The Radicality of Jesus

Despite our very best efforts to domesticate Jesus, or recreate him in our own image, Jesus continues to burst our conventional ideas and images of what he must have been like. This is especially clear in his sayings about calling people away from their families in order for them to follow Jesus. We’ve discussed sayings like ‘I did not come to bring peace but sword….’ before on this blog, not to mention Mk. 3.31-35, but today we need to address certainly one of the most shocking things Jesus ever said or did, when it comes to ‘family values’.

Luke 9.59-60/Mt. 8.21-22 tells a brief tale about a ‘disciple’ (i.e. a learner– specifically identified as such in Matthew, and implied in Luke by the command to go and proclaim the Good News). The man in question says to Jesus ‘first let me go and bury my father’. In the response in Matthew Jesus replies succinctly ‘Follow me, and let the dead bury the dead’. In the Lukan expanded form ‘let the dead bury their own dead, as for you, go and proclaim the Good News’. Martin Hengel long ago wrote a helpful little monograph on this radical teaching which I would recommend you read when you can. It is entitled The Charismatic Leader and his Followers.

As Hengel points out, Jesus is urging something that would have been seen not merely as shocking and against traditional family values, but even as a violation of the Mosaic commandment to honor your father and mother. For instance, in Mishnah Ber. 3.1 we are told that the duty of a son to see that his father gets an honorable burial comes before other religious duties even including the duty to recite the Shema (the ‘hear O Israel….’ credo).

While the Matthean form of this saying speaks only of following Jesus as a priority, in the Lukan form we are told that proclaiming the Gospel takes priority over burying one’s own father. No wonder Pharisees and Sadducees and other guardians of traditional Jewish family values were in an uproar about Jesus. In Jesus’ view, literally everything was supposed to take a back seat to discipleship to Jesus and proclamation of the Kingdom, including the highest family duties. Clearly Jesus had never read the book ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’.

In addition to all this the zinger “leave the dead to bury the dead…’ presumes that those who are not among Jesus’ disciples are spiritually dead! The spiritually dead should be burying the physically dead, but for those who want to follow Jesus and be his disciples, there must be other priorities. For sure this is not the Sunday School Jesus I learned about when I was growing up. It is also not the Mr. Rogers Jesus where ‘never was heard a discouraging word, and the skies are not cloudy all day’.

This story should be compared to the similar one in 1 Kings 19.20-21, the story of the calling of Elisha. The response of Elijah to the request of Elisha to go and kiss his parents first, can be debated (does he tell them, ‘go on home, you don’t have to follow me’, or does he mean ‘you’re not ready yet’… or something else?) but the contrast could hardly be stronger between Elisha’s next actions and the implied actions of the disciple in the Jesus story. Elisha completely destroys the tools and means of his former occupation and goes and follows and becomes the servant of Elijah. Nothing like this is said in the Jesus story, but no less radical a commitment is implied in the ‘let the dead bury the dead… you follow me..’

The truth is, the real Jesus continues to challenge many of our basic assumptions about priorities, what is really important in life, and what God most requires of us. Think on these things.

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  • patricklmitchell

    How radical he is! Thanks for this reminder.

  • Rick Carpenter

    I agree more with C. A. Evans regarding Luke 9.59-60 that it was an attempted at delaying following Jesus and not a rejection of the filial duty to bury one’s parent, though G. Franz and B. McCane could be correct. Immediately after burial, a deceased’s family would segregate itself and mourn intensely for seven days, followed by a 30-day period of mourning. The official period of mourning ended when the flesh had rotted from the bodies and the bones collected and placed with those of other family members. While this had long been practiced (Jdg. 2.10, II Sam. 7.12, II Chron. 34.23), the custom of ossilegium which included a secondary burial of the bones in an ossuary generally about a year afterwards originated ca 30-20 BCE in Jerusalem. G. Franz (Let the dead bury their own dead. Archaeology and Biblical Research 5(2), 1992, 2009), referring to B. McCane (Let the dead bury their own dead: Secondary burial and Matt. 8:21-22. Harvard Theological Review, 83, 1990), speculates that 9.59 was a phrase used by the man to reject the call to follow Jesus, while C. A. Evans (Assessing progress in the Third Quest of the Historical Jesus. Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, 4, 2006) speculates it was merely a request for delayed discipleship. However, Franz, again referring to McCane, finds it also and most importantly to be Jesus’ rejection of the common supposition of Moed Qatan 1.5 “When the flesh had wasted away, the bones were collected and placed in chests (ossuaries). On that day (the son) mourned, but the following day he was glad, because his forebears rested from judgment.” The theory was that the deceased had atoned for his or her sins through the thought to be painful decomposition process, with the full set of bone contained in the ossuary proof that the process had been completed.

  • Rebecca Trotter

    Recently I was meditating on the Patriarchs and “heroes” of the OT – what was it about them that made God say that finding them was “like finding grapes in the desert”? (Hosea 8) They weren’t always exemplars of good behavior or morality. It was their faithfulness, certainly. But it occurred to me that more than anything it was probably their willingness to shake off what was normal, good and acceptable according to their own culture and re-orient themselves to God. The ability of any human to change is limited. Even today when change is a constant, many people struggle to change. How much more difficult would it have been for people in those days when life remained the same from generation to generation? This work of re-orienting ourselves to God is the story of scripture and the work of Christ, I believe. The patriarchs were the ones who were radically willing to shift and be used to help humanity jump forward in this process. Jesus’ words here were challenging in much the same way that God’s command to Abram was when he told him to leave his home and his people and go to an unknown destination. This is the challenge of God to all of us – to leave what we know and embrace what he will show us, isn’t it?

  • Ben Witherington

    Nicely said Rebecca. BW3