“Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
These are some of the most blunt, difficult, and seemingly harsh words Jesus speaks. And as Pride Day approaches with this Gospel text on deck in the lectionary, I am thinking of all the people who have heard Jesus’s words twisted against them because of their gender or sexual identities. I am thinking of the ways Christians have used scripture out of context to condemn their LGBTQ siblings. And I imagine that this week’s Gospel text could also potentially be weaponized, as it has Jesus essentially telling people to leave family behind to follow him. Many religious households continue to turn away their LGBTQ children due to a deadly, exclusive reading of scripture. This is one of multiple reasons why 40% of homeless youth are members of the LGBTQ community. But for anyone who would use Jesus’s words to condemn, marginalize, exclude, persecute, or harm the LGBTQ community or anyone else, I say, on the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprisings, “Not today, Satan!”
This Sunday’s Gospel reading, Luke 9:51 – 62, can be life-affirming when read through the lens of the Spirit rather than the lens of violence and division. The text this week is blunt, and it speaks a hard truth about the cost of discipleship. But it calls us to our responsibility to stand with marginalized communities, becoming marginalized ourselves if necessary, in order to live into the love to which we are all called. We may not be ready for all that Jesus calls us to do. But to use Jesus to condemn others is to separate ourselves from him, not knowing what spirit we are speaking from.
As the passage begins, Jesus and his followers are on their way to Jerusalem. Jesus is set toward Jerusalem because that is the place he will die. Jesus is not on his way to pay a ransom to a God who demands death for sin. Rather, he knows that the work he will do – healing the sick, welcoming the outcast, restoring sight to the blind, eating with “sinners,” and denouncing the treatment of the poor and marginalized by those who enforce systems of oppression and exploitation – this work will anger the powers and principalities. Jesus knows he will die because throughout history, humanity has united over and against scapegoats, and by removing the crutch of society’s scapegoat, Jesus will become the scapegoat himself. He knows what his actions will cost him, and yet there are hungry to be fed, lepers and demoniacs to be healed, dead to be raised – and he will go on working anyway. He will go on preaching and teaching and healing with a love so big and wide and all-encompassing that those who had only thought themselves worthy by denying the worth of others will begin to lose their bearings. They’ll lose their sense of who they are in a love that includes those they had considered their enemies and inferiors. And the powers of division and scapegoating sacrifice will fall against Jesus. He knows this. And he continues on.
Along the way, he passes through a Samaritan village. The Samaritans did not fully agree with Jews on how to worship or understand God, and the text says that they did not receive Jesus “because his face was set toward Jerusalem.” They may not have understood why Jesus was heading toward Jerusalem, but they were not ready to follow Jesus there. So John, the disciple, asks, “Do you want us to command fire down from heaven and consume them?” Jesus rebukes his disciple. He forbids any violence done in his name. He flips the old saying, “If you’re not with us, you’re against us,” directly on its head. Any religious dispute that results in bloodshed is directly against the will of Jesus, because Jesus is revealing, in his life and his person, a new understanding of God completely devoid of violence. There’s no place for fires of condemnation within the God of Love.
Others come and do choose to follow Jesus, and Jesus makes the nature of his vocation and his journey crystal clear. “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have their nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Why is this? Because Jesus is going about the business of loving those deemed by their communities to be unloveable. He is saying that the path he walks is one of costly love. There are times when scripture mentions friends of means who welcome Jesus; I imagine he may have had an occasional respite from the elements as he traveled around preaching, teaching, and healing. But his work is taking him beyond the limits of social acceptability. To follow him is to take up one’s own cross and put one’s security and comfort at risk. This is a high price, and Jesus cannot be accused of misleading anyone about the risks involved in becoming his disciple.
So when one man says, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father,” Jesus’s words sound harsh: “Let the dead bury their own dead, but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” What could this mean?
Jesus is giving a harsh indictment not of family life, but of the way loyalties can pressure people to live according to the values of their communities when those communities thrive – even unconsciously – on the marginalization and exploitation of others. Jesus is calling followers to go directly to those who are suffering from exclusion and dehumanization and to love them no matter the cost. To hesitate is to linger in a way of life that feeds off the suffering of others. An identity and a community shaped by being over and against others lives by sacrifice, not mercy. This kind of life is circumscribed by death. That is why Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their own dead.”
Families that condemn LGBTQ members often put pressure on them to conform to traditional gender or heterosexist norms against who they truly are. They may invoke scripture “clobber texts” that were never intended to condemn loving same-gender relationships in the first place, or appeal to religious values to stifle questions about gender or sexual identity. Such relationships can feel compelling, because we all want to believe our families have our best interests at heart. And family members who interpret scripture to be against homosexuality and gender nonconformity may truly believe that they have the best interests of their loved ones at heart. But this is a sacrificial interpretation of scripture, and God desires mercy, not sacrifice. Jesus says anything that holds you back from loving those who need love the most – including yourself – must be left behind.
In other words, the very words that some may use to cast out members of the LGBTQ community are the words that call us to go, with Jesus, into solidarity with the LGBTQ and all other marginalized communities.
This doesn’t mean that Jesus leaves behind those who fall short of loving, those who live lives circumscribed by violence and fear and death. In different ways, that is all of us. And Jesus died for all of us. Human fear and hatred and scapegoating and enmity came together and condemned Jesus. Human violence murdered God in the name of God. But on the cross, Jesus forgives us. In the resurrection, Jesus gives us a new life. Jesus became the victim of all humanity in order to stand with all of humanity’s victims. He was able to die because he lived a life unbound by death, by the ways of scapegoating and sacrifice that kill others until they devour us too. He calls us to do the same, and forgives us when we fall short. But the message he gives us is always to follow the path of love out of the ways of fear, hate, and death.
Those who use scripture – or tradition, or culture, or nationalism, or any loyalty in which they know themselves by identifying over and against others – to condemn, persecute, or oppress, are living lives bound by death. The ways of death have held humanity in their clutches, and the fruits they bear are racism, homophobia and transphobia, xenophobia, bigotry, and more. Jesus compels us to follow him out of those ways of death and not look back. And we fall short, but Jesus still propels us forward.
We don’t allow the kingdom of God to flourish within and through us when we give in to bigotry and prejudice against others, or when we are complacent in it for the sake of our own comfort. But the kingdom is indeed coming as God’s love works its way through our hearts, embracing our LGBTQ siblings as we discover how beautiful this world is when everyone lives into our fullest selves not over and against one another, but together.
Image: By Jason Leung via Unsplash.