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Wake up, Sister!” Pastor Vasiliy demanded from the pulpit one Sabbath morning. “How dare you allow yourself to fall asleep during the divine service!” Vasiliy pastored one of the few churches in Moscow during the 1930s, and his words seem harsh to our American ears. But we need to understand the circumstances behind his words.

He had been imprisoned in Siberia, where he endured hard labor, illness, and starvation. He was one of the few pastors who survived this terrible ordeal. When he returned home, he discovered that he was the only ordained pastor in an area where many churches were closed and members were scattered. For five years he traveled in secret looking for Christians, forming them into groups, and giving them the Lord’s Supper. The hard years of Stalin’s imprisonment and his heavy labor for the restoration of the churches took their toll on Vasiliy’s personality and his relationships with people.

We may frown at the way Pastor Vasiliy addressed the sleeping lady, but learning the background behind his words helps us to understand them.

Sometimes, when we read stories of Jesus where He seems to be speaking very harshly to someone, we get the same exact feeling. It bothers us. We don’t like it. We feel extremely uncomfortable and sometimes even embarrassed to think of Jesus treating a person in this manner. We may even be afraid to study these harsh verses—or we try to avoid them and pretend they don’t exist. We don’t preach sermons on them because they feel disturbing or shameful. So what can we do when we find some words of Jesus that seem harsh, uncompassionate, or very difficult to understand?

I want to show you that the harsh words of Jesus usually are not harsh at all, and often they have a very good explanation behind them—one that you, as an English speaker in today’s world, probably missed. More often than not, once you understand the historical and cultural explanation, the words will make sense and be something we can all easily agree with.

Let me give you an example of one of these seemingly harsh statements that, in fact, has a very reasonable explanation. This example comes from a short episode in the ministry of Jesus found in Matthew 8:19–21. Here’s what it says:

“A teacher of the law came to [Jesus] and said, ‘Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go. . . .’

“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.’ ”

At first glance, these words seem to be very cruel! Imagine that you’re an employer, and one of your employees who has lost his father says, “Please, boss, can I have a few days off to attend the funeral of my father and care for his estate?”

Most bosses today would say, “Yes! By all means! Go to the funeral, grieve your father, and take care of his affairs.” Even secular employers typically have compassion for their employees and give them a few days for grief and recovery.

That’s why it’s so strange to hear Jesus seem to say, “No way! You can’t go to your dad’s funeral. Let the dead bury their own dead!” His remark not only sounds harsh, but it even seems to use a derogatory tone! So how can we say that the words of Jesus are full of love and compassion when we read something like this? In our culture, this would be an awful thing to say to anyone!

The first thing we have to keep in mind is that this event did not happen in our culture. It happened in the first-century Jewish culture that Jesus lived in. Jesus was a Jew who was immersed in the Jewish culture and spoke the language the Jews spoke at that time. And we need to keep in mind that language consists not only of words and sentences but also of idioms and figures of speech. Idioms are the product of a culture. Someone who understood Jewish culture would have easily picked up the familiar idioms that Jews 2,000 years ago used in their conversations with each other.

We easily do this with the English language in today’s North American culture, and we do it almost without thinking about it. For example, we sometimes say, “Go break a leg!” when we want to wish someone good luck. It’s understood that we don’t actually mean for the person to break his or her leg. Rather, we mean, “Good luck!”

The problem we have with Jesus’ harsh words is that we don’t catch a common cultural idiom. So what is the idiom? What are we missing here?

In the cultural context of Jesus’ time, let’s imagine a scenario in which a man’s parents live in a home they built themselves and have lived in all their lives. Suddenly, someone becomes interested in purchasing their home. This prospective buyer approaches the son and asks, “Do you think I could buy your parents’ home?” The son realizes that moving his parents from that house would severely traumatize them, perhaps even cut their lives short. So he replies to the prospective buyer, “Let me first bury my parents, and then we can talk about the purchase.”

The son is saying, “I can’t consider selling my parents’ home until they’re dead.”

Now let’s return to the disciple that Jesus is speaking with. When the disciple says, “Let me first bury my father,” we understand him to mean that his father is still very much alive! This man isn’t grieving and asking for permission to attend his father’s funeral. This was the Jewish way of saying, “When my parents die, then I will follow You, Jesus.”

Even in today’s Jewish culture, the phrase Let me bury my father or my mother actually means “I’m not going to do this or that until my parents have both passed away.” The man whom Jesus invited to follow Him was literally saying, “Sure, I will follow You—but not until my dad dies.”

This makes more sense, but there’s still one more fact to consider: the man who said he’d follow Jesus after his father died was also saying that his father’s opinion was more important to him than following Jesus.

Why do I say this? Jesus was a very popular and well-known Rabbi. In the first century, it was customary and even honorable for young men to leave their families and follow a rabbi to study the Torah, the Old Testament. We could call it “going on tour” with the rabbi. According to rabbinic literature, sometimes these tours could last up to 20 years. That’s a long time!

So what might it mean for the son’s family? If the son were traveling with the rabbi for 20 years, he wouldn’t be available to carry on the family’s business, nor would he be around to care for his parents during their final years. Instead, the rabbi invited that person into a new business: studying the Torah. Specifically, for the Rabbi Jesus, this new business was making other rabbis, for, in Matthew 28:19, Jesus said, “Go and make disciples.” Every disciple of Jesus would eventually become a rabbi—a teacher—a spiritual authority, who would then make other rabbis who would lead other people to salvation.

Usually, it was very honorable for parents in the Jewish community if one of their sons decided to follow a rabbi. This was something for the family to be very proud of. The only reason it would not be honorable is if the parents didn’t agree with the rabbi or didn’t agree with their son’s decision to follow the rabbi. And the fact that the son has to make the excuse “Uh, sorry Jesus, I can’t follow You until my parents are dead” reveals that the parents would not have agreed with his decision. They would probably have been against it.

Now that we understand the meaning of the phrases behind the story, let’s look one more time at Jesus’ response to see if it sounds so harsh after all.

When Jesus replied to the man, “Let the dead bury their own dead”—since we know He wasn’t talking about a father who was literally dead or at death’s door, we can assume He had in mind a father who was spiritually dead. This father wouldn’t support his son becoming a spiritual teacher like Jesus. He would consider the family business to be more important than winning souls. Therefore, when Jesus said, “Let the dead bury their own dead,” what He meant was, “The wishes of your unsupportive father demonstrate that he is spiritually dead. Don’t live your life according to his wishes. Follow Me, in spite of what your father thinks.”

When we see the story in this new light, the words of Jesus suddenly become very understandable and justified. In fact, we might even say the same thing ourselves: “Don’t take spiritual advice from someone who is spiritually dead.” And with that, a harsh saying of Jesus becomes transformed into a saying that we can all nod in agreement with.

In conclusion, my advice to Christians is, don’t be afraid to study the words of Jesus that seem harsh. Don’t shy away from these verses or avoid them. Most of the time, when we become brave enough to study them, we not only learn something new and valuable but also develop a deeper trust in the loving character of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Alexander Bolotnikov is the director of the Shalom Learning Center, a Jewish ministry operated by the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s North American Division. He’s also the pastor of a Russian church in Oregon. He lives in Battleground, Washington.

Why Did Jesus Speak Harshly?

by Alexander Bolotnikov
From the March 2021 Signs