Why Did Jesus Say “Let the Dead Bury Their Dead”?

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“When Jesus saw the crowd around him, he gave orders to cross to the other side of the lake… Another disciple said to him, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus told him, ‘Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead’” (Matthew 8:18, 21-22).

Did you hear correctly? This wonderful loving Jesus being so insensitive. Was Jesus just being a cruel and mean person? The request this man made seemed simple and innocent enough. After all what’s wrong with wanting to bury your own father? This is the subject we want to look at today. What did Jesus really mean when he said let the dead bury their own dead?

Let the Dead Bury the Dead: A Matter of Priority

“First let me go and bury my father.”

When you think of burials today, our process is rather straightforward. A person dies and within days there is usually a funeral. Once the funeral is complete, you go to the gravesite and proceed with burying the body. This is typically done within the same day or at most the funeral is one day and the burial the next. Regardless of how it’s done, the process isn’t long and drawn out, and is completed within a short span of time.

This man’s situation was a little bit different. For starters, the man’s father wasn’t dead yet. In Jesus’ day the statement this man made had a completely different meaning than it would have today. In his article, Billy Graham explains what the man is really saying: Jesus I will follow you but first let me stay with my father, until he dies. I am not sure how long that will take but once that happens then I will bury him. When that is done then I will come and follow you. 

There is something else this man may have been considering…his inheritance. It’s possible this man was waiting to claim an inheritance from his father. So he wasn’t just saying he wanted to wait until his father died. He was also saying – Lord I have some money coming to me and I want to secure my financial future. Once that happens, I will be ready and at that time I will come and follow you. It was a matter of priority. 

Regardless of the primary reason – this man was hesitant in following Jesus. He felt there was something more important for him to do right now. He was telling Jesus I will get back to you later. Following Jesus was important but it wasn’t important enough. His priorities were out of order and Jesus recognized it. 

A Matter of Urgency 

“Let the dead bury their own dead.”

Now that we have some context, let’s see what else Jesus was pointing out in this man. This man not only had his priorities out of order, what he also missed was a sense of urgency. He made the false assumption that he could leave today and come back later and follow Jesus. Countless people have assumed that they could put off following Jesus until later, but later never comes. Either they get sucked up in the cares of this life or some unfortunately die before they revisit the opportunity. Following Jesus is not only a matter of priority, it is a matter of urgency.

Jesus was laying it on the line and forcing this man to make a choice. He was telling this man if you are going to follow me, do it today. Don’t let anything else get in the way. It reminds me of the scripture in Hebrews 3:15:

“As has just been said: ‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion.’”

This Scripture is full of urgency. Be urgent about following Jesus. Be urgent about responding to his calling. Be urgent about doing his will. Don’t assume you will have a chance to do it later. That day may never come.

This man was still tied to the cares of this life. That’s why Jesus said let the dead bury their own dead. Let those who are spiritually dead or who have no desire to follow me be consumed with the affairs and cares of this life. They can bury those who are physically dead. This is what Jesus was trying to reveal to this man, the true condition of his heart.

We don’t know what happened to that man and what decision he made. I do believe that the urgency in Jesus’ reply was because he knew that if the man didn’t follow now, he would probably never follow. That’s why it is a matter of urgency.

Where Are Your Priorities?

As wonderful as it is to read the pages of Scripture, they don’t mean anything unless we apply them to our lives. Let’s apply this to your life by considering a few questions

1. Is Jesus asking you to follow him?

This means two things. Is God tugging on your heart, reaching out for you to give your life to Christ? If he is don’t delay. This is the most urgent decision you will ever make. There is no guarantee you will have another opportunity.

However, what if you already know Jesus? Is there something God is calling you to do? If he is, this needs to head to the top of your to-do list. There is nothing more important in life than accomplishing the will and plan that God has for your life.

2. Is there anything dead you are holding onto?

Sometimes there are things we don’t want to let go of because we think we may miss out if we do. Remember the man in the story was potentially worried about his inheritance.

Are you holding onto things that you are giving more importance or priority to than you should? If there are dead things in your life let them go. They may seem important but they are actually keeping you from experiencing all of God’s best.

3. Are you ready to count the cost?

One of the realities of following Jesus is that it will cost you something. You have to decide for yourself and no one can decide for you, are you willing to pay the price? There is great joy and great reward in following Jesus, but it’s not always going to be easy. It will come with hard choices, sacrifice, and challenges along the way.

However, I can assure you that you will find nothing more satisfying and fulfilling than following Jesus, no matter the cost. This was the reality Jesus was trying to help this man understand. The same is true today.

Jesus has great things in store for your life. Reaching and obtaining those things requires you to make following his will for your life your top priority and your greatest urgency. It’s a place you and I have to get to and stay in. There are always going to be things that want to compete with this priority and urgency. In spite of those things let’s keep following Jesus and let the dead bury their own dead. 

Clarence Haynes

Clarence Haynes