Theological Meditations, Uncategorized

Let The Dead Bury Their Dead: Matthew 8 and the New Year

I recently read Matthew 8. I believe that this text, in many ways, provides us with a good frame of mind within which to start the new year.

 

The text is made up primarily of stories of Jesus’ healing ministry, both of His physical healings (i.e., the miraculous healing of physical ailments or diseases) and spiritual ones (exorcisms). Yet, these healing stories are interrupted by two seemingly unrelated stories. The first is found in Matthew 8:18-22.  A scribe approaches Jesus and says he will follow Jesus wherever He goes, no matter what. Jesus responds, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest His head.” One of Jesus’ disciples then approaches Jesus and says that he will devote himself full time to following Jesus, but only after he has buried his father. Jesus to this responds, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their dead.”

St. John Chrysostom, in his 27th Homily on the Gospel according to St. Matthew, provides us with deep insights concerning the meaning of these verses. Nothing, he writes, is more important than our call to be disciples of Jesus. It is true that we humans have certain responsibilities concerning the things of this wold that must be attended to, but none of them are greater than our responsibilities to God. Those who place the goods of this world above God are by definition wicked, and thus the term “dead” takes on another level of meaning to refer to those who are spiritually dead. Chrysostom thus writes,

 

By saying, “Their own dead,” He implies that this is not one of His dead. And because he that was dead, was, at least as I suppose, of the unbelievers. … Was not it then, one might say, extreme ingratitude, not to be present at the burial of his father? … For Jesus forbade him, not as commanding to think lightly of the honor due to our parents, but signifying that nothing ought to be for us more urgent than the things of Heaven, and that with all diligence cleave to these, and not put them off for ever so little, though our engagements be exceeding indispensable and pressing. … Nothing else do we learn thereby, but that we must not wantonly lose any, no not the smallest time, though there be ten thousand things to press on us; but to set what is spiritual before all, even the most indispensable matters, and to know what both is life, and what is death.

 

For Chrysostom, there is no good higher than the goods of heaven and of God. We must, with the utmost moral and spiritual vigilance, devote ourselves to such things. The things of this world are good and worthwhile, and Jesus is not attempting to minimize or absolve us of our earthly responsibilities; but must be ordered towards a higher good, namely God. Those who let anything get in the way of their relationship with God are spiritually dead, and anything that leads to this is spiritual death. As Chrysostom wrote, those who let anything else become more important than their relationship with God “seem to live [but] are nothing better than dead men, living as they do in wickedness; or rather these are worse than the dead.” Sin is associated with spiritual death because, as Chrysostom went on to note, “[T]his man is a slave to sin.” That is to say, sin consists in – and further feeds into – disordered desires which come to dominate us and thus prevent us from living our life the way we ought to, living an ethically upright and spiritually well-ordered life (that is, a life ordered towards God as our ultimate end) being the fullest expression of spiritual life. To live a well ordered life, to see what is truly important, is to truly understand the meaning of life, man’s proper end.

 

Earlier in the same sermon, Chrysostom commented on the scribe who approached Jesus. Jesus’ response that “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head” is, in essence, Jesus saying, in Chrysostom’s words, “What? Do you hope to gather wealth by following me? Do you see not that I have not even a lodging, not even so much as the birds have?” For Chrysostom, the scribe represents approaching Jesus with an arrogant attitude, with the hope that one can gain something through discipleship, such as power, wealth, or prestige. To follow Christ, to be a disciple of Christ, is to live like Christ. It is to live for the sake of love for the Father above all else, and to love our neighbor on account of our love of God. It is to be willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of this love of God and neighbor. We may have or gain all the wealth in the world, but we don’t expect to gain this, or even maintain this, as a result of our discipleship, because we are not acting for the sake of this: we are acting for the sake of love of God and neighbor, and in becoming a disciple of Christ, there is no greater good than this which we act for. [1]

 

Why was this story placed amidst a series of stories of Jesus’ healings? Well, let us look at these stories: In the first healing story in the first few verses of chapter 8, Jesus heals a leaper. He then tells the man to perform the purity rituals mentioned in Leviticus 13. According to Ancient Jewish religious law, if a person began to suffer from leprosy, and then was somehow healed, they had to make a sacrifice to God, then wash their clothing, bathe, and spend a certain period in isolation from the larger community. After a period of seven days isolation, he may reenter the community. On top of serving practical hygienic purposes, it was also often believed that, since there was a close connection between the body and the soul, physical illness was caused by the presence of evil within that person or was a punishment for sin. [2] It is for this reason that Jesus’ healings were often associated with the forgiveness of sins (cf. Matthew 9:1-5). Jesus healing the paralytic and telling him to undergo the normal Levitical procedures represents two things: firstly, the forgiveness of sins, and secondly, Jesus’ respect for the Law of God, and His command that we do the same. [3]

 

Next, in verses 5-13, there is the story of Jesus healing the Roman solider’s servant. After the Roman solider told Jesus that his servant was ill and asked Jesus to heal him, Jesus offered to visit the servant, but the solider told him no, saying, “I am not worthy that you should enter under the roof; only say the word and my servant shall be healed.” (v. 8) The servant knew that he was not worthy to receive Jesus, but had faith that Jesus’ power to heal was so strong that He could heal the his servant merely by willing it to be. Jesus then replies, “Amen, I say to you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith.” (v. 10), and then goes on to speak of the importance of faith.

 

In verse 14 and 15, the author of Matthew’s Gospel then goes on to speak of Jesus healing St. Peter’s mother-in-law. Immediately after being healed, St. Peter’s mother-in-law began to wait on Jesus. So, her first instinct after benefiting from Jesus’ healing power was to use her newfound health to serve Jesus.

 

Verses 28 through 34 then speak of Jesus’ exorcism of two demon-possessed men in the Gadarenes. In verse 29, the demons show a fear of Jesus. They know Who Jesus is, and how He will bring about God’s plan of salvation by which they will be defeated.

 

Jesus’ healings here are intimately connected with the defeat of the devil, and with the notions of purity, the forgiveness of sins, humility, faith, and serving the Lord. The story of the scribe and Jesus’ disciple who wanted to bury his father are thus nestled in between these healing stories because they say in a slightly more explicit manner that which is implicit in the surrounding healing stories: God, in the Person of Jesus, does all the work in defeating the devil and liberating us from sin. We, for our part, must approach Jesus, with a sense of humility and faith, that is to say, not for the sake of any ulterior motive, but out of a sense or service to God and neighbor. To do this is to necessarily put aside anything that separates us from God, and to live a life ordered towards God.

 

New Years’ represents, for many people, new beginnings. To prevent this from becoming another mere cliche, let us look at this in light of Jesus: let the dead bury their dead. What this means is this: Let all that separates us from Christ be buried. Let us no longer remain dead in our sins, but let Christ put to death in us anything that brings about spiritual death. In our actions, what this means is a radical turning from our sin. To turn from our sin means to approach Christ for forgiveness, and, once liberated from sin, to live in a perpetual state of serving God and neighbor. But, to put to death sin extends also to our intentions, our frame of mind or the state of our heart: we need to approach Christ in humility and with trust in Him. We need to do so not because we think we are owed anything from Christ, and not for the sake of any other motive outside of pleasing God and serving our neighbor.

 

As the New Year begins, let us approach Christ for no other reason than to obtain the forgiveness of sins and therefore restore our relationship with God, putting aside all that separates us from God, all the better to serve God.  To do so is requires of us a sense of faith. It is sometimes difficult to do so. And this explains the purpose of the only other non-healing story in Matthew 8 – the story of Jesus calming the storm at sea. Here, the Apostles are sailing in a boat with Jesus, and a terrible storm hits; nonetheless, Jesus sleeps during the storm. The Apostles then approach Jesus, saying, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” Jesus then rebukes them in verse 26, saying, “Why are you terrified, O ye of little faith?”

 

Note how, like with the story of the scribe and the disciple, this story tells us how not to be a follower of Jesus. Just like it is easy to follow Jesus for less than pure reasons, or to put the things of this world above our relationship with God, it is easy to follow Jesus sincerely, as the Apostles did, but without a full sense of trust in God. Jesus’ slumber amidst the storm represents how Jesus, in the midst of dangers, often seems to be far away. But, as the famous Medieval Biblical commentary the Catena Aurea notes, St. Hilary of Poitiers stated that “by our sloth He is cast asleep within us.” God only seems distant if we do not fully comprehend the fact that all things are in His hands, under His Providential care. Thus, the same text notes that St. Jerome said that the Apostles were afraid because “they had not learnt the power of the Savior.” Yet, Jerome goes on to say that “all creation is conscious of its Creator” – not that all things have thinking minds by which they are aware of God’s presence, but all things are subject to and ordered in accordance with the will of God.

 

As we look at the New Year, it is easy to look to the fact that our future is open, and thus there is a certain amount of uncertainty to the future. Some of us see new beginnings of fearful, because we don’t know what the future holds or where it will take us. Some people actually take their New Years’ resolutions seriously, but no matter how well planned our future is, there is no 100% certainty that our plans will come to pass. It is easy to look at this, and be fearful. As the year unfolds, there will be times in which the course of events seems to overwhelm us. And this will be compounded by looking at things on the meta level – political divisions are worse than even; there is already talk among some politicians about the upcoming election cycle, which will only compound these divisions; internationally, the future of world affairs is in many ways uncertain, as the solution still seems unknown to many, and most tenable solutions will only be brought about with great difficulty; the world, in general, is in the midst of a great moral decline. It is easy to look at this and say, “Where is God?” It is easy to deal with fear and uncertainty when we know that it will eventually come to pass, and lead to something better. But it is difficult to see the hand of God in the current state of world affairs. We must, with St. Hilary, recall that all that the sense existential dread caused by being overwhelmed by the craziness of life is not cause by God truly being absent, but by our lack of awareness of God’s presence.

 

It is difficult to trust in God when things are difficult. Even when we have come to terms with it on an intellectual level, there are still many emotional and spiritual hang-ups that get in the way. Yet, as the New Year begins, it is important that we learn to come to terms with the reality that, in spite of the evil and chaos of life, all things are ordered and used by God for the sake of the good, and if we trust in God, we can reap the fruits of God’s plan. St. Paul explicitly says this in Romans 8:28, “[A]ll things work together for good to them that love God.”

 

As the new year begins, we must approach God with a sense of trust, knowing that, whatever the future holds, it is in the hands of God Who uses all things for the sake of our good. We must approach Jesus with a sense of humility and trust, as the Roman solider did, approaching Jesus for no other reason than for the love of God and the love of neighbor that follows, and not allowing ANYTHING to take precedence over or distract us from our relationship with God. And, with this awareness of our forgiveness – that is, our liberation and purification from sin – use this newfound spiritual freedom for the sake of  serving God, as the leaper fulfilled the Law after being healed, and as Peter’s mother-in-law waited on Jesus after being healed.

 

Looking to the example of those who were healed, and the negative example set by the scribe and the Apostles on the boat, let us take part in serious self-introspection. What is it within us that prevents us from being truly aware of God’s presence within us? Is there anything within us that we are putting above God? Once we identify this, cut it off, and let the dead bury their dead – that is, let anything that brings about spiritual death wither away. In doing so, we can truly place our trust in God, and, as a result of this trust, live a well-ordered life, a life of service to God and neighbor. And it is in THIS that we can make the most of the New Year!

 

 

Sources:

  1. St. John Chrysostom, “Homily 27 on Matthew,” translated by George Prevost. In vol. 10 of The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, edited by Philip Schaff (Buffalo: Christian Literature Publishing, Co., 1888). Accessed on: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/200127.htm.
  2. Roland J. Faley, “Leviticus.” In The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, edited by Fr. Raymond E. Brown, S.S., Fr. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., and Fr. Roland E. Murphy, O.Carm. (Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 1990). Pg. 69
  3. Fr. Benedict T. Viviano, “Matthew.” In The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, edited by Fr. Raymond E. Brown, S.S., Fr. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., and Fr. Roland E. Murphy, O.Carm. (Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 1990). Pg. 648.
  4. St. Thomas Aquinas, Catena Aurea (chapter 8), translated by John Henry Parker and J. Rivington. Accessed on: https://dhspriory.org/thomas/CAMatthew.htm#8

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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