One of Jesus’ most disturbing statements was made in response to a potential disciple who asked for some, “time off.” Before fully committing to the service of God, this man first needed to bury his father. Jesus said to him: “Allow the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim everywhere the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:60)
Jesus explained: “No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God”. (Lk. 9:62) In other words, one cannot keep looking back and plow a straight furrow. The proclamation of the Kingdom of God requires one’s full and urgent commitment.
But how is it possible for Israel’s Messiah to call upon his followers to disobey one of the ten commandments – to honor one’s father? (Ex.20:12)
The answer has to do with the first-century Jewish practice of a secondary burial. During the initial burial, the deceased was placed in the cave for a prolonged period until, after the complete disintegration of the body, only the bones remained. Then people who were trained according to the Jewish law in dealing with dead bodies collected the bones and placed them into a bone box (ossuary). This ossuary would then be deposited in another cave with many other ossuaries for permanent rest.
Jesus did not call upon the man to neglect his father’s burial. Attending a funeral is one of the most important things a Jew can do according to both ancient and modern Jewish tradition. Rather, Jesus was telling him that the professionals trained in dealing with dead bodies were more than capable of transferring his father’s bones when the appointed time came. He had no excuse to not join Jesus immediately if he really wanted to do so.
Reason and ethics do not need to be sacrificed on the altar of faith. Jesus’ profound words to this reluctant disciple called him to an urgent commitment to proclaim the Kingdom of God – just as they call us to do likewise!