Jesus said to him, “Let dead people bury their own dead. You go and tell others about God’s kingdom.” – Luke 9:60
This month, Daughter #2 is in the middle of a five week intensive Summer pre-College program at Emerson College (we used to call these “camps” back in the day but kids are oh-so sophisticated now) in the far away land of Boston. She’s loving it. Me? Not so sure.
She’s literally disappeared into the lion’s den of Red Sox fever (not an altogether agreeable thing for me as a die-hard Yankees fan with a growing love for the Rangers). Other than the sporadic Face Book post or one-word text in reply to my 3-screen messages, it’s like she simply evaporated. Oh well.
Summer camps are like that. They fill our imaginations even as they fill our days. I remember the seemingly endless weeks I spent at the YMCA Summer Camp my mom dutifully enrolled me in every summer as a child. Horseback riding, hiking, archery, marksmanship, fort building (I always loved that one), swimming…
One of my most indelible memories of Summer Camp occurred when I was 9 years
old. This particular day we were at the oversized outdoor pool – the one that seems like the size of two football fields when you’re 9 but in reality is just a little larger than the Olympic size pool most of us learned to swim in. Our group had been swimming all morning, and then pigged out on hot dogs for lunch. Boys being boys, we didn’t listen to the warning about not swimming right after lunch (because really, who does?) so off
My friend Joey and I were racing from one side of the pool to the other. Being the hyper-competitive kid I was, I worked mightily to keep up with Joey who was a year older than me and a better swimmer. About halfway across the last lap, Joey suddenly stopped in mid-stoke, thrashed about a little and then sank to the bottom of the pool.
“Cool!” I thought. “He’s cocky and thinks he can still beat me!” After making it to the
edge of the pool, I turned to look for him but he was nowhere to be seen. Glancing around, I saw him still at the bottom of the pool. Thinking he’s just showing off, I hopped out and as a joke yelled at the lifeguard “Hey! My friend’s at the bottom of the pool!”
The next thing I know whistles are blowing, people are screaming, and lifeguards
are ordering kids out of the pool. They hauled Joey out of the water and onto the deck.
He wasn’t breathing breathing. The lifeguards all had very stern looks as they worked on Joey, and I was feeling a little nervous. Maybe a little more than nervous.
Now, the brain of the average 9 year old boy doesn’t work like the brain of the
average grown man – well, ok, let’s say in most cases, like except a movie where Megan Fox is fighting off mechanical robots in cut-off short shorts. 9 year olds haven’t yet developed a sense of decorum in social settings. So I thought nothing bad about peeping through the crowd at Joey laying on the pavement and asking “Is he dead yet?” I meant no harm or disrespect, I was just cutting to the chase.
The lifeguards were not amused and asked me (not so politely) to leave the pool area and not come back that day. Fortunately, Joey turned out to be ok and we were all laughing about it the next day.
This story came back to me as I read through the passage from Luke at the beginning of this message. In the passage (whether the Luke 9 version or the Matthew 8 version), Jesus is speaking with his disciples about the meaning of following him. One disciple, meaning
well, speaks up and asks if he can go bury his dead father before joining the journey. Jesus responds with the well-known phrase “Let the dead bury their dead.”
I’ve always found this passage a little harsh, even disturbing. The guy’s father had just died! What could Jesus have been thinking? How callous for a preacher to react this way toward a fellow follower of God!
I believe the answer lies in Jesus’ perspective on the question. In fact, Scripture leads me to the conclusion that much of what we view as compassion would be considered by Jesus as little more than misplaced caring for the “walking dead.”
For context, we need to remember where this passage occurs. In Matthew’s account, Jesus had completed a series of healings (a man with a skin disease, a Roman commander’s servant, Peter’s mother-in-law, many people suffering from various demons), demonstrating yet again the proactive nature of his ministry. When a teacher of the law suggested he would follow Jesus anywhere, Jesus replied “Foxes have holes. Birds of the air have nests. But the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” meaning his ministry had no time to rest and that following him came at a cost. It was then the question of burying the father was put to him.
Luke places the story at the end of chapter 9, which is filled with accounts of Jesus’ ministry in action: the sending of the twelve, the feeding of the five thousand, the explanation to Peter of the meaning losing oneself to God’s larger plan, the mountain top epiphany, healing the boy with the evil spirit, the explanation of how the least important person is actually the most important person, forgiveness of the Samaritans for rejecting him. Then Jesus exchanges comments with followers about the cost of following him and again the question of burying the father was put to him.
In both versions, Jesus draws a stark contrast between what it means to really follow the path God has laid before us and the easier, less painful path we often choose for ourselves. This second path is what Jesus refers to when he tells his follower to “let the dead bury their own dead.” Jesus doesn’t literally mean to let rotting corpses bury rotting corpses. Rather, he’s addressing the tendency so many of us have to allow other things to come between us and God. In this sense, Jesus was recognizing that the follower was more considered with matters of the flesh than matters of the heart and the spirit. The follower was, in effect, a “dead man walking.”
In truth, we’re all dead men walking, condemned ultimately to die. Time eventually runs its course and there is nothing we can do to reverse it. Regardless of how much success we achieve or fame we receive, no matter who our families are or how widely we travel the world, even with all the money of a Bill Gates or the professed charity of a Warren Buffett,
nothing can create a barrier between us and death. This was also true for Jesus.
Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie, Rector of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Fort Washington, Pennsylvania, put it this way:
“On the day he died, Jesus was escorted from a Roman prison and marched to Golgotha – a trash heap outskirts on the Jerusalem. Roman guards walked to his right and to his left. Soldiers walked before him and behind him in a cross-like procession. He was a dead man walking. He was alive and breathing, but he was living under a death sentence. His fate was sealed. Time had run out. His death was imminent.”
I imagine not even Jesus himself believed God would intervene on that final walk. Jesus knew he must walk the walk each one of us walks every day – the walk of condemnation to death – in order to receive the greatest gift of all, the gift of eternal life. God lifted Jesus from that death sentences and returned him to us as a way of announcing that we, too, can receive this amazing gift. Yet importantly (and to Jesus’ point when speaking to his follower), this gift is not free, and is not our birthright.
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus repeatedly demonstrates that true faith, the faith that leads us to the Kingdom, is “verbish” rather than “adjectival.” Jesus continually pushes his followers and, by extension, you and me to understand that the Kingdom already is. We are invited, to enter, but that invitation must be actively acknowledged, accepted and received. We must act here and now rather than delay for some future time.
This is the real lesson Jesus was teaching his follower when telling him to let the dead bury the dead. Spiritual deadness, the way of this world, leads to true death. Jesus was saying “tend to the living, the needs and the relationships of those who need your attention, those who need to hear the Word of God.”
My question standing at the edge of that pool so many years ago looking at my young friend’s cold, wet, and apparently lifeless body is the question we should ask ourselves every day: “Are WE dead yet?” Have we given up hope? Have we lost our ability to believe that God’s Kingdom is meant not for some future time alone but for each of us, right here, right now? Have we forgotten that the ultimate purpose behind Salvation is for us to enter into relationships with each other as we grow together in our relationship with God?
Jesus teaches us that our lives are meant to be lived in active service to each other, rather than dwelling on the past. The present is all we can affect moment-to-moment, and if we look backward, regretting the mistakes or losses of yesterday, we lose sight of what God has laid out for us today.
This week, try two things. First, reflect on something in your life that has you looking backward. Perhaps the loss of a loved one, perhaps a mistake resulting in a change in your life plan, or maybe simply a general feeling of failure and regret. Hold that thought in your mind. Focus on it. Then write it down on a piece of paper, find a match, a burn it, letting the flames melt the pain and regret from your heart as they consume the paper.
Then, find someone in need of your attention, reach out to them, and let them know you love them. Focus on now rather than yesterday or tomorrow. Be the love for them you seek for yourself.
Copyright © 2011 Robin Green, All Rights Reserved