A HIDDEN PARABLE
Matthew 8:22 – “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.”
That is what Jesus said. But, what did this unnamed bereaved disciple hear? Can I ever know what he heard in the demand of Jesus? He certainly was not one of the Twelve, for nowhere do we hear of any of them losing a parent to death. His anonymity makes the context more urgent. He may have been just as anonymous to Jesus as he is to me. Whoever follows Jesus, even beyond the Twelve, stands under the same demand, “Follow me!” Then, as now, the urgency has not lessened. The parable is brief. A certain man had a son who was attracted to the message of Jesus. The son was a willing disciple, that is, student of Jesus. He followed as a learner. One day, he heard that his father had died, or was about to die. He wanted to return home to fulfill his duties as a son to his deceased, or about to decease, father. He asked permission of the teacher, who replied, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.” That is the parable. It places the disciple before a choice: remain among the dead or dwell with the living.
“Let the dead bury their own dead” is an impossibility. And, is this any more impossible than the demand, “Follow me?” If I take the whole statement grammatically as appositional, then “Let the dead bury their own dead,” repeats the first part, “Follow me.” Then I would read this as follows:
Follow me – do the impossible.
Let the dead bury their own dead – do the impossible.
Discipleship is always an impossible possibility.
The son, the disciple, is taught something new: leave the past to the past, embrace the future. Perhaps the son, as disciple, is embryonic Church. What does the Church hear in these words? How does the Church hear these words?
(Luke’s version, 9:57-62, is illuminating. “Leave the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Not only does Jesus say Follow me; he also says, Go ahead of me, and as you go proclaim the kingdom of God. To another disciple Jesus said, “No one who puts his hand on the plow and looks back is worthy of the kingdom of God.” In any case, Luke’s version will require a different kind of reflection to uncover the meaning of the parable.)
In Matthew’s version, the dead and the disciple belong in different dimensions, different worlds. That is, the dead belong elsewhere. The disciple belongs only in the act of following Jesus. Like Jesus, he has nowhere to lay his head. The essence of discipleship, what defines the disciple in this sense, is transience. One might even say homelessness. The disciple is always “on the way.”
What did the disciple hear in the words of Jesus? Perhaps he heard, “I must relinquish the world that I received upon my arrival, and embrace the world that leads to my departure.” The call to follow Jesus changes people. Fishermen become missionaries. They seek out the living.
What does the Church hear? The Church arrives by departing, even if reluctantly. The Church exists in transit. It can never abide, for in abiding, it passes away. The Church answers the call to follow in each moment, in each instance and in this way takes unto itself the new that is arriving.
“Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.” The Church exists only between departure and arriving.