Let us read Christ’s sayings in Matthew 8:21-22 in context, beginning with verse 19:
“Then a certain scribe came and said to Him, ‘Teacher, I will follow You wherever You go.’… Then another of His disciples said to Him, ‘Lord, let me first go and bury my father.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Follow Me, and let the dead bury their own dead.'”
The parallel passage in Luke 9:59-60 reveals that Christ was calling this man into the ministry, challenging Him to “Follow Me… [and to] go and preach the kingdom of God.”
Christ was not prohibiting this disciple from attending his father’s funeral. The passage does not say that his father had died and needed to be buried. We read in Luke 7:11-15 how Christ Himself showed kindness to a mother during a funeral procession of her only son.
What Christ was addressing here was the desire of His disciple to stay with his elderly father UNTIL he had died, rather than following Christ’s invitation to become a minister and preach the gospel of the Kingdom of God wherever he would be sent. This man tried to make excuses for not following the call to the ministry at that moment in time. He wanted to wait for a more “appropriate” time. As the early apostles forsook everything they had in order to follow Christ, so this disciple was challenged to do the same. But he refused.
The Commentary of Jamieson, Fausset and Brown points out:
“Was his father actually dead – lying a corpse – having only to be buried? Impossible. As it was the practice… to bury on the day of death, it is not very likely that this disciple would have been here at all if his father had just breathed his last; nor would the Lord, if He was there, have hindered him discharging the last duties of a son to a father. No doubt it was the common case of a son having a frail or aged father, not [supposed] to live long…”
Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible agrees, stating (in regard to Luke 9:60):
“The excuse he made: ‘Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. I have an aged father at home, who cannot live long, and will need me while he does live; let me go and attend on him until he is dead, and I have performed my last office of love to him, and then I will do any thing.’… It is a plausible excuse indeed: ‘Let me go and bury my father, – let me take care of my family, and provide for my children, and then I will think of serving Christ;’ whereas the kingdom of God and the righteousness thereof must be sought and minded in the first place… Not that Christ would have his followers or his ministers to be unnatural; our religion teaches us to be kind and good in every relation, to show piety at home, and to requite our parents. But we must not make these offices an excuse from our duty to God… This disciple was called to be a minister, and therefore must not entangle himself with the affairs of this world [2 Timothy 2:4].”
The Nelson Study Bible explains Matthew 8:21-22 as follows:
“This passage most likely describes a follower whose father was still alive, because by Levitical law the man would not be out in public if his father had just died. His father was aged. So the man wanted to go to his home, wait for his father to die, and then follow Christ. Jesus’ answer means that we must never make excuses for refusing to follow Him. There is no better time than the present.”
The same commentary makes the following comments to the parallel account in Luke 9:59-60:
“This aspiring disciple placed family responsibilities ahead of following Jesus. The concerns of home were this man’s stumbling block… Jesus emphasized that a disciple must have clear priorities. The call of God should receive priority over everything else.”
Christ is teaching us that we are not to allow physical concerns to prevent us from serving Him. In His parable of the Sower, He addresses a category of people who receive the word but become unfruitful due to the “cares of this world” (Matthew 13:22).
The Life Application Bible adds this thought regarding Matthew 8:22: “As God’s Son, Jesus did not hesitate to demand complete loyalty. Even family loyalty was not to take priority over the demands of obedience.”
As we pointed out in the Q&A in Update 343, nothing and no one must prevent us from following Christ and obeying His Word. As those called and chosen by God, we are God’s Spirit-begotten children whose first and foremost responsibility is to love GOD with all of our heart, might and soul. Christ said that no one is “fit” for the Kingdom of God, who puts his hand to the plow and looks back (Luke 9:62)–wanting to return to where he came from.
Christ showed the difference to His disciple who wanted to wait until his father had died, before following Christ, by explaining that the spiritual dead can take care of his father, including his brothers and other family members who were apparently not called at that time.
Christ was not saying, of course, that the father should not be buried when he died. He was talking about spiritually dead relatives who would be in a position to take care of the funeral arrangements. We were all, at one time, “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1), but God has made us “alive” in Jesus Christ (same verse), having forgiven us all of our trespasses (Colossians 2:13). For us, who have been made spiritually alive, nothing must be more important than to follow Christ wherever He goes and wants us to go (Revelation 14:4).
John Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible gives the following explanation, when discussing the “dead” who can “bury their dead”:
“Our Lord is not to be understood, as speaking against, or disrespectfully of burying the dead; his words suppose it ought to be done: only it was not proper, that this person should be concerned in it at this time, who was called to an higher employment; and therefore should leave this to be done by persons, whom it better became. And however strange and odd such a phrase may sound in the ears of some, of one dead man’s burying another, it was easily understood by a Jew; with whom it is common to say… ‘that a sinner is counted as… dead, and that ungodly persons, even while they are alive’,… are ‘called dead’… And in this sense is the word used, in the former part of this phrase; and Christ’s meaning is, let such who are dead in trespasses and sins… bury those who are dead in a natural or corporal sense… there were enough of them to take care of this service: and therefore, there was no need why he should neglect the ministry of the Gospel to attend that…”
The Ryrie Study Bible elaborates on Christ’s saying, as follows (commenting on Luke 9:59-60):
“The father had not died; the speaker meant that he was obligated to care for him until he died… [Christ replied:] let those who are spiritually dead bury those who die physically. The claims of the kingdom are paramount.”
In conclusion, Christ tells us that the concern for an elderly parent who might or might not die soon must not prevent us from doing the Will of God for us. Even though it may appear that only we can and must deal with certain physical situations, upon deeper analysis, we might find that others, who are not called to God’s Way of Life at this point, might be in a better position to do so, while God wants us–and especially those called into His ministry–to fulfill much more important tasks at this time.
Lead Writer: Norbert Link