Luke 11:37-54 “Unmarked Graves”
Did you ever ask yourself how you will be remembered? What do you want on your tombstone? That used to be the logo of the tombstone pizzeria chain on the mainland. Every time you would order a pizza, you would be reminded of your own mortality. This made me think that perhaps they put poisoned mushrooms on the pizza or something!
Jesus went to go have dinner with a Pharisee. This was not the famous Pharisee Nicodemus, whom we know because history recorded that meeting favorably for Nicodemus and Jesus. We still speak his name after two thousand years. Unfortunately, we do not know the name of this Pharisee that invites Jesus to dinner. We never knew his name. People already in the time of Luke’s writing of this gospel had already forgotten about this man who had Jesus over for dinner.
Recently someone posted a picture on Facebook of a pool party I attended in 1978. What was super interesting to me was that despite my being in a group picture with dear friends, I had absolutely no remembrance of that pool party. Still today I can not conjure up even the vaguest of memories. As far as I am concerned I was never there, except for the fact that there is a picture showing me there.
I mentioned this to Helen, and she told me about a picture of her at a wedding, and she could not ever remember who the couple was!
We decide what is important for us to remember or to put in our journals. When my father passed away, I opened up his diaries. Yes, I opened up to April 26th, 1962. That was the day that I and my twin brother were born. Guess what? We were not mentioned. He talked about taking time off from work and other things. The birth of his two sons did not make it to the journal. I have never really known what to make of that. My sisters got mentioned, by the way.
Jesus uses the metaphor that the Pharisee who invited him to dinner is like someone in an unmarked grave. Last year a family that has a plot out here in our cemetery asked to bury some remains, some ashes in an urn. I checked the map that showed all the names of people in the cemetery. According to our records, there was no one buried in the spot on the plot where the family wanted to bury an urn.
As we moved the dirt out from that spot, lo and behold, we found an unmarked urn. Somebody had already been buried there. We looked all over the urn for some kind of marking, but alas there was none. We did not know what to do. I asked the family to go back into their own records to see who might it have been. Still, they were only guessing that it was an aunt who died some thirty-plus years ago. We simply placed the urn back where we found it. It is still unmarked.
Of course, the thoughts came to me that night about how incredible it is that someone who lived their whole life on this planet was now in an unmarked urn. All their joys and triumphs are now forgotten. All their love and sorrows just nameless dust. It really saddened me to think about this. Why did they not just scatter the ashes somewhere if they were not going to put a name on the urn or even mark the burial spot? I know that it is somebody’s life, but the significance of that life is completely gone.
Tomorrow is Memorial Day—a national holiday. This holiday was first started in 1868, three years after the end of the Civil Way in our country. It was a day to go out and clean up the cemeteries where the soldiers from the Civil War were buried. It went from clearing and cleaning to decoration and honoring those that had fallen in combat. In 1971 (more that a hundred years later) it was made an official federal holiday. The idea is still to go out to decorate and remember those who have fallen in service.
This reminds me of the little boy who asked his pastor on Memorial Day why the flag in the church was at half-mast. The pastor responded that it was to honor those who died in service. The little boy asked: “Was it the 8:30am or 10:00 o’clock service?” That was a killer joke.
As an aside, most people do not realize it, but on Memorial Day we are supposed to fly the flag at half-mast. This is the only holiday when all flags are flown at half-mast.
Getting back to our text for today, nobody remembers the name of the Pharisee that invited Jesus to dinner. He is indeed like that unmarked grave. We know that he lived—and that is all we know. Very sad.
Jesus mentions others by name in his conversation with the Pharisee. Jesus mentions Abel from the Book of Genesis and a man named Zechariah. I think most of us know who Abel was. He was the first man murdered in the history of humankind. He was killed by his brother Cain.
The other man, Zechariah, may in fact be the prophet Zechariah from the Old Testament. In II Chronicles we can read how he was in fact stoned to death in the Temple. However, some Bible scholars believe that the reference is to something that happened most recently in the Temple of Jerusalem. Zechariah is a common name, and it is very possible that such a man was killed just the previous week to this time when Jesus is asked to go have a meal with this Pharisee.
The reason that this is significant is that Jesus might have been heading straight into his own murder when he goes to eat with this man. Religiously motivated murders were happening all the time. That is how the Pharisees and Sadducees took care of their rivals in the business of theology. And, we know that even Jesus eventually is crucified at the hands of these people.
The question is brought to our hearts now: Would we go and eat with a Pharisee, anyone for that matter, who is in the habit of murdering people for their views? Are we willing to put our lives on the line for our faith in that way? Jesus was. And, he was not shy to argue with those folks either.
The argument that Jesus had with this one nameless Pharisee ran along this line: “What is clean?” Jesus, when he comes over to the house to eat, does not wash his hands right away. In those days this was an expected ritual. It was not for health reasons, either. The ritual involved only taking a little splash of water and dabbing the tips of the fingers on a white cloth. That is all.
What good is that? They did not have the understanding back then of what we have today; that is, dirty hands can transmit germs and bacteria. The significance of the dabbing of the fingers relates back to an old Jewish idea that the fingernails represent death. They believed that the nails were dead. The rest of the body seemed to be alive, but the hard substance of the nail was to them dead. The ritualistic cleansing of the finger nails we to in essence wash death from their hands.
In this understanding, too, if you killed an animal for your meal, then you would wash the death from your hands before taking that life back into you for your own needs. The ritual of the Jews of the day was to remind everyone that they had blood on their hands.
Jesus takes this idea and pushes it to a justice issue for the Pharisee. “Yes, you do have actual blood on your hands! Remember Abel; remember Zechariah! And, Jesus says to remember the poor through alms giving. If the Pharisee really wants to clean his hands of death, then he needs to look at how he is causing the starvation of the poor around him.
I have blood on my hands. I could scrub with Purell for a month; I would still have blood on my hands. I swat mosquitoes, roaches, spiders, and all sorts of other life. I have caught fish and eaten them. I have even run over a chicken in the church van. My hands are covered with death. I could dab the white cloth in such a ritual, but that just will not do it.
I also have death on my hands because of my lifestyle. Just because I did not go out personally to kill a bovine, I eat the Whopper at Burger King. When our country drops missiles on other countries, my hands are sullied. When I see a culture of violence take over our school children’s lives and do nothing about, my hands are complicit. That is what Jesus is saying to the Pharisee! “Mr. Pharisee, you still have death on your hands.”
In terms of our own faith in God and Jesus Christ, when Jesus went to the Cross he did so for our sins. Yet, in that act of sacrifice comes the Truth that only through the grace of God can we be saved from death. Dabbing your fingers on a white cloth before eating will simply lead you to an unmarked grave.
Come to think of it, Jesus was also put into an unmarked grave. The difference with Jesus was that he did not stay there. After three days, he got up. He rose again. Death was finally truly washed away from humanity.
Now on Memorial Day we go to decorate the graves not just to honor the dead but to remember that they live now forever with Christ who could not stay in his unmarked grave.