EDITORIAL: “Let the dead bury their dead”

The Lord’s comment, “Let the dead bury their dead” (Mt. 8:22), reveals how He had a way of so radically challenging the positions held by normal people of the world, to a depth quite unheard of and He did it in so few words. And even more wondrous, the Lord appeared to have come out with this so pithy and semantically dense statement almost ‘off the cuff’, when presented with a man declining to follow Him immediately because he had to bury his father. So let’s see in what ways the Lord’s comment was so radical.

Respect for parents, as expressed in burying them, “was at the heart of Jewish piety… under Hasidic-Pharisaic influence the last offices for the dead had gained primacy among all good works… the duty to participate in a funeral procession could even override study of the Torah”(1). And of course the Lord knew this, He knew just how fanatic the Jews were getting about burying parents - and it’s exactly that issue which He chooses to pick on in His relentless demand for our ‘all’ in following Him. Quite apart from the particular obsessive situation in first-century Israel relating to burying parents, there was a widely held view amongst both Greeks and Jews that burial of a father could only properly be done by the son, and if this wasn’t done, then the man was effectively not properly buried, which even Biblically is used as a curse. And ‘just’ for delaying doing the Lord’s service for a day, the Lord demanded all this of a person. He’s no less demanding today, even if His radical call is articulated over different issues. It may mean having to remain single when our parents want us to marry an unbeliever; giving up a good job; turning down promotion; relocating somewhere nearer our brethren; driving or sending our children to a school a long way away for their spiritual wellbeing… these, and far more, unto death and the complete giving up of life, are His demands.

But there are other radical elements in those words of the Lord. Lev. 21:11 forbade the High Priest to be polluted by the corpse of his parents, which would have precluded him from the usual Jewish manner of burying the dead in the first century. By asking His followers to act as if under the same regulation, the Lord was inviting His followers to see themselves, each one, as the High Priest. We may merely raise our eyebrows at this point, as a matter of mere expositional interest. But to those living then, this was major and radical, a man would have to summon up every ounce of spiritual ambition in order to rise up to this invitation. And psychologically, we could say that those first century illiterate Jews were subject to a very powerful systemic spiritual abuse. By this I mean that they were so emotionally hammered into the ground by the oppressive synagogue system that they felt themselves unworthy, no good, not up to much, awful sinners, woefully ignorant of God’s law, betrayers of Moses and their nation… and the Lord addresses these people and realistically asks them to feel and act like the High Priest! No wonder people just didn’t ‘get’ His real message, and those who did were so slow to rise up to the heights of its real implications. And we today likewise toil under a more insidious systemic abuse than we likely appreciate, with the same sense of not being ultimately worth much… until the Lord’s love and high calling bursts in upon our lives, releasing us from the mire of middle class [or aspired-to middle class] mediocrity into a brave new life. Another example of the challenging way in which the Lord treated His men is to be found in Jn. 15:16: “I have chosen you and ordained [Gk. Etheka] you”. C.K. Barrett shows that etheka reflects the Hebrew samak, and that the Lord’s phrase alludes to the ordination of a disciple as a Rabbi(2). Those guys must have looked at each other in shock. They who were barely literate, and knew how very human they were, whose small minds were creaking under the burden of trying to understand this Man they so loved… were being ordained as Rabbis, by a man who’d just washed their feet, which was what disciples usually did for their Rabbis. But, yes, the Lord challenged them and us to have a far higher estimate of His opinion of us…

The Spirit Of The Prophets
And further. ‘The prophets’ were painted by Judaism rather like the Orthodox church paints ‘the saints’ today - white faced men of such spirituality that they are to be revered and worshipped as icons, rather than seen as real examples to us today. The Lord by contrast saw them as working models of the sort of spiritual life and walk with God which we too can just as realistically attain to. In Ez. 24:16-24, God forbad Ezekiel to carry out the mourning rituals associated with his wife’s funeral. Likewise Jeremiah was forbidden to participate in lamentation for the dead in a house of mourning (Jer. 16:5-7). And again, the man who was bidden “let the dead bury their dead” was being invited to see himself on that level, of an Ezekiel or Jeremiah, being called to this behaviour by a person who could speak directly on God’s behalf. And why were those prophets bidden to do those things? It was in order to be a witness to Israel, proclaiming judgment to come. And this was exactly the same reason the Lord bid His potential follower to ‘let the dead bury the dead’ - in order that the man could urgently proclaim the Gospel to Israel. Yet if we press further with the question as to why exactly God wanted Jeremiah and Ezekiel to not mourn for the dead, we find ourselves reflecting that, actually, God quite often asked His prophets to engage in what some would call ‘anti-social’ behaviour in order to attract attention to the message they were preaching. Remember that Jeremiah was forbidden to marry [most unusual for a Jew], go weddings etc. (Jer. 16:1-4,8). For other examples of ‘anti-social behaviour’ demanded of the prophets [e.g. walking about naked], see Eze. 4:9-15; 12:1-7; Hos. 1:2; Is. 20:1-6. When we meet the enigmatic phrase, “the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” (Rev. 19:10), I believe it’s a pithy summation of what we’re saying here. The Angel had made prophecies, and John felt that this was something so wonderful that it separated him from the Angel. But John, like us, was bearing “the testimony of Jesus” (Rev. 1:9). The same essential spirit which was in the prophets is in all those who in their spirit, or attitude, bear the witness of Jesus. Hence the prophesying Angel encourages John not to worship him, but rather to recognize that he is John’s “fellowservant, and of thy brethren the prophets, and of them which keep the sayings of this book”, i.e. all believers (Rev. 22:9). And again, this was radical stuff for the initial audience of the Apocalypse. They were being told that they had the prophets as their brethren, and on account of their spirit/attitude of bearing the testimony of Jesus, the same spirit which was in the prophets was in them. The very act of bearing witness to Jesus in our spirit/disposition is in fact to have the same spirit in us which was in the prophets and was the basis of their prophetic witness. This makes the prophets our “brethren”, not distant white faced ‘saints’.

Israel was a society bound together by ‘norms’ of behaviour and taboos regarding cleanliness. Yet prophets like Jeremiah and Ezekiel had been asked to openly break with the conventions of their environment, in order to draw attention to the message they were preaching - which was that God is likewise outside of the conventions of human environments, and His message is a radical call to quit them and be ourselves, His children and not the children of this world. The Lord asked a man on the way to his dad’s funeral to “let the dead bury their dead” and instead come with Him and preach the Gospel - and this chimes in seamlessly with the way God treated the prophets and commissioned them for witness to His people. The prophets were perceived as men raised up by God in a crisis situation, to do something special in their generation, to be God’s men of the moment which we admire from the safe distance of historical study. And we, too, can feel the same about them. But the Lord bursts abruptly into this complacency – “thou art the man!” is very much the message. Our lives are likewise to be lived [in this sense] in a spirit of all-out effort for God’s people in urgent crisis. A man in a desperate war situation might dodge out of his dear dad’s funeral procession to fight the enemy or save a life that was immediately and urgently threatened. But it would have to be a pretty urgent and immediate crisis that bore down very personally upon him. ‘And this’, the Lord is saying, ‘is the intensity and pressing urgency of the spiritual battle I’ve called you to’. I salute the Lord as highly as I can for the totally artless and majestic way in which He packed so much challenge into those few words: “Let the dead bury their dead”.

The Urgency Of Our Task
There is to be an urgency about following the Lord, an urgency that can’t be put off. This was one of the things which was so unique about the Lord’s teaching style. It’s been observed: “There is nothing in contemporary Judaism which corresponds to the immediacy with which he [Jesus] teaches”(3). Or as the Gospel records themselves put it: “Never man spake like this man”. The total unusualness of His teaching style and content was enough in itself to make soldiers sent to arrest Him simply give up and turn back. If we ask why men followed Jesus, it’s hard to think they did so because they thought He had promised them a great reward in the future; for He says little of this, and their reaction after the crucifixion indicates that they loved Him not because He had offered them anything that tangible. There was simply a Divine power of personality within Him, and by this I mean more than mere human charisma, and a message which demanded the immediate response of following Him wherever it might lead, even like Abraham not knowing where He was going. As Nebuchadnezzar proudly surveyed his capital city, the Angelic voice suddenly stated: “To thee it is spoken; the kingdom is departed from thee” (Dan. 4:31). But it was 12 months previously that Daniel had bravely told the king that unless he repented, God’s intention was to remove his kingdom from him. The king had heard the word… and forgotten its real import. But “to thee [‘you’ singular] it is spoken”. So it can be with us. We may hear and perceive something from the word, but a year later we’ve forgotten it, and we tend to use the nature of human memory as an excuse not to have to take seriously the simple fact that if we hear something from God’s word, we are to do it…and we are held accountable if we don’t. The passing of time doesn’t somehow produce an atonement for us. Therefore - and this point just outlined needs some reflection before we feel its practical import - it becomes absolutely crucial to respond to God’s word immediately. Hence there is an urgency to our Bible study - for as we understand, we are to do, not to merely jot notes in a margin or imagine we’ve taken a mental note. We are to do, to act, to take concrete action, as a result of what we perceive God asking of us. The immediacy of the baptisms in the first century were symptomatic of how the early church responded with immediacy to the Lord’s call; but the immediacy of response to His word continues, of course. For we are to live “in newness of life”, ever living out again that same basic response of baptism which we made when we first encountered the Lord’s call.

The idea of leaving family and putting them last was uncommon but not unknown within Jewish circles. Again, the Lord was using familiar ideas, but with a radical and thoroughly unique twist to them. The schools of the Rabbis and Pharisees were full of both stories and examples of men who had indeed quit their families and given up their jobs in order to fanatically study the Torah, and had ended up materially and socially advanced(4). It’s apparent from the Gospels that the Scribes and Pharisees were socially and economically better off than the mass of the population in Palestine. But the radicalness of the Lord’s demand was that He asked people to leave all and ‘follow Him’ - in order to achieve an actual loss of material and social advantage. In all this we see a relentlessness in the Lord’s demands of men and women, His dogged insistence as to the unconditional and total nature of following Him. Once we grasp what following Him is all about, it becomes apparent that to tell a man on the way to bury his father, ‘Let the dead bury their dead’, was actually quite in harmony with what the Lord was asking of those who would follow Him. On this occasion, He put it so baldly and bluntly to the man rushing to the funeral that both readers and hearers of those words of Jesus were, and are, shocked. But if only we grasped the real essence of His teaching, we wouldn’t see that demand as in any way unusual or out of character with the general tenor of His message.

Following Him
And there was yet more radical, pattern-breaking demand within the Lord’s words: “Follow me, and let the dead bury their dead”. To ‘Follow me’ and be preachers of the teacher Jesus of Nazareth was not unknown in first century Palestine. But to stop a man on the way to his dad’s funeral and insist he join up right now and skip the funeral - that was incredibly demanding. Further, it was always pupils who tried to get into a Rabbi’s entourage or school, the Rabbi didn’t just walk up to a normal, non-religious working guy and say ‘Hey you… come right now and follow me…’. This is where the attempts to make the Lord Jesus out to have been just another ‘holy man’ within the first century Jewish prophetic environment are, to me, simply pathetic. Here was a man, a more than man, who spake and demanded and convicted and loved and ultimately saved like no other. There is an undeniable connection between the guerrilla groups who fought the Roman occupation and the schools of rabbinic teaching, the fanatic zeal for the Law was the thing that drove the Jews to fight as they did. The idea of ‘following after’ a man is a Hebrew figure for men following their leader/general into battle. There are many examples: Josh. 3:3; Jud. 3:28; 4:14; 6:34,35; 9:4,49; 1 Sam. 17:13,14; 30:21; 2 Sam. 5:24 etc. In those early days, a general wasn’t a smart guy with a degree who directed the battlefield from his laptop; he was the one who went over the top first with his men behind him, knowing full well he was the one his enemies would go for above all others. It was his bravery which inspired the followers to go after him and which, over the battles and wars, solidified their trust in him and willingness to give their lives behind him. And this figure of speech was well understood by the Lord. Around him were false prophets and rabbinic teachers, asking young men to follow them, adopt their interpretations of Torah, study the traditions, and get hyped up enough to take weapons in their hands and go forth to fight the infidel. The Lord was fully aware of this, and He frames His calling of men in the same terms. Indeed, when He speaks of leaving all and following after Him (Lk. 14:33), He surely had in mind the well known story of Mattathias, who began the Maccabean revolt by saying, “Let every one who is zealous for the Law and supports the covenant follow after me…and they left their possessions behind in the town” (1 Macc. 2:27). And again the Lord seems to have had this in mind when He says that when He comes, His true people are to flee Jerusalem and not worry that their ‘stuff is in the house’ (Lk. 17:31). For an itinerant teacher like Jesus of Nazareth to offer his ideas and his interpretation of the Old Testament, and then have men following Him, was not out of place in first century Palestine. But the Lord twists the whole figure of ‘follow me’. Unlike the other teachers, his teaching didn’t lead to taking arms and fighting Rome. His men are to follow Him in wilfully taking up and carrying a cross, imitating His supreme human bravery in both His life and above all in His death, a bravery which He showed in facing sin in the eye and conquering every temptation, whatever the cost, whatever the human implication.

The Violence Within
The real battle was not against Rome, but against sin in all its forms, against human weakness and dysfunction, rooting out cherished habits, secret sins, the innermost fantasies of the heart, and reaching out to the salvation of others and the advancement of the things of God’s Kingdom. The ultimate battle we are led to is the battle of truly accepting the cross in our lives, of realising and living out the truth of the fact that losing now is winning; dying now is living… In the moments, the seconds and even half seconds of temptation, we are to fight and win, to courageously follow that bravest of men, “the captain [another of the many military allusions in the New Testament] of our salvation”.

As a woman glances at the display of alcohol in the supermarket, yearning to ‘just this once’ drown the tension of an unbearable, no-exit life… as another brother begins to slip into a rage and expletives yell in his mind at the brother who’s just demolished his cherished view of prophecy, etc,etc, it is in these moments they are in the heat of battle. But it’s all a question of perceiving that this is what the war is about, and that every battle is bitterly contested and fought out to the end, with no easy victories. The battle is above all against ourselves, not some brother with suspected wrong teaching or Rome or the Moslems or the JWs round the corner. In this was the essential difference between the Lord’s teaching and that of the contemporary Rabbis, who saw the struggle as a literal one by the righteous, those justified by their correct reading of Torah, against an external pagan enemy. There is of course a conflict with the world around us, ‘satan’ refers both to the powers of the world as well as to our own internal temptations, but the conflict is most significantly within our own hearts. It’s no good gallantly fighting the evil of the world if we’ve not started and keenly felt “the violence within” (to borrow a phrase from Paul Tournier). Perhaps this theme is presented to us in the account of Uzziah, who had many “valiant men” in his army, but it was the priests who in that same context are called “valiant men” for daring to stand up to Uzziah’s immorality and speak out against it (2 Chron. 26:12,17).

The Call Of God
But this radical call to ‘follow me’ is thrown out by the Lord in an almost casual way - or so it can seem. The usual way was for a man to observe and reflect upon a rabbi’s words and ideas, and then ask to join in his inner circle of followers. But the Lord wasn’t like that. He called men, arresting them with His radical call in the very midst of daily life, at the most inconvenient moment, even the most humanly inappropriate moment - such as being on the way to a father’s funeral. And again, the Son of God was actually acting as His Father had done. Gideon was called whilst in the middle of threshing wheat in a time of famine (Jud. 6:11), Saul whilst he was out looking for lost cattle (1 Sam. 9:10,20) and again whilst he was coming home from work one evening (1 Sam. 11:5), David whilst he was looking after the sheep, Samuel whilst he was asleep, Amos whilst he was tending his flock (Am. 7:14,15, see also 1 Kings 11:29; 19:15; 2 Kings 9:1-13,18). In other words, the call of God comes to us right in the midst of ordinary, mundane life, of this there can be no doubt. And the Lord Jesus called men in just the same way. This is what was, and is, so unusual and startling about the ministry of the Lord. His love sought men out; He didn’t wait for them to come to Him [for none of us would ever come without God’s gracious initiative]. Of course, it was only those who perceived that He spake on God’s behalf who could take His invitation as a real call from God which had to be obeyed.

And again, every Old Testament ‘call of God’ was for someone to do something dramatic, often in extreme crisis and physical danger, inviting them to rise up to the challenge of the moment. Yet as we have shown, the call of the disciples had the call of the prophets as its prototype. And the Lord Jesus went around Palestine and goes about this world today, calling people with that same call. We are ordinary folk, nothing-special women, average fellas… just like those invited in the first century, and yet we are ‘called’ in the same way as people were called to heroic things in Old Testament times. To encounter Jesus as we have done is to be called by God. The struggle and fight and victory and eternal cause and glory to which the Lord Jesus calls us to rise to, is just as real now as it ever was, and just as bitingly urgent to respond to. Perceiving it imparts a spirit of heroism to our otherwise formless and unachieving lives. For example, to conquer gluttony or repressed anger and bitterness over a lost relationship, to lead a friend to Christ… these are the victories, the real ones, which have eternal consequence and glory.

So to sum up, I don’t think that we should skip a relative’s funeral in order to ‘do’ things for the Lord. And I don’t think that was the intention of the Lord’s words. Rather is He teaching us of the sense of urgency which there must be in our service to Him, our willingness to ‘follow’ Him whatever it takes, to place no restrictions upon our service to Him and what it may demand of us. We are to see our lives as being totally dedicated to Him, making use in some way of all the precious seconds granted us, rather than letting them slip away between our fingers. We are to realistically grasp the fact that His mission and ministry is in fact ours. And the total insecurity, exposure to danger, misunderstanding, sudden calls of God to change direction and move way out of our comfort zone etc; are all part of participating in the short term fate and eternal victory of the One whom we follow.

Notes (1) Martin Hengel, The Charismatic Leader And His Followers (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1981) pp. 8,9. (2) C.K. Barrett, The Gospel According To St. John (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1978). (3) Gunter Bornkamm, Jesus Of Naza reth (New York: Harper & Row, 1959) p. 57. (4) See Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem In The Time Of Jesus (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1969), pp. 112, 233

Duncan Heaster

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