Have you ever been reading along in the Gospels and come across a passage where Jesus said or did something and you found yourself asking “Jesus did what?” If I take the time to really read the text, I often find myself asking that and many other questions. I find that the more questions I come up with, the more I interact with the Word, the more interesting it becomes and that I want to dig deeper to find out what it really means.
Over the next few posts I am going to explore some of the passages where Jesus says or does things that make you go “Huh?” We may look at the context of the story in Scripture, other references in the text, the cultural practices of the day, or other resources to help us try to understand the picture Jesus was painting for his original audience and for us.
The first passage I want to look at is from Matthew 8:21-22.
Another disciple said to him, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”
But Jesus told him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.”
As I read this passage in the context of the chapter, it seems like a pretty harsh statement by Jesus. A disciple comes up to him and asks to bury his father, and Jesus appears to say if you want to follow me that’s not an option. So does Jesus not care about this disciple’s family and their grief? Could Jesus really be this crass? Or, is something else going on here? Let’s take a look at the cultural setting because I think there is an explanation for Jesus’ statement.
During the time of Jesus, the Israelites had developed burial customs that were commonly practiced throughout the land. Upon death, it was common for the family to bury the person on the day they died. They would anoint the body with oils and place it in the family tomb. The family would then sit shivah for a period of one week to grieve the loss of the member of the family.
So, is this disciple coming to Jesus on the day of his father’s death and asking to bury him? Is it within the week of sitting shivah that he asks for time to finish the ritual process of grieving and Jesus denies him? This truly would seem very harsh and uncaring of Jesus if it were the case.
However, the burial process was not complete after the week of sitting shivah. The Jerusalem Talmud says “When the flesh has wasted away, the bones were collected and placed in small chests called ossuaries. After the flesh has gone from the bones, and the bones were placed in the ossuaries, the son stopped mourning.” This process of letting the flesh decay and then placing the bones in the ossuary was known as the “secondary burial” and it took place approximately a year later. The bones of the deceased were collected, put in the ossuary and it was placed in a separate part of the family tomb for storage.
Jesus was not prohibiting the son from burying his father in the sense that we understand it, but was more than likely making a commentary on the practice of secondary burial. There was a belief among some that the decomposition of the flesh atoned for the sins of the dead person. Perhaps this was why Jesus opposed the practice. Perhaps it was simply a matter of timing. Jesus knew the cross was coming and that waiting a year for this disciple was not an option.
Whatever the interpretation of Jesus’ motives, I think it is clear that the comment Jesus made was directed at the practice of secondary burial, not a harsh comment made to a disciple who had just lost his father.
Jesus says and does many things in the Gospels that, at least on the surface, don’t seem to make much sense to us today. However, if you take the time and dig a bit, often times those passages will come to life with meaning.
Leave a comment about this passage below, or give me a passage from the Gospels that leaves you asking “Jesus said what?” and I will try to tackle it in another post.
Thanks for stopping by and have a blessed day!