Let the Dead Bury Their Dead

And a certain scribe came and said to him: Master, I will follow thee whithersoever thou shalt go.  And Jesus saith to him: The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air nests: but the son of man hath not where to lay his head. And another of his disciples said to him: Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. But Jesus said to him: Follow me, and let the dead bury their dead (Matt. 8: 19-22).

As I had written at the start of a previous article concerning two enigmatic passages from the Gospels, one relating to the “doubters” at Our Lord’s ascension, and the other concerning Our Lord’s alluringly mysterious words to Saint Peter, after His resurrection, to “follow” Him alone, apart from the other Apostles for, shall we say, a private matter of moment, the scriptures are replete with challenges for men to rise above nature. There are two utterances of Our Lord, among many I can think of, that certainly fit the bill as challenging. The first I would like to comment upon, with the help of my trusted exegete, Cornelius a Lapide, is from the parable cited above. Later, next week, I will pick up the challenge Jesus gave to the rich, i.e., “And again I say to you: it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:24).  Or, “But woe to you that are rich: for you have your consolation” (Luke 6:24).

Let us set the stage. It is a simple scene. Jesus is ministering in Galilee, preaching and healing every manner of illness. He has just healed, from a distance, the servant of Cornelius the centurion and after that the mother-in-law of Peter. A certain scribe, seeing such wonders and hearing such wisdom, wishes to follow Jesus as a disciple. He has a good heart, it seems, but is lacking something. He calls Jesus “Master,” which is reverently humble, but he does not call Him “Lord.” His faith is fledgling, yet to take root, drawn from the miracles he has seen. Well and good, but not yet the sturdy matter for a life commitment. Seeing this, Jesus challenges the scribe to holy poverty. He vanishes. Then comes another man, this one already a disciple, and he addresses Jesus as “Lord.” He has strong faith. But he has a pressing obligation: his father has just died and he asks Jesus to allow him to go and bury him.

Jesus said to him: “Follow me, and let the dead bury their dead.” This is not hyperbole, such as when Our Lord said to cut off your hand or pluck out your eye if they lead you to sin. No, this is a summons from God to follow Him now, not later. The Apostles had left all things, so, too, is the invitation for this disciple to do the same. Even to leave his father’s burial to others and “follow” his vocation in Christ immediately and totaslly, keeping always thereafter his hands to the plow. How much Jesus must have loved thjis disciple to call him to such a higher state of intimate union.. A Lapide says that it is as if Jesus had said to him:  “Thy father is now deceased, Follow Me. I will be to thee a better Father. He had need of thy good offices, but thou hast need of Mine. He was the author of thy carnal life; I will give thee spiritual and eternal life.”

He was already a “disciple.” He had already obeyed the Lord and had “followed Him.” Now he was asked to rise above nature, leave the care of the dead to others, even that of his own father, for now he had a greater Father. A Lapide notes:

“Observe, Christ does not intend to condemn the burial of the dead, which is a work of mercy praised in the Book of Tobit. But He wished to teach that when God calls He must immediately be obeyed. For God knows our hindrances, and when He calls us in them He wishes us to break them off, and He in effect promises us His grace and help to enable us to do so. Wherefore He lays it down that following the call of God is to be preferred even to the burial of our parents. That is, divine are to be preferred to human duties, religion to nature, God to man. Christ here plays upon the word dead. For first the dead signifies those who are spiritually dead, as unbelievers and those who are destitute of the grace of God. Thus SS. Chrysostom, Jerome, and Augustine. Afterwards by dead He means those who are corporeally dead. For as a body separated from the soul is dead, so a soul separated from God is dead. As the soul is the life of the body so is God the life of the soul, says S. Augustine. Let the dead, such as the Jews who reject belief in Me; let those who are steeped in sin and worldliness, bury their own dead, i.e., those who are figuratively dead like themselves, or those of their own relations who are naturally dead, and, it may be, spiritually dead likewise. But as for thee, I would. have thee follow Me, who am the true Life, and live with Me here through My perfect grace, and in the world to come in perfect glory, and preach this Gospel to others, as Luke adds [relating this same incident], But go thou and preach the kingdom of God (9:60).”

Saint Augustine (di Verb. Domini, Serm. 7) says, “When the Lord is preparing men for the Gospel, He will not receive any such excuses as have to do with fleshly and temporal affairs.” And, Saint John Chrysostom, commenting on this passage, writes,  “It is far better to preach the kingdom of God, and rescue others from death, than to bury one who is dead and can be of no use, especially when there are other persons to discharge the office.”

Although every good Catholic is a follower of Christ, we are not called, as were the Apostles and close disciples of Our Lord, to leave the burial of our parents to others, unless we are speaking about those who are cloistered religious. For us, it is a duty given by the natural law of God to bury the dead. It is a corporal work of mercy. I chose this passage only to illustrate how challenging Our Savior was to the those who would be the first pillars of the Church, the first preachers of the gospel. Many saints followed this challenge to “let the dead bury their dead” literally. They are to be admired, certainly not imitated. That is another story.