This entry is part 36 of 119 in the series: Tough texts
- Genesis 1:26 – Why a plural name for God?
- Genesis 3 – traditional and revisionist readings
- Genesis 3:16b – ‘Your desire shall be for your husband’
- Genesis 5 – the ages of the antedeluvians
- Genesis 6:1f – ‘The sons of God’
- Genesis 6-8 – A worldwide flood?
- Genesis 12:3 – ‘I will bless those who bless you’
- Genesis 15:16 – ‘The sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its limit’
- Genesis 22 – “Abraham, kill your son”
- Exodus – Who hardened Pharaoh’s heart?
- Exodus 12:37 – How many Israelites left Egypt?
- Leviticus 19:18 “Love your neighbour as yourself”
- Deuteronomy 23:6 – ‘Never be kind to a Moabite’?
- Joshua 6 – the fall of Jericho
- Joshua 10 – Joshua’s ‘long day’
- Judges 19:11-28 – The priest and the concubine
- 1 Samuel 16:14 – ‘An evil spirit from the Lord’
- 1 Samuel 28:7-14 – Did Samuel visit from the grave?
- 2 Samuel 1:26 – ‘More special than the love of women’
- 2 Sam 24:1, 1 Chron 21:1 – Who incited David?
- 1 Kings 20:30 – ‘The wall collapsed on 27,000 of them’
- Psalm 105:15 – ‘Touch not my anointed’
- Psalm 137:8f – ‘Happy is he who dashes your infants against the rocks’
- Isaiah 7:14/Matthew 1:23 – “The virgin will conceive”
- Daniel 7:13 – ‘Coming with the clouds of heaven’
- Jonah – history or fiction?
- Mt 1:1-17 and Lk 3:23-38 – the genealogies of Jesus
- Matthew 2:1 – ‘Magi from the east’
- Matthew 2:2 – The star of Bethlehem
- Matthew 2:8f – Can God speak through astrology?
- Matthew 2:23 – ‘Jesus would be called a Nazarene’
- Matthew 5:21f – Did Jesus reject the Old Testament?
- Matthew 7:16,20 – ‘You will recognise them by their fruit’
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:3 – Who asked Jesus to help?
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:7 – son? servant? male lover?
- Matthew 8:22/Luke 9:60 – ‘Let the dead bury their dead’?
- Matthew 8:28 – Gadara or Gerasa?
- Matthew 10:23 – ‘Before the Son of Man comes’
- Mt 10:28/Lk 12:4f – Whom should we fear?
- Matthew 10:28 – ‘destroy’: annihilation or everlasting punishment?
- Matthew 10:34 – ‘Not peace, but a sword’?
- Matthew 11:12 – Forceful entry, or violent opposition, to the kingdom?
- Mt 12:30/Mk 9:40/Lk 11:23 – For, or against?
- Matthew 12:40 – Three days and three nights
- The Parable of the Sower – return from exile?
- Mt 15:21-28/Mk 7:24-30 – Jesus and the Canaanite woman
- Mt 16:28/Mk 9:1/Lk 9:27 – “Some standing here will see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom”
- Matthew 18:10 – What about ‘guardian angels’?
- Matthew 18:20 – ‘Where two or three are gathered…’
- Matthew 16:18 – Peter the rock?
- Matthew 21:7 – One animal or two?
- Mt 24:34/Mk 13:30 – ‘This generation will not pass away’
- Matthew 25:40 – ‘These brothers of mine’
- Matthew 27:46/Mark 15:34 – Jesus’ cry of dereliction
- Matthew 27:52f – Many bodies raised?
- Mark 1:41 – ‘Compassion’, or ‘anger/indignation’?
- Mark 2:25f – ‘When Abiathar was high priest’
- Mark 3:29; Luke 12:10 – The unpardonable sin
- Mark 4:31 – ‘The smallest of all the seeds’?
- Mark 6:45 – ‘To Bethsaida’
- Mark 12:41-44/Luke 21:1-4 – ‘The widow’s mite’
- Luke 2:1f – Quirinius and ‘the first registration’
- Luke 2 – Was Joseph from Nazareth, or Bethlehem?
- Luke 2:7 – ‘No room at the inn’
- Luke 2:8 – Shepherds: a despised class?
- Luke 2:39 – No room for a flight into Egypt?
- Luke 4:16-19 – An incomplete quotation?
- Luke 7:2 – ‘Highly valued servant’ or ‘gay lover’?
- Luke 14:26 – Hate your family?
- Luke 22:36 – ‘Sell your cloak and buy a sword’
- John 1:1 – ‘The Word was God’
- John 2:6 – symbol or history?
- John 2:12 – Did Mary bear other children?
- Mt 21/Mk 11/Lk 19/Jn 2 – When (and how many times) did Jesus cleanse the Temple?
- John 3:16f – What is meant by ‘the world’?
- John 4:44 – ‘His own country’
- John 7:40-44 – Did John know about Jesus’ birthplace?
- John 7:53-8:11 – The woman caught in adultery
- John 10:8 – “All who came before me were thieves and robbers”
- John 10:34 – “You are gods”
- John 14:6 – “No one comes to the Father except through me”
- John 14:12 – ‘Greater deeds’
- John 20:21 – “Just as the Father has sent me, I also send you.”
- John 21:11 – One hundred and fifty three fish
- Acts 5:1-11 – Ananias and Sapphira
- Acts 5:34-37 – a (minor) historical inaccuracy?
- Romans 1:5 – ‘The obedience of faith’
- Romans 1:18 – Wrath: personal or impersonal?
- Rom 3:22; Gal 2:16 – faith in, or faithfulness of Christ?
- Romans 5:18 – ‘Life for all?’
- Rom 7:24 – Who is the ‘wretched man’?
- Romans 10:4 – ‘Christ is the end of the law’
- Romans 11:26a – ‘And so all Israel will be saved’
- Romans 16:7 – ‘Junia…well known to the apostles’
- 1 Corinthians 14:34 – ‘Women should be silent in the churches’
- 1 Corinthians 15:28 – ‘The Son himself will be subjected to [God]’
- 1 Corinthians 15:29 – ‘Baptized for the dead’
- 1 Corinthians 15:44 – ‘Raised a spiritual body’
- 2 Corinthians 5:21 – ‘God made Christ to be sin for us’
- Galatians 3:17 – How much later?
- Galatians 3:28 – ‘Neither male nor female’
- Galatians 6:2 – ‘The law of Christ’
- Galatians 6:16 – The Israel of God
- Ephesians 1:10 – ‘The fullness of the times’
- Philippians 2:10 – ‘The name that is above every name’
- 1 Cor 11:3/Eph 5:23 – ‘Kephale’: ‘head’? ‘source’? ‘foremost’?
- Colossians 1:19f – Universal reconciliation?
- 1 Thessalonians 2:14f – ‘The Jews, who killed Jesus’
- 1 Timothy 2:4 – ‘God wants all people to be saved’
- 1 Timothy 2:11f – ‘I do not allow woman to teach or exercise authority over a man’
- 1 Timothy 4:10 – ‘The Saviour of all people’
- Hebrews 6:4-6 – Who are these people?
- Hebrews 12:1 – Who are these witnesses?
- 1 Peter 3:18-20 – Christ and the spirits in prison
- 2 Peter 1:4 – ‘Partakers of the divine nature’
- 2 Peter 3:9 – ‘The Lord wishes all to come to repentance’
- Jude 7 – ‘Unnatural desire’
- Revelation 7:4 – The 144,000
- Revelation 14:11 – ‘No rest day or night’
Mt 8:21 ‘[One] of the disciples said to him, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” 8:22 But Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.”’
Lk 9:59 ‘Jesus said to another, “Follow me.” But he replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 9:60 But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”’
1. It may be that Jesus is referring to the spiritually dead. France is clear enough in his own mind: ‘The dead can only mean those outside the disciple group, who lack spiritual life, and who in the absence of a higher calling can be left to deal with mundane matters.’ (TNTC)
Carson: ‘Palestinian piety, basing itself on the fifth commandment (Ex 20:12), expected sons to attend to the burial of their parents (cf. Ge 25:9; 35:29; 50:13). Jesus’ reply used paradoxical language (as in Mt 16:25): Let the (spiritually) dead bury the (physically) dead. These verses seem to be a powerful way of expressing the thought in 10:37—even closest family ties must not be set above allegiance to Jesus and the proclamation of the kingdom (Lk 9:60).’
2. It may be that Jesus is speaking literally. In this case, the command really is surprising, since it was the duty of a son to look after the burial arrangements for his father.
Morris highlights the solemn responsibility of the burial of one’s parent: ‘It was accepted that, faced with a burial, a man was exempted from a whole string of important religious duties: the saying of the daily prayers, the study of the law, the temple service, the observance of cirumcision, the killing of the Passover sacrifice, and the reading of the Megilla.’
Jesus is then saying, in no uncertain terms, that loyalty to him and his cause takes priority over all others. It would still leave open to question whether such a command applies to all would-be followers. But, in any case, it is hard to think of Jesus forbidding such a sacred obligation.
Helen Bond thinks that this saying reflects Jesus’ acute sense of urgency: ‘So urgent was Jesus’ call that on one occasion he is said to have commended a would-be disciple to ‘Leave the dead to bury their own dead’ (Mt 8:18–22//Lk 9:57–62). The only explanation for this deeply offensive statement, which flagrantly ignored a fundamental religious duty, is Jesus’ utter conviction that the Kingdom was about to dawn and the demand for a present response.’ (The Historical Jesus: A Guide For The Perplexed, p109)
Hengel remarks on the sense of urgency: ‘There was no more time to be lost and so [Jesus] had to be followed without procrastination and to the abandonment of all human considerations and ties.’
3. It may be that Jesus is speaking rhetorically, in order to make the man think about his priorities. Is he prepared to put Jesus before his family? Loyalty to Jesus must take priority over all other loyalties, even the most sacred.
Bock observes: ‘Jesus’ command is heavily rhetorical, since the dead cannot bury anyone. It means either that the spiritually dead should be left to perform this task or that such concern is inconsequential in the face of the call to discipleship.’
Mounce comments: ‘This enigmatic statement is often interpreted to mean that the task of burying the physically dead is to be left to the spiritually dead (those not responding to the urgency of the kingdom message). It is probably better to take it in a more general way as indicating that the ordinary priorities of this life are to give way to the demands of Christian discipleship. (In Luke 14:25–33 one cannot be a disciple without placing Christ above family ties, carrying one’s own cross, and giving up everything one has.)’
4. It may be that the father was still alive, which would suggest that the would-be disciple wished to care for him (or used that as an excuse) until his death. This is the view of Barclay.
Morris thinks it very likely ‘that the man’s parent was still alive and that he was referring to the obligation that rested on a dutiful son to look after his father in his declining years until his eventual death. He was saying that he must fulfil his duty to his father, a most important duty. In that case he was postponing his discipleship, perhaps for several years. He was saying in effect, “Some day, after my father has died, I will follow you.”’
But there is nothing in the text itself to suggest this. Nolland (WBC) remarks that we must regard the father as dead or on the point of death.
5. It may be that the man’s comment reflects the burial customs of the day. Immediately after the death of the father, the body would have been placed in a coffin and then into a tomb for one year in order for the body to decompose. The family would have been in mourning for the first seven days, and it is unlikely that the man would have been out and about at this time. After a year, the bones would have been placed in an ossuary and then reburied. The point then is that the man wants to delay by up to one year his response to Jesus’ command to follow him. This is the view of Keener (IVP Bible Background Commentary)
The CSB Study Bible adopts a similar interpretation: ‘Jesus’s demand seems harsh to modern readers, for today funerals would only briefly delay a commitment to follow him. However, ancient Jewish burials stretched over an entire year. A year after the initial interment, the eldest son was obligated to gather the skeletal remains and place them in an ossuary for second burial. Many Jews regarded the commandment to honor father and mother as the supreme commandment, and they also viewed giving parents an honorable burial as its most important implication. Jesus insisted that following him was to be an even higher priority. Since obligation to God supersedes obligation to parents (Dt 13:5–6), Jesus assumed a divine prerogative in this teaching.’
Whichever of these interpretations we adopt, this saying is blunt, to the point of offensiveness, both in the language (referring to those outside the circle of discipleship as ‘dead’) and thrust (following Jesus is more important than the most solemn and pressing of family duties).
In considering the possible ways of interpreting this saying we must take care not to ‘domesticate’ it without good reason.
This saying powerfully expresses the teaching of Mt 10:37 (cf. Lk 9:60). Our Lord’s use of ‘shock tactics’ should not obscure the fact that he taught (and practised) high regard for family responsibilities, Mk 7:7-13.