‘Leave the dead to bury their dead’ must be one of Jesus’ starkest commands, and it flies in the face of the sacred Jewish obligation to attend to the burial of your father ahead of all other duties, even the saying of your daily prayers. So I’ve always felt rather sorry for the man who wanted to bury his own father before following Jesus, and for the other one who asked if he could just go and say goodbye to those at home. I wonder what happened to these men? Luke doesn’t tell us. The Gospel account rolls on and in the next chapter we see Jesus appointing 70 of his enthusiastic followers to set off in pairs ahead of him on the road to Jerusalem to cure the sick and proclaim the kingdom of God. The 70 presumably must have overcome their misgivings after Jesus’ warning that there would be no turning back for his followers, and nowhere to lay their heads. Or maybe they’d all just been swept along in the sheer enthusiasm of the moment, by this charismatic teacher, despite the risks and sacrifices involved. I wonder if the two men were among the seventy; if they accepted Jesus’ challenge to run with his radical new agenda that was more about making one big human family – including society’s outcasts – than it was about nurturing the traditional Jewish family, always such a central and vital symbol of the people of God. It seems the idea of family here has been re-defined. The focus is now on the future, despite the importance of the past in forming Jewish identity. Suddenly – and apparently quite urgently – a new tradition is coming into being, as Jesus continues to reform, indeed to recreate, his own cultural, social and religious tradition. Perhaps the man had said, `No, I really must return to bury my father. It is my sacred duty. Not to do so would be shameful to me and my family and disrespectful to his memory. Besides, the family needs me.’ Perhaps this bereaved son was the eldest, the new man of the house, in charge of the funeral arrangements, the speeches, the care of the widow and orphans. Not deaf and blind to the prophet Jesus, just not ready to follow right then, because he was needed at home.
There is another possibility: that the man was making an excuse. Jesus’ heady talk of healing and casting out demons and the kingdom of God being at hand sounded good, yes. But it also sounded risky. And besides, Jesus wasn’t the first wandering preacher to pass this way – was he really any different from the other Jewish revolutionaries, spitting rebellion at the Roman occupiers? Perhaps he was just another oddball, worthy of about as much attention as we might pay to the man in the middle of Oxford Street, proclaiming that the end of the world is nigh. It needs more thought, perhaps he said to himself, I don’t want to commit. I’ll hang back and see how it turns out. I can always join in later. These men – whatever they decided – and their families – are just bit players in Luke’s account of the story of Jesus, which takes them up, carries them, drops them and moves on towards its shocking climax in Jerusalem. We never meet them again, although we can imagine that if they did go with Jesus, they would have ended up hiding in terror with the rest of his followers during their leader’s arrest and crucifixion, and that if they had stayed behind, they would have struggled with a mixture of guilt and relief when they heard what had happened.
Jesus is setting out to proclaim a vision of the love and justice of God – or, as the Gospel puts it, the Kingdom of God. This is so urgent that even traditional ties and duties have to be left behind. Now, we may find this uncomfortable, even offensive, but would we wish to silence the life, the love and the passion that bubbled out of this radical messianic figure? Try to look at it from his perspective. Just as it’s not fair to see the man’s grief and concern for his family simply as a lack of commitment, so it’s probably not fair to see Jesus as the insensitive villain of the piece, riding roughshod over people’s feelings. We’re told at the beginning of the passage that Jesus had already set his face toward Jerusalem, the place where he was to be rejected, suffer and die. So, the Jesus we meet in Luke is not on a picnic or a holiday; he’s on a deadly serious mission which he is beginning to perceive will demand from him the ultimate sacrifice. It will take every ounce of courage to go forward on this homeless road and there will be no turning back without undoing the call he has heard. He has already cut ties with his own family – his teenage choice to stay with the rabbis in the temple at Jerusalem rather than return home with his parents prepared the ground for his decision at 30 to leave the family business and take up a life on the road. He doesn’t marry, as far as we know – unless ‘The Da Vinci Code’ was not fiction after all. He was not settling down, nor sticking around to organise funerals. Instead, he is striking out on a dangerous political and spiritual path. He seems to be steeling himself for the sacrifice ahead, reminding himself that there will be nowhere to lay his head, no time to say goodbye, no turning back. This is serious, he’s saying. Don’t come if you don’t want to. It’s not about glamorous healing expeditions and calling down God’s punishment on those who don’t agree with us. It’s about life and death, about what really matters, about proclaiming the truth, overcoming hypocrisy, liberating the weak and loving your neighbour. Next to these visionary goals, individual emotions and family commitments may well seem less significant. And given that Jesus was going to give his life for them, you can understand why he may sometimes have lost patience with those who weren’t prepared to make smaller sacrifices.
Well, what about us? Yesterday was the Feast of Ss. Peter and Paul, a time of year when ordinations to the ministries of deacon and priest traditionally take place. But ordained ministry certainly isn’t the only sort of call that might come our way, for whatever our vocation, whether it be to living out our calling in our work, in our homes, or in our communities, the call is the same and the response required is the same. We inhabit a different age, society and culture, though some of the ties that might hold us back are pretty much the same. I am not going to say that we should all leave our fathers unburied, whatever that may mean in our own context, in order to follow Jesus’ vision of how the world could be. That was that man’s story: ours are quite different from that dusty scene in Palestine. But I am going to suggest that, even today, this vagrant, angry and passionate man, Jesus, is still posing questions to us – as individuals, as the church, and as a society – about where our real priorities lie. How do we discover and follow the vision of the Kingdom through the forest of our own entanglements and commitments? ‘I’ll come, Lord, and I’ll try this new kingdom stuff… providing it doesn’t mean too much change for me, that I can hold on to my ancient grudges, and the way I like to do things, the way I’ve always done things; providing it doesn’t cost too much in terms of money, time or effort; and that I can keep my current lifestyle, and no, I really couldn’t invite that sort of person to my party; they wouldn’t fit in at all.’ But, apart from all that, I’m up for it!
Jesus’ response to the three would-be disciples along the road speaks of a God who is uncompromising, whose love and call reach beyond the confines of the comfortable, the known and the expected. To the follower who naively says ‘I will follow you wherever you go’ Jesus gives a flavour of what life will really be like with little security or comfort. To the one who wishes to fulfil his duties and bury his father, he speaks of a call that cuts across laws and all the things that we would normally be expected to do. To the one who wants to go back, he says, ‘Let go, move on; love’s pull is more urgent’. What Jesus says is hard, that the pull of God should be at the heart of all that we do, beyond the comforts and commitments, ties and conventions of our daily life. Quite the reverse: we should expect God’s way to include being uncertain and feeling insecure. We may, like the naive follower of our passage, rush in with our rash promises. But what is more genuine, and probably where most of us find ourselves, is in hesitation and doubt, as we try to understand what we are letting ourselves in for, weighing up the real cost of the commitment – and only we can decide all of that.
I am left wondering: Do you think Jesus knew, as he promoted this radical new approach to tradition and to religion, that many people down the forthcoming centuries would die for his revolutionary teaching – as, of course, he did himself? Or that the whole of human history and human potential would be changed forever? Imagine he did, and it becomes a whole lot more difficult to say, ‘Er, sorry, Lord, I’d like to come, but there’s something important I have to do first. I might try and catch up with you later’.