Recently on the Left Business Observer list-serve, someone quoted the famous biblical cliche, "Let the dead bury the dead." It is a seemingly paradoxical passage, so even though the saying has been reduced to rote as a thought-stopping thing to say to a person who dwells too much on the past, it still occasionally provokes a need for explanation by those who wish to know what the words actually mean. Thus very soon another list-mate posted a homily on the passage by Father Francis Jamieson.
I quote the passage from Luke at length.
To another he said, "Come, follow me." But he said, "Lord, let me first go and bury my father." But he said, "Leave the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the Kingdom of God". Another said, "I will follow you, Lord, but first let me first say farewell to those at home." Jesus said to him, " No one who sets his hand to the plough and then looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God." (Luke 9:59-62)
Fr. Francis' response is to turn this passage into a "hard saying", a demand by Jesus for the extra measure of total commitment incumbent upon disciples. He begins by saying,
We have seen that Jesus points his followers beyond natural family ties to more urgent and important matters. Jesus did not denigrate family ties of affection and duty, but he placed them in a far wider context.
and concludes his homily with,
From the very beginning of Christianity - as we read in the Bible - the Christian people, that is, the Church, has recognized that working for a living and raising a family are a good and proper way of living a Christian life. Many people, however - and not just monks and nuns - have heard Christ's call to renounce normal ties of family and country, and to keep before their eyes the ideal of total discipleship. All of us should know that Christ asks nothing less than whole of our heart and life. No half measures, or when we are judged we shall hear him speak in the words of Revelation 3:16. His discipleship is not something that can be undertaken lightheartedly.
I am sorry but this will not do. What the dear Father does is finesse the issue of the radicalism of the Gospel in order to provide a way out for anyone who is not a disciple. He does so by ignoring the historical context of Luke and the other Gospels, and thus forcing them apply to views necessary in our time where the division of labor between the good minister of God and the dedicated middle class householder is the norm. It is the strained normality of the homily which provoked me. The "strain" is in how the homily elides the existence of the difference between the call of "discipleship" and everybody else. The good Father does not want to be too confrontational. He wants to sound reasonable. He wants to sound almost Aristotelian in his description of the Gospels. Aristotle desired the golden mean in all things, but the Gospels are not Aristotelian, they are extremist in their views and a reaction to extreme times. The interpretations of Fr. Francis seek to fit those Gospels into our modern world from a middle class point of view.
At base, Fr. Francis' homily provoked me in the same way that any misinterpretation of a piece of literature might provoke me. Those who wish to turn the horrors and ecstasies of the human mind into banalities; those who wish to transform the radical demands of past revolutionary thought into a way of life that can accommodate comfortable living in the present, those who wish to turn the "otherness", the specialness of ancient literature into something "civilized". The story that the character Odysseus relates in the epic that bears his name is one where the traveler across the wine-dark seas either enters a land where the "civilized" notions of reciprocal relations between hosts-guests are acknowledged (xenia), or the fiercer notions of "eat or be eaten" reign and every traveler maybe turned into a sacrificial meal. But one can only discover the depth of representation of reciprocity and ritual in Homer's Odyssey, and thus discover the meaning of the narrative repetitions by understanding the historical source. The stories told in Luke and the other Gospels have that kind of ancient strangeness to them, a strangeness that can only be appreciated in historical context.
"Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household. He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who has found his life will lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake will find it." (Matthew 10:34-39)
The amount of disrespect for family values found in this passage, and similar ones through out the New Testament cannot be underestimated. The Jesus, who is created by Luke and Matthew and the other Gospels will not accept the traditional family values of his time because he believes that such values are obsolete for his world. He had nothing but scorn for those who accepted the cliche of "values" on their face, and without quetions. He tried to renew moral values by subverting them. Take a few other controversial passages:
"I have come to cast fire upon the earth; and how I wish it were already kindled!" ... "Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, no, but rather division; for from now on five members in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three."... (Luke 12:49,51-53)
"If anyone 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." (Luke 14:26)
The traditional kinship groups were breaking down and the moral values that shored up those kinship groups were what needed to be attacked if anything was to change in the Roman World. In one sense Christianity was a solution to the breakdown of the traditional kinship relations, which premised morality itself on kinship. What gave early Christianity its energy was the very fact that it sought to establish a morality that would transcend the local Gods of home, hearth, kin, and ethnic-kind. The Roman World itself had transcended such Gods in its universalizing and often oppressive political project. The whole of the Mediterranean and much more was one social network. Moral systems based on kinship, the small city-state, or ethnic kingdoms, simply did not make sense.
The significance of Jesus of Luke and his call to a potential disciple not to bury his father is even more significant in this context. The major ritual of ancestor piety and kinship solidarity of all peoples in the Eastern Mediterranean at this time was the burial of the father. For example, all major Greek cities had, detailed funerary laws to regulate such burials. This was because the funeral rites were a dangerous time for the society as a whole. The importance of the funeral of a dead patriarch to a kinship group is what made the funeral dangerous to society. In Greece the funerary laws stretched back to the origins of independent City-States. Such laws were mainly used to regulate kinship groups who often used the times of funerals to rally fellow kin for "revenge" in cycles of reciprocal violence with rival kinship groups. The City-States regulated funerals in order to forestall such rivalries, which were destabilizing to the state. Yet, even though these regulations repressed the danger represented by funeral rites, this did not mean that such funerals lost their importance. For a son in particular to ignore the funeral of a father, was not only great impiety, but an attack on the social structure itself.
The early Christian attack on the kinship basis of the social structure reflected a reality that the old deep-kinship systems were falling apart. They were being torn asunder under pressure of the intricate social networks created by the integrated Roman social-imperium of the Mediterranean. But the ideological-religious reasoning that justified the Christian attack filial piety was the invention of the Early Christians. (Of course their had been other mystical religions that had invented similar world-views.) The good news of Luke is that the world is going to end, boys and girls, and the Kingdom of God shall reign on earth, and those who know best should break all the normal ties of kinship, community, property in land, livestock, and slaves, leave behind their old oppressive ways of relating to wife and husband, father, son, daughter, and live the Christian way of life. Now! Soon, very soon, the Kingdom will come, and all shilly-shallying is either hypocrisy or wishful thinking. Early Christians could justify their actions as great dividers of families and kinship groups because they universalized religion and at the same time proclaimed the coming end of it all.
Our little middle class world view can never be made to conform to the very strange, usually frightening, often generous and totalistic (if not totalitarian) values that actually motivated the New Testament writers in their lived-experience of eschata and their shivers of chiliastic hopes. The world hoped for, and represented in the Gospels, did not conform to current ideals of "family values." It is not only the few who are called from the family in order to follow in the footsteps of Jesus and his apostles but everyone who wants to survive the soon to come end-times. The urgency of the Gospels is precisely what is missing from Fr. Francis' homily. You must drop everything, ignoring all kinship and community ties, to work toward the coming end of time. This is the "historical" view of Luke, and Fr. Francis' explication of the passages where the gospel writer puts into Jesus' mouth words meant to divide children from filial and familial piety, only seeks to explain away such passages for the comfort and benefit of his modern followers.
But there is no "normalizing" of Luke and the Gospels. This fact is often frightening for modern society. There will always be people - for good or ill, for help or hurt, for violence or generosity - who will try to translate the radicalism of Jesus in the Gospels into a modern context, and whether we come up with St. Francis or the Grand Inquisitor, the preferential choice for the poor or genocidal Jesuits, the Catholic Worker or Opus Dei, we can be sure that the people who make such a commitment are true to at least one side of the original extremism. Homilies such as those by Father Francis Jamieson, no matter how demanding, only serve to provoke and then properly pigeon-hole the guilt of his Christian followers. They are thus soothed for wanting "normal" lives, with family and children and a middle class home. But in the world view of the early Christians, those who were not disciples had were condemned for ignoring the urgency of the times; all those who were disciples must need to break the ties of kinship and familial piety or suffer the loss of their souls. There was no in-between. In a couple of generations people woke up and discovered that the world was not going to end.... at least not very soon. This meant that real institutions needed to be established. Thus began all of the excuses and rewriting of church history. But even at this time, there was still some radicalism left in the Christian project. It was not until Christianity became an official religion of the state that the Church fathers began to systematically purge the extremes that were the dominant current of early Christianity.
Perhaps we should be grateful to the likes of Fr. Francis for normalizing Luke. After all the spirit of those early Christian writings are simply too extreme and at times extremely radical, too fundamentalist and at times deeply fundamental, and certainly little of it has anything to do with our current life-ways, the constant inflation of desires of consumer capitalism or the countervailing desire for retreat into the safety of normality through the nuclear family. All of my Jesuit teachers were good "Death of God" theologians and they taught me well that there is very little in the New Testament that can actually conform to our hopes for a "normal" life or even capitalist self-interest. So excuse this little bit of a religious tirade from this Jesuitical atheist. But I don't write my little pieces to bring comfort, yet to disturb my own complacency.
New York City
10 November 2006
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