Leave the Dead
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
July 1, 2007
Scripture: Galatians 5:1,13-25; Luke 9:57-62
“But he said to him, ‘Leave the dead to bury their dead, and go, preach the kingdom of God.'” — Matthew 7:24
Matthew’s version of this startling saying is simply, “Follow me and leave the dead to bury their own dead (Matt 8:22),” and I shall be taking my cue from Matthew rather than Luke, although Luke is the version set for today. I do this because Matthew is clearer about the centrality of Jesus himself to the experience of the Kingship of God. Nevertheless, Jesus is the presence of the divine kingship and so the two versions say the same thing; “Following Jesus and preaching the kingdom are the same thing because Jesus is the presence of the sovereign God and the sovereign God comes to us as Jesus.” Nevertheless Matthew’s account is more pungent and personal. Jesus calls us to himself first, and then sets us the task of witnessing to the kingdom.
Once again we face the clear evidence that Jesus was culturally and morally outrageous. The fifth commandment in the Decalogue of Moses orders us to honor father and mother, and nothing is more important to this honoring than an honorable burial. We do not know if the prospective disciple’s father was already dead and awaiting burial at that very moment, or if he was simply frail and in need of his son’s care until he dies, that is whether the delay is a matter of a day or of an open-ended period. In any case Jesus allows no delay of any duration at all. It’s now, this instant, or never.
Not only was this filial duty commanded by Moses himself, it was also a central cultural value. In the days before pensions, health plans and retirement villages, children were expected to take care of their parents, and in a patriarchal society, especially sons of their fathers. Unlike today, when we oldsters for the most part have to shift for ourselves, then one could rely on ones children, or that was the theory and custom anyway. Jesus sets that aside; he is more important than your aged father; indeed, your aged father and those who stay with him are all already dead.
There are in fact three prospective disciples in this passage: the first sets no conditions; nevertheless, Jesus seems to warn or even discourage him. “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head (vs. 58).” In effect he says that the disciples are homeless. The other candidate want only to go and say goodbye to his family, and Jesus says, to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God (vs. 61-62).” The third candidate, of course, wants to bury his father. Clearly. From this passage therefore, we see that Jesus and his follows are outsiders, without home or family, free of social custom and cultural obligation. This is astonishing and provocative enough, but in the case of the his exchange with the second person Jesus calls those who remain behind, imbedded in culture and custom, the dead; “Leave the dead to bury the dead.”
Who then are the dead? They are those who do not follow Jesus immediately, urgently and without hesitation, reservation or looking back. His summons is the one and only call to life, his work is the one and only finally legitimate work in this world.
How impossible this sounds to us! We are the great hedgers, as in hedging bets at the roulette wheel and the blackjack table, or in hedge funds, which go long and short. We are those who are reluctant to make commitments; I think the rate of marriage in this country is currently at it lowest on record. We are able to hang out together until we change our minds, but not resolve to persevere. We are afraid of pledging ourselves, or making decisive moves. Why is that: because we have so many options, or because we do not trust each other? Whatever the reason vacillation is merely a neurosis in this world; in the world of the spirit it is death. In that world those who want to delay a decision when faced with the real thing, are the dead.
Not only they are the dead, but also those who continue simply to live in the network of convention, not questioning, not interested, not concerned, believing only the obvious, contented with the empty. The symptom of this morbidity is called boredom, ennui in the French literature of the 19th century. Yesterday I listened to art songs by the magnificent mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, whom we had heard on Friday night singing Iphigenie in Gluck’s great opera, Iphigenie en Tauride. The CD has her singing the poet Charles Baudelaire set to music by Claude Debussy. Here is a stanza from Baudelaire’s Recuillement (Meditation):
” Pendant que des mortels la multitude vile, / sur le fouet du Plaisir, ce bourreau sans / merci, / va cueillir des remords dans la fete servile, / ma Douleur, donne moi la main; viens par ici, // loin d’eux. Vois se pencher les defunt /
Annees, / sur les balcons du ciel, en robes surannees; / surgir du fond des eaux le Regret souriant /…”;
=( “While the vile multitude of mortal men / beneath the whip of Pleasure, that merciless / tormenter / goes to gather remorse in slavish revelry / my Suffering give me your hand; come this / way / far from them. See how the dead Years lean over / the balconies of heaven, in faded robes, / how smiling Regret looms from the water’s depth…”).
I heard this as a perfect presentation of the “bored to death” who do not or cannot or will not hear the call of Jesus, and even if they hear it refuse to respond for so many good and fatal reasons – family obligations, community duties, peer pressure – that all add up to cowardice, carelessness and spiritual suicide. The bored believe themselves to be honest doubters, worthy of respect for their honesty, or contemptuous of anyone who believes anything that crosses the boundaries of their prosaic omniscience. Recently several books have appeared claiming this prosaic respect for the atheist option. They are all nonsense, believe me. I spent most of my working life in the university where I mistakenly respected atheism; I should have been like Baudelaire and called it what it is, the big nothing, the hole in the head, the reprobate mind, “the vile multitude of mortal men, beneath the whip of pleasure…” gathering “remorse in slavish revelry,” or in the university especially, the lock step of operational reason marching through the inch deep profundity of ersatz insight.
The time has come for me to leave the dead to bury their own dead, and follow Jesus. This I believe is the wisdom of old age that is dawning for me at last. As one frees oneself from the need to please people in this world the Savior appears more and more clearly and fills the whole horizon with his beauty and grace, with love, joy and peace, that is, with all the things we have struggled and longed for all our lives. I hope you will join me and leave the dead to bury the dead, and follow him with all you can muster, of energy and enthusiasm and commitment and zeal.