In this coming 13th Sunday of Ordinary time, the gospel is taken from Luke. In yesterday’s post we considered the rejection by one Samaritan village. Today, we encounter individuals who announced their readiness to follow him. They were clearly well-intentioned, but had not realized the nature of the demands the kingdom makes.
As they were proceeding on their journey someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58 Jesus answered him, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.” 59 And to another he said, “Follow me.” But he replied,”(Lord,) let me go first and bury my father.” 60 But he answered him, “Let the dead bury their dead. But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
We know where Jesus is going. Jesus is on his journey to Jerusalem. Would the person be as willing to follow if he knew Jesus’ journey and the things that will play out in Jerusalem? This first person expresses his readiness to follow Jesus. There is nothing wrong with the way he puts it: he is ready to go anywhere Jesus leads. But the reply shows that he has not reckoned with what this means. Jesus indicates that personal pleasure is not part of his travels: “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.” Jesus’ comments imply that the follower will be like the leader. If Jesus has no place to lay his head, his followers shouldn’t expect anything better.
With the second person, it is Jesus who asks him to follow (akoloutheo). Jesus’ statement in v. 59 is exactly the same as he uttered to Levi in 5:27, “Follow me.” Levi leaves everything and follows. This man can’t. The duty to bury one’s father was part of obeying the commandment, “Honor your father and mother.” The duty of burial took precedence over the study of the law, the temple service, the killing of the Passover sacrifice, the observance of circumcision and the reading of the Megillah (Megillah 3b) – which itself discusses the public proclamation and teaching of the Law.
Joseph takes a leave from the Pharaoh so that he can bury his father back in Canaan (Gen 50:1-7). Tobit shows his faithfulness by burying the dead (Tob 1:16-20). The importance of a son burying his father and mother is illustrated by Tobias, Tobit’s son (Tob 4:3; 6:15). There have been some arguments that the father was not yet dead, that the son wanted to stay at home until he could fulfill this obligation. There are no indications of this in the text. But the burial duties of a Jewish son are not as simple as western culture admits. Green (The Gospel of Luke, 408-9) describes the Jewish practice more fully:
The practice of primary burial (in which the corpse is placed in a sealed tomb) followed by secondary burial (following a twelve-month period of decomposition the bones were collected and reburied in an ossuary or “bone box”) is well attested, with the additional twelve months between burial and reburial providing for the completion of the work of mourning. According to this reckoning, Jesus’ proverbial saying would refer to the physically dead in both instances: “Let those already dead in the family tomb rebury their own dead.” In either case, Jesus’ disrespect for such a venerable practice rooted in OT law is matched only by the authority he manifests by asserting the priority of the claims of discipleship in the kingdom of God.
The text is clear – the urgency of the gospel supersedes all other claims. Tomorrow’s post will address the third person Jesus encounters in this section.