Monday, July 30, 2018

Let the Dead Bury Their Own Dead


This week I have a question from a reader on a passage from the Gospels:

I have always been puzzled by the passage in the Gospel where the man wants to follow Jesus but asks permission to go and bury his father first. Jesus tells him, "Let the dead bury the dead; you follow me." Why would Jesus object to the man burying his father, since honoring one's parents is part of the Ten Commandments and burying the dead is a corporal work of mercy?

Of course, our Lord would not be counseling a course of action that violated one of the Ten Commandments or made light of the corporal works of mercy. Therefore, that interpretation of the passage must be based on a misunderstanding. What is our Lord really getting at?

First let's examine the passage. The reference is to an episode related in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. The passage from Matthew reads:


Another disciple said to him, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus told him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead" (Matt. 8:21-22)

In the version from Luke is very similar:

He said to another man, “Follow me.” But he replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:59-60).

I have read a lot on this passage over the years, and it would be too exhaustive to delve into the lengthy amount of patristic and other commentary that has been written on it. However, I can say that there are three main theories concerning the meaning of this passage, most differences having to do with what the phrase "first let me go and bury my father" means. I will present each theory and then offer my opinion of them.

First theory: the man literally has a dead father sitting at home in need of burial. Jesus objects not because it is bad thing to bury the dead, but because He senses insincerity in the motives of the man; Jesus asks him to follow Him. The man does not want to repent and follow Christ and offers this as an excuse. Jesus, knowing the man's hearts and thoughts, urges him to leave behind his concern for worldly matters and devote his life to God. This interpretation is favored by many of the Church Fathers. 

Second, the phrase "let me go and bury my father" does not literally mean, "My dad's corpse is sitting at home waiting to be buried," but is rather an Aramaic figure of speech which means "My father is old and will die soon. Once my father is dead, I will be freed of my earthly obligations and then I will follow you." So in this interpretation, the father is not really dead, just old. The phrase "bury my father" is a euphemism, similar to the phrase "I will go lie with my fathers", which means "I'm gonna die." The man essentially tells Jesus, "I am taking care of my elderly father but he will be dead in the near future and I will follow you then." Jesus admonishes him that the Gospel is not something that takes a back seat until the most opportune time. Today is the day of salvation, as St. Paul says (2 Cor. 6:2). Incidentally, this was the interpretation favored by famous 20th century Syriac scholar George Lamsa.

Third possibility: the issue revolves around the Jewish practice of "second burial" common in Palestine in Jesus' time. In Jesus' time, after a Jewish person had died, he would be immediately interred in the family burial cave or plot. The immediate period of mourning was seven days (shi'va), followed by a less intense mourning period of 30 days, called shloshim. However, the mourning period was not totally concluded until all the flesh had rotted off the body. This process usually took a year. At that time, the bones would be gathered and re-internment, or "second burial" (likkut aŠļďamot) would take place. The bones would be gathered together, placed in an ossuary (small chest-like container) and re-interred.

If the phrase "let me first go and bury my father" refers to this custom, then the man is asking Jesus for time to wait for the year-long likkut azamot mourning period to end so he can re-inter his father. Jesus essentially tells him, "You have already buried your father in the family tomb and honored him. There are others who can see to technicality of the re-internment."

I think each of these theories has merits and problems. The first theory is favored by the Fathers and admirably explains Jesus' objection, but leaves us with the unsatisfying implication that Jesus does straight up just tell the guy to not bury his dead father. I mean...it would only take like, what, a few hours? Jesus can't give the guy a few hours to bury his dad? 

Also, in this interpretation, when Jesus says "Let the dead bury their own dead", He is distinguishing between two kinds of dead, essentially saying "Let the (spiritually) dead bury the (physically) dead." But this seems to not make sense in light of the text: "Let the dead bury their own dead." The clause "their own" means that the first and second dead are of the same group; if I were to say, "Let the Canadians bury their own dead", it means the Canadians are burying other Canadians. The grammar of the sentence really does not leave much room to imply there are two kinds of dead. I have never really been satisfied with this explanation, and though it is favored by the Fathers I have read about, it's not universal.

The second explanation, favored by Syrian scholar George Lamsa, is interesting. It makes sense once we see it in light of other similar euphemisms (such as "to lay with one's fathers"). It also makes Jesus' response a lot more understandable; He is not telling the man not to bury his dead father, but essentially to not let family obligations deter him from following Christ. Let others see to the care of your father. You want to wait until your father dies; how long could that be? Nobody knows. If you postpone following God until your earthly circumstances are all aligned, you will never make a start of it.

Against this theory is the fact that, if the father is not literally dead, it becomes incomprehensible what Jesus means when he says "let the dead bury their own dead" since nobody is actually dead. Also, while this theory is plausible linguistically, there are no other biblical examples of "to bury the dead" or "bury one's father" being used exactly in this manner, even if we can find parallel examples from Syriac, Aramaic, and other cultures. Finally, George Lamsa, though very famous, is not a reputable scholar from a Catholic perspective. Setting aside the fact that he is a Nestorian and favors Modernist interpretations of certain biblical passages, other Syriac scholars fault his translation work for fundamentally confusing Syriac and Aramaic. I personally favored this view for a long time, but I'm definitely not sure about it anymore.

The third view has the benefit of taking into account Jewish burial customs has practiced in Jesus' own day. It makes sense of Jesus' objection; I noted above Jesus' objection doesn't make a lot of sense if the man is only asking for a few hours. But if the passage is referring to second burial, he could be asking for as much as 12 months leave, in which case it makes a lot more sense why Christ would object. The father is already buried in the family tomb with the remains of all the other family members; when Jesus says, "Let the dead bury their own dead," he's essentially making a joke, saying, "Your dad's bones aren't going anywhere. They are safe in the family tomb with all your other ancestors. I'm sure they'll keep him company"; in other words, "Let the dead (your other ancestors in the family tomb) take care of your father's bones until someone else in the family shows up to bury them." I think I currently favor this view, but I've only adopted it recently and need to think on it some more.

Regardless of which view you adopt, the moral is the same: If you have resolved to follow Jesus, then follow Jesus. Follow Him with pure motives. Follow Him today, while you still have fire in your eyes and air in your lungs. Don't say, "I'm too busy to attend to my salvation; I'll figure it out after my circumstances change." Don't pledge to follow Him with your lips while making up excuses. Follow Him, follow Him now, and follow Him sincerely. Your worldly affairs will get worked out. "Sufficient for the day is its own trouble" (Matt. 6:34).

If you enjoyed this article, I have a book called The Book of Non-Contradiction which deals with difficult biblical passages. It's an excellent work for people wanting to affirm the inerrancy of Scripture while understanding some of it seeming incongruities.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

"Clerical Abuse? Yes, but the Church is also Huuuuman"



Many Catholics have noticed the grimly providential appropriateness of the Old Testament readings in last week's Novus Ordo relevant to the current wave of abuse scandals plaguing the Church:

"Woe to the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture, says the LORD. Therefore, thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, against the shepherds who shepherd my people: You have scattered my sheep and driven them away. You have not cared for them, but I will take care to punish your evil deeds. I myself will gather the remnant of my flock from all the lands to which I have driven them and bring them back to their meadow; there they shall increase and multiply. I will appoint shepherds for them who will shepherd them so that they need no longer fear and tremble; and none shall be missing, says the LORD" (Jer. 23:1-4)

The problem is a problem with the shepherds, pure and simple.

And yet, I have noticed that some good-intentioned priests and apologists are trying to put a positive spin on this by appealing to the Catholic Church's human side. I've heard this in a few talks and homilies and the specifics may vary, but it goes something like this: 

"Yes this scandal is bad. Very bad. But hey, we can't get too disheartened. After all, the Catholic Church is a Church of sinners. We are not Puritans who idealize a church of the sinless. We're not Pharisees who demand perfection. The Church is divine, yes, but its also huuuuuuman. Just like Christ...He was divine and human. Our leaders are flawed, broken men. We are all broken people. We are all sinners. We are all flawed. Think of the saints! For all their holiness, the saints also had faults and weaknesses. Yes, the Church is flawed—but if it is, it's only because it's human. It's incarnational. Just like Christ."

Isn't that great? Doesn't that make you feel good? That's the sort of tripe I probably would have been writing twelve years ago. The sort of self-affirming nonsense that morally equivocates the sin of molesting a boy with eating too much chocolate, gossiping at the office, and the common variety of venial sins every Catholic struggles with.

Let's clear a few things up...

The Catholic Church is a church of sinners, meaning we understand that the vast majority of Catholics are not perfect and struggle with certain sins more or less. HOWEVER...that doesn't mean we expect our leaders to be no better than everyone else. We all understood that the Catholic tent regrettably includes the likes of Johnson the Embezzler and Gary the Whoremonger; that certainly doesn't imply we want our leaders to be of the same caliber. 

We are not Puritans who idealize a church of the sinless, but GOOD LORD, we have to make an effort! I know I can't run a marathon but that doesn't mean I give up the very ideal of exercise altogether. Do I have an idealized vision of a sinless Church? No. That would be very unrealistic and unCatholic. Do I have an expectation that the shepherds of said Church ought to refrain from touching boys' genitalia? Um...you're damned right I do, and such an expectation is both reasonable and very much in keeping with Catholic morality.

We are not Pharisees who demand perfection. OKAY BUT...stop equating "perfection" with "not molesting boys." It's not a dichotomy between either perfection or fondling genitalia. That's literally insane. Imagine a prosecutor listing off all the horrific crimes of Jeffrey Dahmer in horrific detail—kidnapping, torture, murder, cannibalism—to which Dahmer's attorney glumly shrugs and says, "Nobody's perfect." Because that's literally what's happening when clerical abuse scandals cause us to say, "well, we aren't Pharisees who demand a perfect Church."

The Church is divine, but it is also human. Absolutely. WHICH IS WHY we need our pastors to help us aspire to live up to the divine calling and not debase ourselves by indulging in our merely human passions. I want a pastor who helps me realize the divine potential God has placed within me and begins by striving to fulfill that potential himself—not wallows in the basest mire of human depravity.

I understand our leaders are flawed, broken men. I understand that we are all flawed, HOWEVER usually when we say "everybody is flawed...everybody is broken" we mean everybody has imperfections they struggle to overcome, or everybody has crosses to bear. We categorically DO NOT mean everybody secretly molests young boys, let alone forms institutional networks to cover up such molestation. That's...never what I have meant when I say "everybody is flawed." That's not a "flaw"; that's horrific perversion to a diabolical degree.

And by the way, yes the saints had faults. I knowwwwwwww, but seriously, what are we referring to when we talk about the "faults" of the saints? Usually things like "St. Jerome was impatient!" or "St. Therese said she struggled with vanity!" or, such things as "St. Francis was prideful before his conversion" or "St. Augustine used to be a libertine." Sure the saints had faults. Faults they STRUGGLED to overcome. They had faults. But their faults were not mortal and they did not persevere in them, otherwise they would not have been saints. Nor did they nourish secret sins. They certainly did not conspire together to form clandestine networks for the mutual protection of grotesque, secret sins. So please stop answering the indignation about clerical scandals with the bungling excuse that "even saints had faults." 

The Church is incarnational, just like Christ. HOWEVER...the union of the Divine Word with human flesh in the Incarnation was meant to glorify and ennoble human nature, not give occasion for humanity's weakness. In other words, the Incarnation is meant to make holiness possible, not offer excuses for debauchery.

So then, please, well-intentioned priests and apologists everywhere, please just stop the "We're all sinners! That's what's so great about being Catholic!" shtick. Imagine walking up to a young woman whose father had just died tragically before his time, patting her on the shoulder and saying, "You know, dear, everybody dies." Derp. No shit.* To say such a thing would be incredibly insensitive, wouldn't it?

God bless you for wanting to affirm people's faith. I commend you, I really do. I heard a homily today on this very subject that was actually quite good. But please, please, let us simply be indignant and grieve this horrific scandal with the magnitude it deserves. If we can't be indignant, we can't muster the requisite energy to properly root it out.

Yes, woe indeed to the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock.


*I predict some commentor says "I agree with everything you said except I object to the use of profanity towards the end. It undermines your credibility." To which I reply, "Hey, everybody has flaws. We're not a Church of the perfect. And even St. Thomas More said shit."

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Friday, July 13, 2018

Comment Problem

Good day. I want to apologize to my readers who have left comments for the past few months and not seen them published. I realized recently that Blogger has not been notifying me that people are leaving comments. I don't know why; I have double checked my settings and nothing has changed, but for some reason, beginning around March, when people leave comments pending my approval, I have not been getting notified and hence not approving anything. I had kind of noticed I was not getting any comments and I just assumed it was because people had finally realized I am a crummy blogger and given up on me. I'm happy to discover it was only a glitch.

At any rate, I have not figured out how to fix it. I am currently logging in to Blogger a few times a week to look for pending comments and approving them. I have also retroactively approved all your comments going back to March.

So, if your comments have not been getting through, please accept my apologies. Things will get better now. Pax.

~Boniface

Sunday, July 08, 2018

Bad Liturgies Cripple Evangelism


A major problem with widespread liturgical wimpiness is that it cripples the evangelical efforts of individual Catholics who are attempting to win their friends to the faith.

I know a person who is open to the Catholic religion. They are kind of curious, but they don't know a lot about Catholicism. But they are open. Nice starting place.

Now ideally, if they are curious, my first impulse should be to tell them to go check out a Catholic Mass to get acquainted with what the public celebration of our faith is all about. However, this individual lives in another country (another continent, actually) in a part of the world whose liturgies, shall we say, don't have the best reputation. I certainly don't know the local scene; I don't know how to recommend what parish they should go to. Even if I did, does that look good for my witness to be like, "Yeah, the Catholic faith is the truth and Catholic means "universal", but I wouldn't recommend going to 90% of the parishes around you. Go to this one, specific parish that I found for you after an exhaustive search." That sounds so lame and I feel lame having to do that. It is lame.

Now, at this point the conservative Catholic jumps in ready to help and says, "It's not up to you to convert them. Just send them to Mass and let the Holy Spirit do the rest. If they aren't impressed, it's because they don't UNDERSTAND what's going on. You see, friend, they need to be EDUCATED about what the Mass really is, about the Eucharist, and about the liturgy. Once they KNOW what's happening, they will fall in love with the Mass. Here's some books by Jeff Cavins and Mark Shea."

Okay, I appreciate the sentiment. One certainly has to understand what one is doing in order to dive in to it; you can't love what you don't know.

But here's the problem...

Before one can even will to learn about something, that thing must first grab one's interest by some inherently attractive element. Knowledge can make things more interesting, but before you desire to acquire knowledge you must have some initial interest. But why would I want to learn about something was unable to generate any initial interest to begin with? Something that interests me makes me want to learn more; but does anybody feel a desire to learn more about something that is boring and uninspiring? Has anyone ever sat through a boring professional presentation and thought, "This presentation is boring. Hmm...I think if I learned more about the subject this would be less boring"? Of course not. Being bored and uninspired is the surest way to discourage people from ever wanting to learn more.

To bring this back to the liturgy, if I tell my friend to go visit their local parish and they see an ugly, minimalistic building decorated with the most horrific examples of post-modern decor, coupled with a ridiculous, limp-wristed liturgy, sappy music—presided over by a bunch of elderly women—with a pathetic homily by a socially awkward priest where the fundamentals of the Christian Gospel are not only diminished but are absolutely indistinguishable...then, what on earth would possibly possess that person to want to "learn more" about the ludicrous carnival they've just sat through? Why would they ever want to go back, let alone devote the time to reading books and studying it?

So, no, the conservative Catholic mantra of "Just learn about what the Mass is" doesn't help; who wants to invest another two hours learning about something that bored them for one hour? Who wants to watch a dull Power Point presentation at work that is ten slides long and then be told that it would be more interesting if you watched another Power Point with 20 more slides?

What some people need to get through their heads is that many Catholic liturgies today lack any sense of transcendent mystery and that this sense of the transcendent is what piques a person's interest and makes them say, "Huh. Now that was interesting. I wonder what the meaning behind that was?"—and then they want to learn more. You can't plant a barren garden bereft of seeds and then expect anything to grow upon watering it.

I fully expect if I sent this friend to a Catholic Mass at an average parish where they live that they would walk away shaking their head saying, "That was a huge waste of my time" and wouldn't find anything remotely interesting about it.

"Oh Boniface, you're just being.........NEGATIVE!!! You're projecting your own dislike of modern liturgies onto other people and stopping them from coming into the Church!"

Um...no. I have actually been told this by non-Catholics. I was talking to a Methodist girl I know in Texas about my faith, trying to kind of garner some interest, and she dismissively said, "Psshh...look, I've been to Mass many times. It just doesn't interest me at all." A long-time Protestant non-denominational friend of mine went to a contemporary Catholic Mass and derisively said it "seemed like a celebration of man" and that there was no way he could be nourished by something like that. And you know what my friends? I had nothing I could say back to either one of them. I mean, I could explain that "The liturgy is celebrated differently at different parishes" and "Well you see a lot has changed since the 60's" and offer all sorts of explanations for what they experienced,  but at the end of the day I can't argue with their synopsis of what they experienced.

So, yeah, the poor state of the Novus Ordo at the majority of Catholic parishes is an active, objective hindrance to bringing non-Catholics into the Church. It cripples evangelization because there is nothing in most contemporary Catholic liturgies to even pique the interest of a visitor and make them want to do the preliminary study that would lead to entering the Church. And it's absolutely useless to tell a non-Catholic who has just disgustedly walked out of a banal balloon and ballet Mass that it would make more sense if they just "studied it more."

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