“Let the dead bury their dead. But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:60).
Nowadays, when originally non-Christian practices like cremation compete in popularity with traditional Christian burial, and after-the-fact “memorial services” often replace real funerals, Jesus’ words might not seem quite so shocking as they must certainly have seemed to people in Jesus’ time. In the ancient world, being properly buried was something people worried a lot about, and giving people – particularly one’s relatives – a proper burial was an absolute, not-to-be-neglected, social and religious responsibility. Possibly one of the most moving episodes in all of ancient literature occurs in Homer’s Iliad when King Priam of Troy sneaks into the enemy Greek camp to beg Achilles to give him the body of the hero Hector, so Priam can give his dead son a proper funeral. Certainly Jesus’ startling words, “Let the dead bury their dead,” must have been incredibly shocking to his hearers – and one hopes that they may still sound shocking even to our modern ears.
In contrast to Jesus, Elijah’s treatment of Elisha in today’s 1st reading (1 Kings 19: 16b, 19-21) certainly appears much more moderate, sensitive, and humane - to our way of thinking. Having thrown his cloak over Elisha, ritually designating him as his successor, Elijah was willing nonetheless to allow him sufficient time to provide properly for his family and his employees. Jesus, at least in this instance, certainly seems much less patient.
In pleading, “Lord, let me go first and bury my father,” the would-be-disciple seems to have been saying to Jesus: “I’ll be quite happy to follow you – but on my own schedule, when my life is all in order and all my affairs have been settled - someday, but not quite yet” (an earlier version of Saint Augustine’s so often quoted 4th-century prayer, “Lord, make me chaste, but not yet”).
The problem with that, whether for the would-be disciple or anyone else, is that things don’t always go according to plan. Who knows when, if ever, one’s life will be in order? Who knows when, if ever, one will finally be ready? But God’s call comes when God calls – whether we are ready to respond or not. It’s not our timing that counts but God’s time. Jesus’ shockingly over-the-top statement means that this is the moment and now is the time to respond. God’s time is now. God’s call, when and how it comes, is always now – always in the present, pointing us forward, never looking backward.
That's all easier said than done, of course. Even Jesus’ closest disciples seemed more intent on looking back rather than ahead. Witness their preoccupation with the old quarrel with the Samaritans! Jesus, of course, understood the power of the past, its hold on us, the way it constrains us. But he was free enough to live in the present and for the future, and he wanted his disciples to do the same.
Looking back to what was left behind risks turning one in upon oneself. But becoming a disciple involves getting outside of oneself. Living in the present pushes us forward to the future – free for the fullest possible involvement in God’s great plan for the salvation of the world.
Jesus in the Gospel resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem. That he wanted us to understand how demanding and challenging that journey must be is clear from the answers he gave to those who half-heartedly thought they might like to come along. The demand of discipleship is the challenge to look to Jesus alone and not to what was left behind.
For freedom Christ set us free, said Saint Paul (Galatians 5:1). We are invited to live in that new kind of freedom, free to place ourselves in the service of God’s great plan for the world – by reducing our emotional dependence on all those things that keep us stuck in ourselves, all those things that we have allowed ourselves to become so dependent upon, so anxious about, and which inhibit us from moving ahead. We just can’t look back and move ahead at the same time. We have to choose –between whatever is holding us back and frightening us and the freedom to follow into the future with Jesus.
Homily at Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NYC, June 27, 2010.