Jesus’s response to a would-be disciple is one of the more difficult sayings in the Gospels. This man expresses a desire to follow Jesus but asks to go and bury his father first. Jesus’s response, “let the dead bury the dead” has generated a bewildering number of explanations.
This person is called a disciple, so it is possible he is one of the large group of people who are following Jesus in Galilee. Hearing that Jesus is about to leave Capernaum, he declares his intention to follow Jesus. Luke 9:57-61 has the same request, except Jesus initiates the contact by telling the man to “follow me” who then he asks to go and bury his father. After telling him to let the dead bury the dead, Jesus says “But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Once again Matthew has the briefer form of the tradition.
His reason for a delay seems legitimate: He wants to go and bury his father. Jesus’s response seems rather insensitive assuming the man’s father has died and needs to be properly buried. Burying the dead was an important act of kindness, as illustrated by the book of Tobit.
Since Jesus’s response seems harsh, there have been a wide range of suggestions for explaining what “let the dead bury the dead” meant. See Davies and Allison, Matthew, 2:56-57 for a list of these suggestions, I will only highlight a few.
First, Is the man referring to ritual uncleanliness associated with burying the dead? Burial of the dead made a person unclean for a period of time. Leviticus 21:1-3 indicates the immediate family was responsible for burying a dead person. Jesus could be saying something like, “that business can take care of itself, you have more important work to do” (Bruce, The Hard Sayings of Jesus, 162). John Nolland suggests this could be paraphrased, “Let other arrangements be made; you have more pressing duties” (Matthew, 368).
Second, is the father even dead? The man may be asking to stay at home until his father dies and he can take his inheritance. After he takes care of the legal business at home, he will follow Jesus. However, Kenneth Bailey suggested a Middle Eastern reader would think the man’s father is still alive and the disciple will stay at home until his father has died and he has done everything required by the cultural burial practices (Through Peasant Eyes, 26). If the father were really dead at that moment, he would have been at home taking care of the burial process not trying to follow Jesus.
Third, Donald Hagner suggested Jesus is speaking metaphorically: let the spiritual dead bury their physically dead relatives (Matthew 1:218). This is certainly possible since Peter will later claim to have left everything behind to follow Jesus (Matt 19:27). But Jesus does not describe outsiders as “spiritual dead” nor insiders as “spiritually alive.”
Whatever the reason for the request, Jesus tells this would-be follower to “let the dead bury their own dead.” This is shocking: Jesus is demanding his followers leave behind their family responsibilities in order to follow him. Jesus is not telling the man to break the fifth commandment, honor your father and mother, but he does warn this would-be disciple that following Jesus will require him to leave behind family and friends. In fact, by the end of Matthew 12, Jesus has re-defined his followers as brothers and sisters, “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matt 12:46-50).
Do you think this man ever followed Jesus?