“But Jesus told him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.” Matthew 8:22 NIV
This is a puzzling verse, I think most of us would agree. It seems, on the face of it, devoid of compassion. And yet Jesus was often puzzling. He spoke in a figurative way that confuses us just as it sometimes did his disciples, though culturally this frame of thinking was usual to find at that time in a spiritual teacher, as it ought to be now, perhaps! Does Jesus really mean the man should leave all responsibility for his dad’s funeral?
I think this is about priorities. Jewish and Muslim burials need to happen within 24 hours of the person’s death, and so this man’s loss was extremely recent. He’d probably barely taken the news in, was still reeling from it. And Jesus says, no, don’t be concerned about that, following me is more important. Following him is more important, more urgent than the funeral of your nearest and dearest? Yes.
And Jesus also speaks from a place of absolute knowing the difference between life and death. Death in his understanding was not the enormous separation from life that we conceive it to be. For him, it was simply another state of being; several times he refers to the dead as “sleeping,” and of course was capable of raising the dead back to life. When you have come from eternity, perhaps these transitory differences are less fundamental and less tragic than they seem to us. And yet Jesus is not without compassion at other people’s grief throughout the gospels. We see how terribly moved he is by Martha and Mary’s grief even though he knows their brother Lazarus will soon be brought back from the dead.
I can’t help thinking, when I call this verse to mind, of Therese of Lisieux, who followed her calling to enter a convent despite the fact that her father couldn’t cope with losing the company of yet another child and was heartbroken afterwards. His mind broke too and he ended up in the local asylum. Yet still Therese went, there was no question of her returning home, of breaking her vows, and so she went on to become a revered saint and a doctor of the church, influencing and helping millions through her writing, life story, prayers and her “little way”. Likewise, we see Isabella in the bard’s Measure for Measure counting her eternal life more important than her brother’s earthly life, as she refuses to sleep with the Duke in bargain for Angelo’s release. I read this at university with a group of non-Christians, and they simply could not understand her refusal. I could see where she was coming from, but they just thought her selfish.
I am quite certain that Therese loved her father dearly. I am sure that she felt great anguish for him, but I also understand that there was a greater claim on her heart. Her elder sister, Celine supported him and Therese wrote to them and prayed for them. It must have been so hard. But both these women, one real, one fictional, are looking at things from an eternal perspective, seeing life as the smaller part of existence, and making decisions with heaven in mind. I think that is what Jesus is urging us to do, too.
© Keren Dibbens-Wyatt
Photo public domain from pixabay