At Matthew 8:22 and Luke 9:60, Jesus used the phrase “let the dead bury their dead.” This was stated in response to how one man responded to Jesus’ invitation to become his follower, for the man said that first he had to bury his father. (Matthew 8:21; Luke 9:59)
Was this man’s father still alive, or was Jesus viewing them as all spiritually dead? I believe looking at the funerary interment culture of first century Judaism provides the relevant clues to properly understanding Jesus’ rebuke. The NET Bible explores this in its footnotes for both the Mathean and Lukan accounts. For the former it informs us that:
There are several options for the meaning of Jesus’ reply Leave the dead to bury their own dead:
Whichever option is preferred, it is clear that the most important priority is to follow Jesus.
- Recent research suggests that burial customs in the vicinity of Jerusalem from about 20 B.C. to A.D. 70 involved a reinterment of the bones a year after the initial burial, once the flesh had rotted away. At that point the son would have placed his father’s bones in a special box known as an ossuary [pictured above] to be set into the wall of the tomb. Thus Jesus could well be rebuking the man for wanting to wait around for as much as a year before making a commitment to follow him. In 1st century Jewish culture, to have followed Jesus rather than burying one’s father would have seriously dishonored one’s father (cf. Tobit 4:3-4).
- The remark is an idiom (possibly a proverbial saying) that means, “The matter in question is not the real issue,” in which case Jesus was making a wordplay on the wording of the man’s (literal) request (see L&N 33.137).
- This remark could be a figurative reference to various kinds of people, meaning, “Let the spiritually dead bury the dead.”
- It could also be literal and designed to shock the hearer by the surprise of the contrast.
The footnote for Luke 9:60 reads the same but with this conclusion:
Whichever option is preferred, it is clear that the most important priority is to preach the gospel (proclaim the kingdom of God).
Personally, I find option 1 to be the most compelling, as I greatly doubt that Jesus held his culture’s reinterment practices with high esteem. Viewed this way, Jesus was telling the hesitant man that as his father was already dead and interred, that no further action was needed in God’s eyes. In other words, his father was already in the common grave of humankind, Sheol, so let the dead welcome him into Sheol
—therefore no double interment is required, and is not a priority over one’s relationship with God in doing His will.
Compare with the Biblical euphemism of “go to your forefathers or ancestors” seen in Genesis 15:15 regarding Abraham, which means death. Abraham’s ancestors figuratively welcomed him into Sheol.
Related blog entry:
Bible Reading Using the NET Bible http://jimspace3000.blogspot.com/2013/11/bible-reading-using-net-bible-net-bible_12.html