Very few of us actually want to think about what sacrifices are involved when we choose to follow Jesus. The past few weeks I have been reading through Matthew with students on campus and multiple times I got to read through this section in Matthew 8.
In verses 18-22 we are confronted with a section that appears to portray Jesus in a cold manner. In verse 21, a disciple said to him, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” The implication is, that after the burial, he would then follow Jesus. However, Jesus’ response strikes a nerve: “But Jesus told him, ‘Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.'” How stoic, how cold is Jesus? After all, going to bury someone doesn’t really take that long.
After meditating on this verse, and rereading it with several groups, I was hit with a different understanding. Just because the disciple asked to go bury his father, does not imply that the father is already dead. In fact, I am persuaded that the father was probably very much alive and just in his old age expected to die soon. Here is my reasoning. First, if the father had already passed, what on earth is the son doing listening to Jesus teach? Would he not rather be in mourning and caring for his family? Additionally, being a Jewish man, he would have been very familiar with Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament). Had his father just died, he would have been in close proximity with a dead body rendering him unclean for several days (Numbers 19). If he was unclean, this would make his appearance in public suspect for he would have been spreading the uncleanliness. Upon further investigation I learned of another practice in which the eldest son had a duty to bury the father in order to receive the eldest son’s inheritance. Even if the father had died, there was also a practice of waiting a year for the father’s body to decay to then re-bury the bones after the flesh had decayed. (http://www.gotquestions.org/let-dead-bury-dead.html)
So in essence, was Jesus being so cold to not let the man take a day to attend his father’s funeral? I don’t think so. I think what seems to be in view rather is a disciple asking for time to tie up loose ends before he commits fully. Alive or not alive, the disciple is placing the importance of cultural and familial duty over the duty of responding to God’s call. He is asking for a period of time before he responds to the call. How many of us do the same? Let me first have the time to do this or that, then I will follow you Lord. Let me first finish college, then I will go. Let me first pay off this loan, then I will go. (On a side note, it could also be the case the the son wants to collect his father’s inheritance before going on the mission, but I will assume the best of the disciple).
In light of this, Jesus’ quip of “Let the dead bury the dead” becomes more of a cut to core issue at hand. Are you indifferent to the immediate call of God and His work? Jesus cleverly used dead in two different senses. Referring to the “dead” that would bury the “dead” he is saying let those who are dead (indifferent) to the call of God bury the dead (physically dead).
If this is what is being communicated then to me it makes more sense of the longer version of this account in Luke. In Luke’s account another disciple responds to Jesus’ quip by stating, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first go back and say goodbye to my family.” So essentially what we have is this. A disciple tells Jesus that he will follow, but he first needs to go and spend some time with his family (until his duties are finished). Jesus responds, with the immediacy of his call and how it supersedes tradition. Then this second disciple hears of the immediacy, understands it, and asks if he can go and say goodbye (in a quicker sense), yet still Jesus explains that His call is to be prioritized.