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.

3 comments:

Jack Collinson said...

I favour the first. It's the most obvious and the most universally applicable one. The second and third require an extra-textual understanding of Jewish custom. It's true that the man would only need a few hours to bury his dead father's body, but the point Our Lord is making is that his heart cannot at all be attached to worldly matters/concerns when it comes to hearing and following the Word. Our Lord saw in the man's heart that his wanting to go back to bury his father was not just an innocent intention to fulfil the commandment and honour the man who raised him; rather, He saw that the man would have used it as an excuse to return to the world permanently: once he had settled the matter of burying his father, another related issue would have cropped up (settling inheritance?), and so on without end, until the man had totally lost the way.

A somewhat similar thing occurs when the Resurrected Christ practically rebukes Mary Magdalene by telling her not to touch Him, because "I have not yet ascended to the Father." I think it was St. John Chrysostom who interpreted this, "in her [Magdelene's] heart, He had not yet ascended to the Father", i.e. her understanding was still somewhat imperfect and worldly, she had not yet fully grasped the nature of Christ's divinity. Certainly it wouldn't have hurt for Christ to have let Magdalene touch Him; He let her do it when she washed His feet with her hair/tears. But Christ had to remind her of the greatness of the mystery she was being presented with, so that her merely human affection and concern didn't blind her to the reality, just like when God demands that Moses take off his sandals before approaching the burning bush. These actions may not make complete sense on a very literal or carnal level, but have to be understood spiritually as to what is taking place in their hearts. If the man who wanted to bury his father was more sincerely detached from it, perhaps Our Lord would not have prevented him; but the point is that if he had been allowed to return to bury his father, he would have become spiritually "dead" again - one of the dead burying the dead. In contrast, when a Christian buries a Christian it is the living burying the living.

MaryP said...

Aside from the literal, there is a great lesson grounded in the literal. Jesus had just been denied hospitality by the town from which the man came, a terrible insult. He was humanly outraged. His reaction? A lesson in how to deal with outrage. To James and John, a direction against vengeance. In the three who come to follow Him, He expresses the injury (no place to lay his head), gives the direction for letting go of injury (let the dead - the people in the town - deal with their own), and, finally, not to look back (resent, recriminate, dwell on, remember).

Karl said...

I don't have a problem with the simplest sense. It reminds me of the woman with the precious ointment. It really could've been sold for much and given to the poor, likewise it would be right to return home and bury his father. I don't think there's a need to involve insincerity. Saint Gerard Majella disobeyed his mother to become a saint. Do we imagine that the apostles didn't leave relatives and communities behind?

But there's a higher way.

Yet, I remember a secular story about the investigation of a woman who had abandoned her daughter to follow her calling, and I found the idea laughable.