With all due respect to the original, this is my thorough paraphrase, condensation, and updating of George Whitfield’s, “Worldly Business No Plea for the Neglect of Religion,” Sermon 20 of his Collected Sermons
Matthew 8:22 – “Let the dead bury their dead.”
When Paul preached at Athens, he observed that they were “very religious.” But if he came and visited us today, he wouldn’t be able to make the same claim. Rather he would say you are very “fixed on this world” or “pursuing your careers,” so much so that you neglect or even ignore completely the one thing that a Christian needs to do. That’s why I will point out to such believers that they are too busy grabbing material things and instead must be fixed on their future.
It is so easy to be fixed on this world. We claim to be doing God’s will by working hard at our job, but we allow this to make us spiritually dopey.
“Let the dead bury their dead” shows how we should be focused on the life to come.
Jesus Christ himself said these words after he had called on a man to be his disciple, but the man replied “Let me go home first and bury my father,” which probably means, “Let me go and bring my business dealings up to date, first.” Jesus replied, “Let the dead bury their dead.” This means, leave the business of this world to people of the world, let your secular matters become unraveled, if that is what is keeping you from following me.
We don’t know how this man responded in the end. But we do know that Christ is whispering the very same thing to people here, people who get up early and knock off late, and their income comes through stressful work. He says, “Stop fixing your heart on the things of this life; take up your cross and follow me.” But we excuse ourselves with the same excuse the man gave.
I invite you to stop it!
From this statement of Jesus, we can deduce this truth: No work, it doesn’t matter how important it is, is an excuse for neglecting your spiritual life.
By spiritual life, I don’t mean ethics, or self-improvement, or checking off the box of attending church, or whatever; it means what the gospel means, that we are thoroughly, completely transformed by the righteousness of Christ, a work invisibly done by the Holy Spirit, which continues because we avail ourselves of the means of grace, and is visible through a good life and the fruit of the Spirit.
This is why Christ came and died for us; this is why God made us in the first place; this is why we exist; this is the only way we can be the children of God.
Of course, if we were to look around and guess what Christians truly believe, we would guess that we are here for no other reason then to work hard and get ahead economically. But no, we are born for much more: to be born from above, to be supernaturally made to be like Jesus Christ, to inherit the future kingdom. That’s why we are absolutely obligated, it doesn’t matter how busy we are, to move toward that goal.
Some will reply that, That’s alright for preachers, who have the time to do this, but that is a basic miscalculation: after all, all people are called by God to be holy. (The only difference is, that the preachers are under a second layer of obligation, to be good examples in faith, in holy enthusiasm, in love). Every believer is to enter into the kingdom by the narrow gate – not just piety, but complete transformation in conversion. There is no other way. And it’s for our own happiness, too: Christ wants us to defeat our wrong desires, root out bad habits, live like people of the Spirit; be full in the life of God. To limit this to the clergy is to fence off “regular believers” from a good life.
If we were to take a second look around, one would have to conclude that in our daily busy lives, there was some incredibly important thing we were doing that would take us away from the transformed life in Christ.
To give an example: the miser – who is constantly saving, scrimping, adding to his savings accounts, “investing for the future” – supposedly for the family – thinks himself a wise man and mocks the young person who neglects the things of the Lord because he is spending all his money; that miser, I say, is equally guilty as the extravagant one. In a short while he will realize that he too lost his soul, which is the one true treasure: “For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?”
Here’s another proof (Luke 14:16-24)
A man prepared a great feast and sent out many invitations. When the banquet was ready, he sent his servant to tell the guests, ‘Come, the banquet is ready.’ But they all began making excuses. One said, ‘I have just bought a field and must inspect it. Please excuse me.’ Another said, ‘I have just bought five pairs of oxen, and I want to try them out. Please excuse me.’ Another said, ‘I now have a wife, so I can’t come.’ The servant returned and told his master what they had said.
And what follows? Did the master accept their excuses? No, the text tells us the good man was angry, and said, “None of those I first invited will get even the smallest taste of my banquet.”
What Jesus means is that not even the most legitimate tasks are an excuse for not following Christ. For they are all doing honest work: buying, selling, working the farm, etc. Their fault lies in doing those things instead of going to the banquet, which stands for salvation. So too, people today who are honest and hard-working will be kept from “the smallest taste” of Christ if they neglect him.
In the gospels we see people doing different jobs: a soldier, a lawyer, household servants, home-making. But, to give one example, Jesus corrected Martha, for being too distracted and too stressed to enjoy the company of her Lord.
So yes, do your jobs, but don’t devote your life to busyness. Otherwise we would be like Esau, who foolishly gave away his part in God’s plan for, literally, a bowl of stew.
Christians supposedly believe a verse that says, “Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need”; but they are scared that if they really followed that challenge, they would end up in the poorhouse. Christ strictly orders them not to worry about tomorrow, but still, day and night they are trying to amass wealth, and who knows where that money will end up. Are such people acting like they are on their way to God’s kingdom, or do they seem to be people who have entirely rejected Christ’s orders? “You can’t take it with you.” People who reject Christ will find out as soon as they die how foolish they had been; at their funerals, their friends will applaud them for their business success, but they themselves will be wishing they had taken a different path: to know and reverence God.
Let’s think for a moment about special cases, in particular, people who don’t have to go out and make a living because they now have enough resources to live on. My point is, if you have more leisure time, then you should be spending more than the average time in seeking God and his ways. Unfortunately, many rich people are ingrates, less attentive to God than working people are.
To conclude, let me speak to everyone, rich, poor, in-between: You have one main thing to attend to in this life, and that is to be born again and live a renewed life in Christ. Don’t let anything – no big payday, no entertainment – distract you from it. The Bible says in a parable about Christ’s coming, “Get ready, the groom is now coming for his bride!” and that is the phrase that should be constantly running through our minds. At any moment we might be snatched from life to God’s judgment seat. Remember that while life is extremely short, this is the only time in which we can take full advantage of Christ’s death on the cross for our sins. Ask yourself, “How will I wish that I had lived during this life?” And so, live in a way that you won’t be afraid to die; live for the Lord, died for the Lord; in living or dying, let us belong to the Lord.
Almighty God, the protector of all them who put their trust in him, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy, increase and multiply upon us your mercy, that you being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporary, that we might not lose sight of things eternal; through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.