I buried my father last week. When I say buried I mean I watched him die — slowly – over the past three years. I visited when I wasn’t too busy, cared for, fretted over his decline, watched his last day (missed his last breath), identified his body, then finally, painfully, but preciously, conducted his funeral.
To bury your father. A noble task surely?
Jesus rebuts a man who, upon being called to follow him, offers the caveat; “Lord I will follow you, but first let me go bury my father.” Jesus’ reply, “Let the dead bury their own dead. You, however, go and proclaim the kingdom of God”, seems harsh at first glance, especially in my slightly fragile grieving state.
Second glance? It’s even harsher.
For just as I have buried my father, so this would-be disciple was asking not for a day to dig a hole or roll over a stone, but a season, a year, a decade, to tend, care for, nurture, be anxious over, and spend time with his ageing parent.
Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? Sounds like the kind of pastoral heart that we should expect of Jesus. Perhaps his scotching reply is an interpolation from a more zealous type; an early ninja-church missional community rewrite ensuring that family didn’t get in the way of, you know, “family”.
But of course, as so often with Jesus, there’s more going on. Jesus is putting his finger on the great spiritual scandal of Christianity: Without spiritual life from him, a person is dead. Even a living person. Especially a living person.
Jesus encounters this man whilst walking to Jerusalem, walking to the cross, to his own death, a death that will defeat death once and for all. Nothing must get in the way of it. Nothing. And, as his reply intimates, nothing must get in the way of those who would follow him to the cross either. They must die too, if they are to be truly alive. Nothing must be allowed to come between a person and Jesus’ call on their life. Nothing.
If we don’t get that we don’t get Jesus. We don’t get how radical and awkward and demanding he is of us. But in a sense Jesus, in treating this man so harshly, is laying down a clear path for us all.
Jesus calls many to follow him. And many respond like that man. “Yes Lord I will follow you, but first let me…FILL IN THE BLANK.” And Jesus just won’t have that. Won’t allow it. He knows that to fill in the blank first is the path of certain death. Is proof of death itself. He offers life and we choose death at our peril.
The dead have many modes of living. Many tasks and actions they wish to carry out before they would consider Jesus, even the task of finalising their frail and failing parents’ affairs. Many good and noble tasks. But ultimately, in the eyes of Jesus, deathly tasks that would endeavour to keep us from the kingdom.