The Miracle Worker and the Excuse Maker
Moms and dads, if you haven’t discovered Doug Peterson’s “History by the Slice” stories, you need to take time to read them! You might even want to use them as part of your family devotions. These stories from history and the Bible are great to share with your children—and Doug always includes an activity or questions at the end so you can make this interactive. These are also great for homeschool families, teachers, and Sunday school teachers.
In dramatic fashion, Jesus had just healed Peter’s mother-in-law in the disciple’s house along the Sea of Galilee, and the crowds began to swell around the miracle worker. So Jesus told his disciples to make ready to sail across to the other side of the Sea of Galilee.
That’s when a curious encounter occurred.
Matthew 8:19-20 says, “Then a teacher of the law came to him and said, ‘Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.’”
Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”
This response is pretty clear. Jesus is telling the teacher of the law to count the cost of following him. He’s pointing out that as an itinerant preacher, he is essentially homeless, with “no place to lay his head.” So, if this man wants to follow him wherever he goes, he needs to be prepared to be homeless as well.
It’s the second encounter that puzzles most people. Matthew 8:21-22 goes on to say: “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.”
This time, Jesus is asking the man to follow him without even stopping to bury his father. Why?
This semester, I have been auditing a fabulous class on the New Testament, taught at the Urbana Theological Seminary here in my hometown. Our teacher recently shed some light on this passage by explaining the burial practices of Jewish people at this time.
As he explained, there were essentially two burial ceremonies, with the first occurring immediately after a person’s death. The body was washed, anointed with oil, and wrapped with winding sheets. Then spices were placed in the folds of the sheets to perfume the body. Finally, the body was laid to a rest in a tomb, and the shiva began.
In Hebrew, the word “shiva” means “seven,” for this was a period of mourning for seven days. Even today, many Jews practice “sitting shiva,” where friends and relatives come to a house of mourning to provide comfort to the grieving family for an entire week.
This was the first burial. But in the first century, a second burial took place for the deceased, and it did not happen until an entire year had gone by. One year later, the family would go to the tomb and carefully take the bones of the deceased and place them in an ossuary—a small stone chest. Then the ossuary would be placed in a niche in the walls of the grave.
According to the Jewish Virtual Library, the practice of a second burial in ossuaries was extremely popular between 40 B.C. and 135 A.D.—which would encompass the time of Jesus. As this source explains, “A typical ossuary had a length of about two and a half feet, so that it might accommodate the long bone of an adult leg, which is the longest bone in a human body. The ossuaries taper slightly toward the bottom; some stand on four low legs; they are made of soft limestone with flat or vaulted lids.”
So what does this have to do with Jesus’s statement “Let the dead bury the dead”?
As my teacher pointed out, the man who asked Jesus if he could bury his father, rather than follow him at that moment, was probably not asking if he could go back for his father’s first burial. If this man’s father had just died, the son would not have even been with Jesus in the first place; he would have been “sitting shiva” in a house of mourning for seven days.
Most likely, the man was telling Jesus that he wanted to wait for the second burial before he followed Jesus, but this ceremony could be months and months away. In other words, it was just an excuse not to follow Jesus right then and there. So Jesus told the man, “Let the dead bury the dead.”
This story underscores the importance of understanding the culture and history of the times, which can shed light on mysterious passages such as this one. If you know the history, you can see that the man was probably not completely serious about following the call of Jesus.
Many of us do the same thing, unfortunately. We put off the calls of God in our lives, and we find any creative excuse we can. We say, “I can’t afford to answer the call. I have to give up too much. I don’t have the time. I don’t have the talent. My terrible past prevents me from being of much use to God. My friends would think I’m strange. My family would be opposed.”
There is no shortage of excuses—and it’s our responsibility as parents to help our children learn to follow Jesus without excuses.
Immediately following these encounters, Jesus and his disciples boarded a boat and encountered a storm on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus was asleep in the boat when the squall struck, and the disciples were gripped by terror.
Once again, we see the cost of following Jesus. When we follow Jesus, storms will strike us. Turbulence and terror will hit, because there is a cost to being a disciple. But there is also great blessing because, as the story goes on to describe, Jesus awoke and he calmed the storm.
“The men were amazed and asked, ‘What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!’” says Matthew 8:27.
As the seas calmed and the disciples stared in amazement, I wonder what happened to the man who wanted to return home to bury his father’s bones. Did he slink off, never to lay eyes on Jesus again? Did he bury his dead, or did he bury his fears and march off into the storm and follow the one who could calm the wind and the waves?
History is silent on that question. We can only guess.
History By the Slice Family Activity
Read Matthew 8:14-27. Then look up Capernaum (where Peter’s house was located) and the Sea of Galilee on a map, and answer these questions:
- If Jesus asked you to drop everything to follow him, what would be the hardest things to give up?
- What did Jesus mean by saying, “Foxes have dens” and “birds have nests”?
- Why do you think Jesus said that?
- What are the costs of following Jesus?
- What do you think Jesus meant when he said, “Let the dead bury the dead”?
- Why do you think Jesus decided to head out on the lake after the crowds began to gather around him?
- What would it have been like to be on that boat?
By: Doug Peterson has written 42 books for VeggieTales and is the author of four historical novels: The Disappearing Man, The Puzzle People, The Vanishing Woman, and The Lincoln League. Visit him at www.bydougpeterson.com.
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