Matthew 8:21-22 - Total Dedicated Discipleship Wanted
Another of the disciples said to him, ‘Lord, let me first go and bury my father.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.’Matthew 8:21-22
A Difficult Text
When you ponder the text printed above, you do have questions. The disciple who is being written about, has just heard that his dad has died. And that means that he must hurry to the house of death to attend to the funeral. For burial in Israel was often done on the day someone died. An immediate departure is therefore imminent for this man.
But then again, he also just heard that the Lord Jesus Christ ordered his disciples to come on board. Jesus wants to go with his disciples to the other side of the lake, to the land of the Gadarenes. But of course, Jesus will not have any objection that this disciple first attends the funeral of his father and then catches up with him afterwards. The desire of this man is very reasonable and quite understandable. And the Saviour will surely consent to his request. That is what the disciple expects. And we expect that too.
But what is completely normal, does not happen! Jesus refuses permission. He demands that the man just comes along to the other side of the lake, funeral, or no funeral.
Unbelievable, you are inclined to say. Without feeling and very tough. If something like this happens to you, then would you stick around any longer with Jesus? Something like this you would not accept in this situation, would you?
Therefore, this is a difficult text. A text which seems to draw an image of the Lord Jesus Christ that we absolutely would not expect from him: cold, tyrannical, under no circumstance willing to consider the circumstances. It is an image that you actually find unacceptable. It goes against how we have come to know him from all the Gospels.
A difficult text. A text which generates questions. How do you resolve this? And yes, are you indeed able to resolve it?
Well, a well-known rule or norm for responsible exegesis of Scripture is: to compare Scripture with Scripture. The best way to explain Scripture is after all with Scripture itself. Concretely, with an eye to this text that draws out the following question: does it happen more often in Scripture that another commandment is given above the obligation to look after the funeral of someone who has died? Even when it concerns someone from the immediate family, such as the father or mother, brother, or sister?
Well, that indeed seems to occur more often. We read about that in Numbers 6:6-8.
After it is mentioned in the preceding verses that a Nazirite shall stay away from the fruit of the vine, and that no razor shall touch his head, we read in Numbers 6:6-8: “All the days that he separates himself to the LORD he shall not go near a dead body. Not even for his father or for his mother, for brother or sister, if they die, shall he make himself unclean, because his separation to God is on his head. All the days of his separation he is holy to the LORD.”
The Nazirite has an exemplary function within the people of the covenant. He must show the people how they should actually live in the service of the LORD. It says: he separates himself to the LORD. That is why he must avoid any contact with a dead person.
Death, after all, does not fit in any way with the perfect service of the LORD.
That is why, even when one of your closest family members dies, you must avoid all contact with the person who died.
What a tremendous promise this holds for the people of God!
This promise: when it comes to the time that God’s people will serve him in perfection again, then death has been conquered. When the Paradise situation returns (on the new earth) death will not be there anymore. Yes, and the Nazariteship carries the promise that this will not just remain a beautiful dream. No, the Paradise situation will return one day. For the Nazarite who stays away from death and grave, proclaims: in the kingdom of God there is no place for death.
The Character of Christ’s Work
In this sermon of the Nazarite lies enclosed the answer to the question as to why the disciple was not allowed to attend the funeral of his father.
After all, what is the Lord Jesus Christ busy with? How could you describe his work in this moment? Well, in word and deed he preaches the gospel of the kingdom. That is the gospel of his own royal reign. Today he was busy with that in Capernaum. And there he showed very clearly, in all the healings he did, that he is battling against the powers of death and decay.
Yes, and that he conquers over those powers! At this moment that becomes very clear to those living in Capernaum. That is why he must go on his way. For that battle must continue.
Tonight, it is time to rebuke the storm on the lake, which threatens the lives of those in the boat. And tomorrow, in the land of the Gadarenes, he will liberate two souls from dangerous spirits, who wreak havoc in their bodies. He shows those life-destroying powers where they belong — in a herd of unclean pigs.
In all these activities, the Saviour is busy to bring the message: now it will become reality what already was promised in the requirements for the Nazarite: death will be conquered, for I have started the offensive against death.
And then, in the middle of that offensive against death, a disciple comes over to ask: Lord, you would not mind, would you, that I first pay some attention to death right now?
For my father has just died. That is why I just cannot come along in your offensive against death. For this enemy asks for my attention now, and for my diligent care.
Concretely this means: The disciple not being able to witness Christ’s victory over impending death on the lake tonight, and his victory over the powers of death in the two demon-possessed men, as death takes all his attention right now. It means: to give death an advantage in the great offensive that our Saviour is occupied with.
He is busy using all his messianic energy against the powers of death. He is busy with the fulfillment of what was already promised in the Naziriteship: the return to the condition of Paradise, where death was unknown.
Well, then it should not be too much to ask of a disciple that he adopts the same attitude as the Nazirite had to, namely: no contact whatsoever with the dead. But to follow Christ in his battle. And thus serve the LORD with your whole life, in the manner which at this moment is requested of you.
O, of course this is extremely difficult for this man. It is after all about the funeral of his very own father. But that was always already difficult. Of course, that was also difficult for a Nazarite in similar circumstances.
Yes, this man must now show that he truly wants to be a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ.
But then he will also receive true comfort because of his father’s passing. For then tonight he will experience the quieting of the deadly storm on the lake and tomorrow the victory over several deadly demons. They are signals of the fact that at some point death will be gone.
In his time, when Jesus is ready to open Paradise for those he purchased with his blood.
The Weight of Being a Disciple
To be a disciple of Jesus Christ — it is physically heavy. It was heavy then, and it is heavy now.
For it means: to always stay with him and always listen to him. To always let yourself be led by him. And how often are you almost convinced of this: now I really cannot do it. For I get into big problems if I do this.
Always in every situation listening to him? Yes, but how will others be looking at you then? They may think you are quite the fool. For to listen to Jesus now, surely not in this situation!
Or others may find you cold-hearted, a fanatic. What do you think the family of this man said when he did not show up for the funeral, because he so wanted to go along with Jesus? It is almost scandalous! What is wrong with him?
Yes, being a disciple means: share in the misunderstanding that the Master encounters. Perhaps this man, form here on forward, was being shunned by his own family.
Being a disciple is always and again: to crucify your flesh and to silence the protests. First, the protest in your own heart. For your own heart does not want this: just follow Christ obediently.
It is simple. What he requests of you is always clear enough. But our old heart loves to make things complicated. Then we do not know how to solve this. And then we do not get into focus what exactly God is asking from us.
Take for example the ten commandments. Those are very clear, are they not? But how deft we are in weaving all kinds of problems around them when we do not like the commandments. When they mean we experience problems if we listen to his commandments. Do we isolate ourselves then? Does it result in us being called tough and lacking in love? Do we get blamed for not understanding the situation at all? That is at times almost the same as: do you not understand what sin is all about?
Follow Me, says the Saviour. To follow him in this world often means to endure some measure of suffering. Yes, and yet…! Just continue being a disciple! Following behind Jesus Christ, on the way that he shows us. A crossbar on your shoulder, that is true. But it is the only way to sharing in his victory over all powers of destruction.
Those who are Dead in the Lord, and “Attending a Funeral”
Just a few more comments about the end of our text. The Saviour says: leave the dead to bury their own dead. What does Jesus mean by this? Who are pictured here as “the dead”? Hopefully not the family members and friends and acquaintances who will take care of the — now inescapable — funeral?
No, with “the dead” are meant those people who live under the reign of death. Those who are marked for death and are not doing anything about it.
But can you do something about it then? Yes, that is certainly possible.
You are doing something about it when you follow Christ. That does not mean at this moment that everyone must now jump on board of the ship. But it does mean for everyone that you keep your eyes on Christ’s offensive against the powers of death. And that you do not overlook the work of the Saviour, as he did it today in Capernaum and where he showed his power and his glory.
When you react to this with indifference and unbelief, then you are still in the power of death. Then perhaps it is time to go to the funeral home and bury the one who just died.
These words from the Saviour do not refer specifically to the death and the funeral of this father. No, they indicate that a disciple is quite different than a dead person.
The dead in Capernaum are all the people who in today’s world ignore the battle of Christ against the powers of death. So, those people can indeed go and bury their dead. For what else is there for them? They have no other perspective than time and time again attending a funeral. And their conclusion is: sadly, life always breaks apart in death.
The dead are still there today. And as they were present in Israel, they can also be present in church. For you can sit in the pew without really listening. You can sit there without embracing the obedience to Christ. Whoever sits in the pew like that belongs to the dead. Belongs to those who are part of the funeral procession. To those without perspective and without a future.
But not the true disciple. He follows Christ and listens to him. Often that is difficult. Often it hurts. But Christ says: If you really listen to My voice, and follow Me, you are more than a conqueror and you will have tremendous perspectives.
So let us therefore believe: Christ always has the last word. When Satan and death already are silenced for eternity, he blesses for eternity all those who followed him.