Today, we are continuing our meditation on the theme of freedom in a few verses of St. Luke’s Gospel. We will look at 9: 59-60.
Another to whom Jesus said, ‘Follow me,’ replied, ‘Let me go and bury my father first.’
But he answered, ‘Leave the dead to bury their dead; your duty is to go and spread the news of the kingdom of God.’
What a perplexing response Jesus gives to what seems to be a very natural request on the man’s part: Let me go and bury my father. After all, honour your father and your mother is the fourth commandment, and it goes without saying that this applies to our parents both in life and in death. But Jesus seems to be telling the man to disregard this Commandment. Yet, in the story of the rich young man in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells the young man that he should keep the Commandments when he questions Jesus on how he might possess eternal life. And we would expect Jesus to endorse the Law.
How are we to understand this apparent contradiction in the Gospel of Luke? The Catechism of the Catholic Church looks at this
matter [no. 2053] and explains:
To his first reply [telling the rich young man to keep the Commandments], Jesus adds a second: ‘If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.’ This reply does not do away with the first: following Jesus Christ involves keeping the Commandments. The Law has not been abolished, but rather man is invited to rediscover it in the person of his Master who is its perfect fulfilment… [emphasis mine]. So, it is not that we are to discount the Commandments, but to regard Christ himself, and consequently his commands, as their perfect fulfilment.
Enlightened by this insight given in The Catechism, let us leave the rich young man in Matthew, and return to the man in Luke now. In Luke’s passage we see, first of all, someone whom the Lord has actually commanded to follow him. This is crucially important, I think. A casual conversation is not what is taking place between the Lord and the man. The Lord is issuing a divine call, and as such, is giving his most precious gift. And there is always an urgency about the Lord’s call. One of the Psalms says, ‘If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.’ The today of the Lord’s call will not necessarily be on offer tomorrow. Our sense of timing is always limited by our finite experience of reality. The Lord, who sees all and knows all, always calls us at the most opportune time, and it behoves us to respond immediately.
Perhaps now, Jesus’ response to the man seems less strange to us. Here we see a person who receives the same invitation to follow Jesus as the apostles. In comparison with them, however, this man doesn’t look very good. The apostles intuit the nature of Jesus’ person and authority immediately – even if they don’t understand it fully: Jesus doesn’t have to coax them to follow him, or impress them by explaining who he is. Surely, they too, as responsible men, had pressing obligations at home. But, these obligations did not stop them – or even delay them. They followed Jesus immediately. The man we are looking at here, however, is – at best – confused about what is really important. He feels that he must bury his father first.
And so Jesus boldly says, ‘Leave the dead to bury their dead.’ I can imagine the man staring at Jesus for a few moments of stunned silence on hearing these words. The text doesn’t describe the man’s reaction, but I hope that after the shock subsided, he felt freed and filled with joy in the deep awareness that Jesus’ command to follow him bears an authority equal to that of the Commandments. And I hope he followed him. To say yes to the Lord’s invitation to follow him: this is true freedom.