(Zec 8:1-8; Ps 102: 16-23, 29; Lk 9:46-50)
Imagine if someone showed up on your door and invited you to go to The Best Place Ever. You know in your heart that the visitor speaks the truth. The only catch is that you have to depart right now, at this very moment . . . drop everything. Every moment you delay, the odds of you actually getting to The Best Place Ever get worse and worse. But you have a pot boiling on the stove that you should turn off. And you want to tell your family that you’re leaving, or else they’re be worried. And if you don’t tell the folks at your job that you’re going, it’s going to be really inconvenient for them. And then you realize that if you’re gone, your family won’t have anyone to provide for them, so you should make sure that you have plans for them to be taken care of. And you just remembered that your father had his 75th birthday the other day; he doesn’t have many years left, and maybe it’d be best to wait until he’s gone, so he’s not lonely . . . and before you know it, years have passed and you can barely remember that chance you had to go to The Best Place Ever.
A version of this exact scenario plays out in today’s Gospel selection from Luke. “The Best Place Ever” is, of course, the Kingdom of God, and the inviter is Jesus. In the Gospel reading, Jesus says to someone, “Follow me.” The guy replies, “Lord, let me go first and bury my father.” I can’t envision a likely scenario where his father is already dead; in a pre-embalming world, burials tended to happen quickly. (Jewish tradition has burials within 24 hours if at all possible.) If his father’s death had been that quickly, he probably would have been in seclusion, grieving or putting his father’s household affairs in order. So – in my mind – he’s almost certainly speaking metaphorically: “My father is going to die one of these years, and I’d like to make sure to take care of him until then.”
However, Jesus says something unusual and memorable in response: “Let the dead bury their dead. But you, go and proclaim the Kingdom of God.” The second sentence makes sense; we know that Jesus is calling all of us to proclaim the Kingdom of God. But what does “Let the dead bury their dead” mean?
We know Jesus isn’t speaking literally here; there have not been any reports of grave-digging zombies at any point throughout history. In this case, “the dead” is likely referring to those who don’t (or won’t) proclaim the coming Kingdom. Jesus has spoken before about how he is the path to eternal life; logically, all those who don’t follow him to eternal life are destined to die permanently. (The Catechism talks about a path to Heaven for those who haven’t heard about Jesus, but that’s outside the scope of this.) Thus in the same way we might talk of someone with terminal cancer as a walking dead man, Jesus is talking about “the dead” — those who have not been freed from sin and given eternal life — burying “the dead” (that is, corpses).
Similarly, another person says, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to my family at home.” And Jesus continues the rhetoric, replying, “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the Kingdom of God.” Again, I suspect Jesus could see into his heart and tell that — if he went home to his family — he’d find a way to talk himself out of it.
There are two points I found interesting here. First, in neither case does the person say, “Jesus, before I follow you, I need to go home to see if my family wants to proclaim the Kingdom of God with me.” I’m curious about what Christ’s response would be, but I suspect that – if we’re supposed to be spreading Jesus’ good news – the Lord would have encouraged him to do so. We should proclaim the Gospel wherever we go, and our families can often be a more sympathetic audience than random people. Perhaps it would be best if the two from Luke were to ask assertively to do the Lord’s works, like Nehemiah did in today’s first reading, when he asked the king for permission to rebuild Jerusalem.
Second, Jesus tells us several times in the Gospels that the future is uncertain. In Matthew 24:42, Jesus says, “Therefore, stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come.” Matthew 24:50 continues, “the servant’s master will come on an unexpected day and at an unknown hour . . .”
No one knows the future but God. You could die at any moment, as quick as the snap of a finger. The world could end at any time, and we may never see it coming. Christ may return when we least expect it.
The time to get our affairs in order is right now. There’s nothing else we need to do other than to follow Jesus. The human mind excels at making excuses, or finding reasons, or putting things off, no matter how amazing we know the outcome will be. The material world constantly pulls at us, while the Lord beckons us to consider the spiritual in all things. Perhaps today’s Psalm puts it best: “Let my tongue be silenced if I ever forget you!” And yet, by putting off the call — to tend to the world, to our families’ physical comforts, to our sense of obligation — we put ourselves at risk of forgetting the urgency, forgetting the call, forgetting the invitation to join the Lord right now. At great risk do we chain ourselves to the obligations of the dead; it’s much better to answer Christ’s call to “Follow me” with urgency . . . because he is inviting us to The Best Place Ever.