Friday, April 15, 2011

Dead in More Ways Than One

After Jesus healed Simon's/Peter's mother-in-law, He drove out some demons and healed the sick of the local populous, which Matthew mistakenly ties into prophesy from Isaiah. According to Mark and Luke, Jesus then prayed alone, followed by preaching, exorcising, and healing throughout Judea. Matthew tells a different story...

Dead in More Ways Than One
There are some verses of the New Testament, some actions and words of Jesus, which give modern apologists issues when trying to reconcile Jesus' message with modern values. They usually take one of three approaches: 1) skip them completely, 2) skim highlights to cover the verses from a safer distance, or 3) cover them honestly, but skip looking for the deeper implications and forget them altogether in the overall picture they have of Jesus. That is why I am here to help.

Let us start with something Jesus did which is typically glossed over. It appears that after healing people and exorcising demons, a crowd gathered around Jesus. In Matthew 8:18, we see that Jesus did what any deity-made-flesh-to-show-His-love-and-grant-salvation would do. Jesus ran away from the crowd. OK, He did not really run, but He decided to take a boat across the lake to get away.

No reason is given for His flight. Maybe Jesus was tired of exorcisms, or perhaps He felt like He had spoken to these people enough. For whatever reason, the crowd was there to see Him, but He did not want to see them. Perhaps Jesus was just trying to let them know how God would interact with them in the future. They would seek after God. God would go somewhere else.

Presumably, as they were preparing the boat, a teacher of the Law tells Jesus that he wants to follow Him, but Jesus warns the teacher that He is a rambling man (Matthew 8:19-20). Luke 9:57-58 records this same conversation, except that Luke has the conversation happen while walking on a road from one village to another (Luke 9:56). Thank God the Bible is inerrant.

Both Matthew 8:21-22 and Luke 9:59-60 agree on what conversation happens next, but they may not agree on the content of those conversations. Let us go with a side-by-side comparison:

Matthew 8:21-22
Luke 9:59-60
Another disciple said to [Jesus], "Lord, first let me go and bury my father."

But Jesus told him, "Follow Me, and let the dead bury their own dead." NIV
[Jesus] said to another man, "Follow Me." But the man replied, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father."

Jesus said to him, "Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the Kingdom of God." NIV

So in Matthew's version it seems like Jesus wants this disciple to follow Him and forget about the funeral. In Luke's version, it seems like Jesus is telling the “man” (who probably was not yet a disciple given that Jesus asks the man to follow Him) to go to somewhere to proclaim the Kingdom of God, possibly at that funeral while others bury his father. Which one is right? Flip a coin.

The most interesting text in these verses is “let the dead bury their own dead.” This makes Jesus sound like an insensitive jerk to this guy who just lost his father. Beyond that, the question comes up: What did Jesus mean by “the dead,” and why is this guy's father part of “their own dead?”

Biblical scholars explain this verse in several, mostly similar ways. Jesus was saying...
  • let the spiritually dead bury the physically dead.
  • let people who are not called to spread the Word take care of earthly business.
  • the deceased and this man's family back home were all “unregenerate,” i.e. unsaved.
  • (my personal favorite) leave the business of the world to those who are dead to God.

The problem with these Christian views is that supposedly part of Jesus' purpose was to save the unsaved by getting the message to them. Yet from their perspective, Jesus is neglecting people who obviously need His help. Where is the love in that?

I think that Jesus was essentially labeling those who were already dead as lost causes. Their fate was already sealed. Furthermore, those who were still just carrying out the business of daily life were also lost.

Why? Because Jesus believed that the time had come, that God's final judgement was near. Not the end of Jesus' life mind you, which was also near, but rather the end of all life and the coming final judgement. People who could not discern the season (in the metaphorical sense of the word), people who were still carrying on with the old ways, were essentially like the people living out their daily lives right up to the day of the Flood. (We will see this same theme several times pop up in later studies.) This statement from Jesus captures the laser-like focus He had for getting the message out to those who were seeking it as soon as possible.

This theory is supported somewhat by what follows next, in Luke anyway. (Matthew continues on with the actual boat trip.) Luke 9:61 records an additional conversation along the road. A man tells Jesus that he will follow Him, but he is going to go back and say good-bye to his family first. In Luke 9:62 we see:
Jesus replied, "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the Kingdom of God." NIV
Jesus again playing the role of insensitive jerk, essentially tells the guy that he is not welcome in the Kingdom of God if he goes back to his family.

As above, it comes back to a business only, strict focus on (what Jesus thought was) the soon coming Kingdom of God. Jesus was acting much like Donald Trump, and He was not going to tolerate time wasters or weak commitments when He had a job to do with very limited time to do it. If only Jesus had known just how much time would pass until the Kingdom of God showed up. He probably would have been a lot nicer, if He had known that He had forever to wait...

No Christian today believes that Jesus thought that Judgement Day was going to be soon after Jesus' resurrection. Yet if the modern Christian perspective is correct, Jesus has no reason for being an insensitive jerk, because there were still about a couple thousand years to go (at least).

You also have got to keep in mind that this is the same Jesus who said do unto others as you would have done to you (Matthew 7:12, Luke 6:31). You and I probably would have let the guy go back to bury his father and let the other guy go back to say good-by to his family, because that is what we would like to do if the positions were reversed. Jesus is effectively saying that when God's involved, moral guidelines get ignored in favor of obeying His commands.

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