1 Kings 19:16,19-21
There is nothing particularly new about people leaving their homes, traveling far to find fortune or refuge, to spread goods or gospel. The motif of the hero’s journey is, after all—as Joseph Campbell has taught us—the monomyth common to so many of our cultural and popular stories, told and retold. Think of Abraham and Moses; think of Siddhartha and Tripitaka; think of Bilbo and Frodo. Think of ourselves, those of us who have crossed land and sea to end up here, away from our roots, our blood, living and dead.
Let the dead bury their own dead, he says.
Being here, roughly seven thousand miles away from home, I have missed two funerals already: of my grandparents who for most of my life lived with me and raised me, while my aspirational middle-class parents worked their long days to be able, when the time came, to send me away. Despite the best of intentions and the miracles of modern commercial aviation, there is a good chance that I won’t be there when my parents die. There is a good chance that I will not get to kiss my mother and father good-bye. There is nothing particularly new, particularly unusual, about this. It is just true for many immigrants—the 28% of us here in Oxford—like me and like some of you.
And yet, of course, Jesus is, in his refusal of this would-be disciple’s request, intending to shock. We ought to bury our relatives: the Torah is clear on this, and the Mishnah will later make it clearer still. Even here, even today, we feel great sadness when we hear of someone who has no one to bury them; this happens more than you might think, the priest and the corpse alone in a crematorium. All the same, so Jesus implies, not even this act of filial piety takes priority over the urgent work of his kingdom.
Let the dead bury their own dead, he says, unflinchingly.
There seems to be an exception, in Second Temple Judaism, to this expectation that we will, in order to fulfil the Fifth Commandment, bury our parents: high priests and Nazirites are exempt, even forbidden from handling a corpse, unless there really is no one else to bury the body.
A nazirite vow—from the Hebrew for consecration or separation; the word nazir, in modern Hebrew, still refers to monks—(a nazarite vow) may be taken up by a man or woman either permanently or for some finite period of time, during which they are to abstain from cutting their hair; from consuming the fruit of the vine, including vinegar and wine; and from contact with corpses and graves.
It is unclear what relationship the first generation of disciples had with nazirite vows, but it was in the air at the time: John the Baptist’s austere asceticism and teetotalism is suggestive, as is Jesus’s saying at the Last Supper that he “shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes”.
At four o’clock this afternoon, Fr Jarred will be ordained to the priesthood; I hope to see many of you there. In the course of his ordination, he will be making vows too, though, rest assured, he will still be allowed to keep his hair impeccably cropped and have the occasional tipple. Also quite unlike nazirites, Fr Jarred will have rather a lot to do with the dead: the provision of the last rites and the presiding over funerals are, after all, important parts of a priest’s work.
You will, I suppose, not be too surprised to hear me say that there is an oft-neglected aspect of the priesthood, and that that has to do with it being a kind of death itself. This sense is not well expressed during the ordination service, but next Tuesday Fr Jarred will celebrate his first mass; I hope to see many of you there too. At the end of the mass, as is our custom, he will offer thirty-three roses to Our Lady, the same number as the age at which Jesus gave up his life for us. And just as my mother did last year, Jarred’s mother too will receive roses, the same number as his current age. The symbolism is not particularly subtle, though I confess that its implications are clearer for our Roman Catholic colleagues whose vows of celibacy entail a further kind of familial death: a genealogical dead end. Jarred’s mother is at no risk of that, at least. All the same, this act recalls to us Jesus saying on the cross to the beloved disciple “behold your mother” and to Mary, “behold your son”, which is the denouement of another difficult saying that “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple”.
Ordination is a kind of death, then; a leaving our fathers and mothers, and all other allegiances based on worldly categories, whether biological or cultural, social or political. But, of course, our understanding of ordination is necessarily an extension of our understanding of baptism: as +Michael Ramsey would have said, Jarred’s priesthood is meant to reflect and serve the priesthood of all believers. Indeed, our baptismal liturgy is more obviously about death than is our ordinal: baptism is a kind of drowning, and is overtly described as a participation in the death of Jesus Christ, and in his resurrection to new life.
Discipleship is a costly thing, make no mistake, and it should worry us if our Christianity is entirely comfortable and comforting. It should worry us if the only price we pay is the inconvenience of parking before mass, or the mild anxiety of abseiling off a church tower. Luke’s gospel refuses to let us off the hook so easily. Over and over again, Luke’s Jesus spells out what it means to follow him. Recall his response to the rich young ruler: sell all that you have and distribute to the poor. Recall last week’s gospel reading, in which Jesus calls us to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow him. Recall the emphatic instructions for us to count the cost in Luke 18, which concludes in the assertion that whoever does not renounce all that he has cannot be his disciple.
This business about leaving the dead to bury their dead is hardly an isolated case, but perfectly consistent with the hard truth that to follow Jesus is to have our faces also set to Jerusalem, to the High Priest’s house, to Pilate’s court, to Golgotha.
There is no explaining such texts away; no amount of de-mythologizing or re-contextualising will make the ethical injunctions of Christianity more palatable. The good news of Jesus Christ is not the marketable news of convenience, but the declaration that we are free to live for one another, unencumbered by our parochial and partisan allegiances, our fleshly self-definitions that so easily collapse into ethnocentrism and nativism and nationalism and other forms of mistaken identity and idolatry. The good news of Jesus Christ is that we can now leave our dead to bury their dead. We can sell our possessions and distribute them, because our financial security and prosperity is no longer our bottom line. We can—by the grace and strength of God—bear our crosses on the way to wherever, to whatever may come.
None of this makes economic sense, of course. It is no wonder that, while he was around, Jesus failed to attract masses of people; it is no wonder that people would rather kill him than follow him. There is no good reason to be a Christian, just as there is no good reason for God to become one of us, in our frailty and finitude, to be born into this messy place and to die at our hands, to put into our hands his own flesh and blood, to give us life. And yet, here we are.