03 October 2012

Let the dead bury their dead

26th Week OT (W)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

That settles it. Jesus is a hippie. We have biblical proof. It's all there: wandering band of misfits; goo-goo eyed groupies; Jesus being all hip with his “no where to lay my head” schtick; birds, trees, sky, butterflies. All he needs is a Jerry Garcia tee-shirt and a pair of tie-dyed knee britches. And if we stopped reading half way through verse 59, we'd be right to think that maybe our Lord is giving us a little taste of 1st century Haight-Ashbury. However, if we keep reading, the “Jesus as Hippie” idea becomes a whole lot less convincing. Jesus says to a man in the crowd, “Follow me.” Before joining up, he wants to go bury his father. Jesus gives him a very un-hippieish answer, “Let the dead bury their dead.” Another invited groupie asks leave to go say farewell to his family. Jesus gives another answer that belies any attempt to picture him as a hippie, “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the Kingdom of God.” The ministry of proclaiming the Kingdom of God is not a part-time job, a weekend adventure, a dilettante's hobby, or something to do when there's nothing better to do. The gospel must be preached first, always, now, and to the very end. 

We can probably sympathize with the disciple who says to Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Who here wouldn't jump at the chance to wander around with Jesus? We can certainly understand wanting to go bury a parent or to say farewell to our family. Jesus' response to these last two requests seems not only grouchy but downright cruel. What will it hurt to let these two go take care of some family business before getting started on God's business? Ah, my business before God's business. The question answers itself, right? When reading the gospel it is always necessary to keep firmly in mind that Jesus understands us better than we will ever understand ourselves. Had he allowed these two to skip off to take care of their own business before vowing themselves to proclaim the kingdom, a precedent would've been set in scripture: sometimes it's OK for the followers of Christ to set aside their baptismal vows to get other stuff done. Are we ever permitted to pause our witness to God's mercy and get other stuff done? No. That other stuff can get done as a witness to God's mercy but never instead of it. Let those who are already dead worry about burying the dead. We're alive still, so our business is living everyday as witnesses to the Gospel. 

Jesus reinforces this when he says to the first disciples, “. . .the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.” Jesus isn't homeless b/c he's poor. He's homeless b/c he is sent to preach the Good News. He never rests in his divine mission to make sure that all receive the invitation to live with his Father eternally. He never stays put. Never lays down roots. Ours is a missionary faith by design—a way of living in right relationship with God through Christ that demands we go out there and show others what it's like to get, receive, and put into action God's mercy. Jesus insists that his disciples forgo performing two traditional religious obligations—burying the dead and saying farewell to family—b/c the proclaiming the Kingdom needs immediate attention and total commitment. Who will be lost while we attend to social customs, personal business? God's business comes first for those who follow Christ. That's the gold standard we have been baptized to follow. So long as you and I are alive, the standard we keep is clear: anyone who takes up his/her cross, follows Christ, and then stops to look back. . .well, Jesus says it himself, “is [not] fit for the Kingdom of God.” The gospel must be preached first, always, now, and to the very end. 

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  1. I had a mixed reaction - didn't really dig the beginning, but about half-way through the first paragraph it picked up and mostly continued to get better. Though at the end, I found the transition from the penultimate sentence to the final sentence to be somewhat abrupt - maybe something was needed in between these two?

    You're still kickin' my butt, though. Not going to let any of us stop to catch our breath, are you? ;-)

    1. Basically, I ran out of time while writing. . .I fixed it (more or less) when I preached.

      No stopping for bathroom breaks or stretches on The Way!