant, Peter’s mother-in-law, many people suffering from various demons), demonstrating yet again the proactive nature of his ministry. When a teacher of the law suggested he would follow Jesus anywhere, Jesus replied “Foxes have holes. Birds of the air have nests. But the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” meaning his ministry had no time to rest and that following him came at a cost. It was then the question of burying the father was put to him.
Luke places the story at the end of chapter 9, which is filled with accounts of Jesus’ ministry in action: the sending of the twelve, the feeding of the five thousand, the explanation to Peter of the meaning losing oneself to God’s larger plan, the mountain top epiphany, healing the boy with the evil spirit, the explanation of how the least important person is actually the most important person, forgiveness of the Samaritans for rejecting him. Then Jesus exchanges comments with followers about the cost of following him and again the question of burying the father was put to him.
In both versions, Jesus draws a stark contrast between what it means to really follow the path God has laid before us and the easier, less painful path we often choose for ourselves. This second path is what Jesus refers to when he tells his follower to “let the dead bury their own dead.” Jesus doesn’t literally mean to let rotting corpses bury rotting corpses. Rather, he’s addressing the tendency so many of us have to allow other things to come between us and God. In this sense, Jesus was recognizing that the follower was more considered with matters of the flesh than matters of the heart and the spirit. The follower was, in effect, a “dead man walking.”
In truth, we’re all dead men walking, condemned ultimately to die. Time eventually runs its course and there is nothing we can do to reverse it. Regardless of how much success we achieve or fame we receive, no matter who our families are or how widely we travel the world, even with all the money of a Bill Gates or the charity of a Warren Buffett, nothing can create a barrier between us and death. This was also true for Jesus.
Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie, Rector of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Fort Washington, Pennsylvania, put it this way:
“On the day he died, Jesus was escorted from a Roman prison and marched to Golgotha – a trash heap outskirts on the Jerusalem. Roman guards walked to his right and to his left. Soldiers walked before him and behind him in a cross-like procession. He was a dead man walking. He was alive and breathing, but he was living under a death sentence. His fate was sealed. Time had run out. His death was imminent.”
Jesus knew he must walk the walk each one of us walks every day – the walk of condemnation to death – in order to provide us the greatest gift of all, the gift of eternal life. God lifted Jesus from that death sentence and returned him to us as a way of announcing that we, too, can receive this amazing gift. Yet importantly (and to Jesus’ point when speaking to his follower), this gift is not free, and is not our birthright.
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus repeatedly demonstrates that true faith, the faith that leads us to the Kingdom, is “verbish” rather than “adjectival.” Jesus continually pushes his followers and, by extension, you and me to understand that the Kingdom already is. We are invited, to enter, but that invitation must be actively acknowledged, accepted and received. We must act here and now rather than delay for some future time.
This is the real lesson Jesus was teaching his follower when telling him to let the dead bury the dead. Spiritual deadness, the way of this world, leads to true death. Jesus was saying “tend to the living, the needs and the relationships of those who need your attention, those who need to hear the Word of God.”
Jesus teaches us that our lives are meant to be lived in active service to each other, rather than dwelling on the past. The present is all we can affect moment-to-moment, and if we look backward, regretting the mistakes or losses of yesterday, we lose sight of what God has laid out for us today.
This week, try two things. First, reflect on something in your life that has you looking backward. Perhaps the loss of a loved one, perhaps a mistake resulting in a change in your life plan, or maybe simply a general feeling of failure and regret. Hold that thought in your mind. Focus on it. Then write it down on a piece of paper, find a match, a burn it, letting the flames melt the pain and regret from your heart as they consume the paper.
Then, find someone in need of your attention, reach out to them, and let them know you love them. Focus on now rather than yesterday or tomorrow. Be the love for them you seek for yourself.