But He said to them, “Allow the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim everywhere the kingdom of God.” Luke 9:60
Allow – Does this statement seem a little harsh? Does it smack of a lack of compassion for the dead and for those who mourn over the dead? We don’t like to think of Yeshua in the same way we think of our own humanity, do we? We don’t want Him to express the frustration, irritation or exasperation that we feel? And we certainly don’t want Him to be caustic or abrasive. But how else can we understand this statement? And, by the way, what kind of kingdom are we supposed to be proclaiming if it entails explicit disregard for mourners at funerals? Isn’t that the time when we are supposed to be compassionate?
The usual Christian interpretation of this passage side-steps these questions by moving the context from the ordinary world of dying to the spiritual world of salvation. We avoid the unpleasantness of a Savior who seems sarcastic by converting His words into a declaration of the difference between believers and non-believers. Instead of reading the text as it is, we convert it to something like this: “Let those who aren’t saved bury their physically dead since they are already spiritually dead themselves, but as for you, go proclaim eternal life so that maybe some of those poor lost souls will repent and be saved.” That’s a comfortable solution, but it imports a lot of theology where it might not belong.
The problem, of course, is that Yeshua is speaking Hebrew, so if we are going to understand His vocabulary, we will have to look at the words in Hebrew, not Greek. What we discover is that the Greek word aphesis (allow) is usually the Hebrew word nuach. It means “to rest or settle down.” This word is the root of names like Noah who brought “rest” to the world (not in the way people expected, of course). Nuach is applied to cases where movement has ceased, particularly with a sense of finality. In fact, one of the synonyms for nuach is shabbat (Sabbath means “rest”). This peek into Hebrew changes Yeshua’s meaning. Suddenly we notice that His comment is really a pun. With wry humor, He uses a verb about final resting to comment on the dead.
Of course, the impact of His statement is the contrast between the kingdom of God and the “rest” of the dead. Those who bury the dead pay their respects to eternal rest, but those who proclaim the kingdom pay their respects to eternal life. Both actions occur right here, in this world. The contrast between death and life is not postponed until we reach the other side of the grave. Proclaiming the kingdom is not an invitation to spiritual insurance. It is a declaration of the presence of life even here, among those who are dying. The sad comment on humanity in this verse is this: God’s life is kingdom participation right now. Like wheat and tares, this life is scattered among those who are prisoners of the grave. Wherever the kingdom breaks forth, rest is converted from the grave to the Sabbath. And Sabbath rest is a part of this world – and the next.
Give rest to those who bury the ones who have finally rested, but as for you, go and proclaim that life is everywhere God’s kingdom prevails.
Topical Index: rest, kingdom, shabbat, nuach, aphesis, Luke 9:60