Follow me and let the dead bury their own dead.
[When one of his disciples tells Jesus that he wants to go back home and attend his father’s funeral, Jesus replies with these words.]
Here is the first of many statements that “Focus on the Family” probably chooses to ignore. In Jesus’ time, as now, the rituals surrounding death were treated with a sacred reverence. For family members, participation is absolutely mandatory. Some people consider funeral rituals to be so important that they belong to a faith community solely for the purpose of being assured that they will get a good funeral.
I had a little exposure to Jewish customs when we lived in West Rogers Park in Chicago. Shortly after we moved into our new home our elderly orthodox Jewish next-door neighbors Abe and Beulah dropped by with an Entenmann’s chocolate cake. Even though I said my husband wasn’t home and that I was kind of busy they came in anyway, sat down, and we chatted. They were so nice. Beulah wanted me to turn on the lights to our Christmas tree so I complied and she admired it for a while. Of course, being Orthodox Jews, they never had a Christmas tree in their house. It was a nice visit and I was very glad they came by.
We talked to Abe and Beulah occasionally and they were always funny and nice. One day our neighbor from across the street who was a non-practicing Jew came by and told us that Beulah had died and that as immediate neighbors we must visit Abe and his daughters while they were “sitting shiva”. Being Christian, we had no idea what she was talking about so she had to instruct us.
Jewish funerals take place very quickly after death, preferably within 24 hours. After the funeral, the immediate family dedicates itself to mourning for 7 days. The chief mourners all stay together in the same house for an entire week. They do not go outside. They do not cook, or clean, mow the lawn, or do any work. Everything they need is provided by their faith community. A shiva minyan (a quorum of 10 Jewish men from the synagogue) comes to the home daily for prayer services. Friends and relatives stop by with food. The tone of the shiva is determined by the mourners – it may be a time for socializing or a time for open expression of grief. Visitors should be respectful and sensitive and should allow the mourners to speak first. If no one speaks, everyone sits together in silence.
It was beautiful. Abe was sitting shiva with this two grown daughters who left their husbands and children to spend the week mourning with their dad. Abe was a cheerful mourner and was genuinely happy to see all of the people in his home. He played with the children and talked about how much he loved his wife. He told stories and laughed a lot. Everyone was invited to eat all of the food that had been provided by others. We brought an Entenmann’s chocolate cake and were greeted warmly. We left when it became clear that a minyan was assembling for evening services. You could feel the love that’s indicative of presence of God. It was so thick you cut it with a knife.
Abe passed away a few weeks later, and the daughters came back and sat in Abe and Beulah’s house for another week. All of the neighbors came again. I don’t think the daughters were orthodox, but they still observed the shiva ritual. I don’t think they had minyans come for evening worship because they lived in the suburbs and were no longer part of Abe & Beulah’s local faith community.
In my mind this experience is just another example of how a rich Jewish tradition is truncated and stripped of much of its spirituality by Christianity. A 4 hour wake is a poor substitute for a week-long shiva with a prayer meeting in your house every night. If you are a Jew you are surrounded by your community after the funeral, when the loneliness and shock are just setting in and you are trying to figure out how you are going to go on without your loved one. If you are a Christian you are pretty much alone. It was awesome and I wish we did mourning in the real, original, full-blown Jewish way instead of having little Christian “Mc-Wakes”. But I digress.
Back to the scripture – I can’t imagine how difficult it would have been for the disciple who wanted to go bury his father. He is required to make a choice between Jesus and his family; between Jesus and his faith community. Jesus tells the disciple that he cannot go to his father’s funeral, let alone sit shiva for his father or be part of the minyan. He cannot take that special time to mourn and soak in the love of friends and family. Jesus tells the disciple in this scripture that he must leave the past behind and move on. Let the dead bury the dead and follow Jesus on a journey to release abundant life.
Jesus has an important mission and his followers must make Jesus’ mission their priority. To go on this journey with Jesus, the disciple in this scripture must immerse himself in this mission. Time waits for no man and neither does Jesus – his time on earth is short.
Like it says in Ecclesiastes 3:1-2 “Everything that happens in this world happens at the time God chooses. He sets the time for birth and the time for death, the time for planting and the time for pulling up”. It’s the basis for that song by Simon and Garfunkel; “To everything turn, turn, turn.”
There is a time to sit shiva and a time to follow Jesus. But is he just telling the poor disciple to repress his grief, suck it up? Remember, this is the Jesus who says, “Happy are those who mourn; God will comfort them” (See Day 8). He truly has the disciple’s best interest at heart. He knows that God will heal his friend of his grief.
If you want to live like Jesus, you have to move forward, following the leading of God. We are all wandering in the desert like the Hebrews, guided by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. We have to keep moving. Jesus says it’s not all about “focus on the family” and other tribal concerns; it’s about doing the will of God no matter what.
So Jesus isn’t saying he believes in zombies when he says, “Let the dead bury the dead.” He’s telling his disciples that they must embrace life and seize the day. Life is more important than rituals, however comforting and beautiful. Time and God’s comfort are the only things that ultimately heal the pain and separation of death. You have to keep moving.
What does this scripture say to you?