Jesus Verse by Verse

an expanded commentary on the Gospel of Matthew

Jesus Verse by Verse...

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Digression 4 "Let the dead bury their dead”

"Let the dead bury their dead" (Mt. 8:22) was a shocking, even coarse figure to use- 'let the dead bodies drag one more dead body into their grave'. It 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”. 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, in any case 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 kids to a school a long way away for their spiritual sake… 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 forbad the High Priest to be polluted by the corpse of his parents, which would’ve 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 guys back then, this was major and radical, a man would have to sum 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. 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. 24:13-24, 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 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, quite often God 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 Ez. 4:9-15; 12:1-7; Hos. 1:2; Is. 20:1-6. 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”.  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”(5). 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 forever 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 it’s 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 where men 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. 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. And there was yet more radical, paradigm breaking demand within the Lord’s words: “Follow me, and let the dead bury their dead”. To ‘Follow me’ and be an itinerant student 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 had to join up right now and skip the funeral- that was just incredibly demanding. Further, it was always pupils who tried to get into a Rabbi’s entourage or school- he 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 milieu 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 what 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 whom 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.