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This "let the dead bury the dead" remark is one of those passages that has troubled many Christians. It is one that we have to look at spiritually, and not so much in the physical realm. Honoring ones father, we would assume would include burying him after he has died, but the body no longer contains the spiritual essence of who the father was, and the person we were to honor in life. This is very similar to the way the Hebrews killed many of their prophets because they didn't like their message, and then built shrines to them later on. And this is one of the reasons that Jesus lamented over Jerusalem as we are told in Matthew 23:37 and Luke 13:34.
Matt 23:37 Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling.
The shrine did not truly honor the prophet; it just was a way of a future generation to try to appease their guilt for scapegoating an innocent person. This kind of action and response shows a spiritual deadness in the people, which is key to our understanding the passage before us.
When we look at the situation surrounding our passage, as recorded in Matthew 8:18-23 and Luke 9:57-62, we see that people are seeking the “glamour” of following Jesus or there were other things thing that came before their desire to follow Him, for which Jesus gives several responses. All of which were designed to show the degree of commitment that is required to be a true follower of God. Let’s look at this passage in both recorded texts.
18 Now when Jesus saw a crowd around Him, He gave orders to depart to the other side of the sea.
19 Then a scribe came and said to Him, "Teacher, I will follow You wherever You go."
20 Jesus said to him, "The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head."
21 Another of the disciples said to Him, "Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father."
22 But Jesus said to him, " Follow Me, and allow the dead to bury their own dead."
23 When He got into the boat, His disciples followed Him.
57 As they were going along the road, someone said to Him, "I will follow You wherever You go."
58 And Jesus said to him, "The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head."
59 And He said to another, " Follow Me." But he said, "Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father."
60 But He said to him, "Allow the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim everywhere the kingdom of God."
61 Another also said, "I will follow You, Lord; but first permit me to say good-bye to those at home."
62 But Jesus said to him, " No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God."
Jesus is not being coldhearted. He is trying to make the point that true followers of God have to be spiritually based in heaven in order to bring that kingdom living to earth.
The key is that serving God is more important than serving people, even though we minister to our fellow human beings as God’s ambassadors. In this respect, we could expand Jesus' remark to say, "Allow the spiritually dead to bury their own dead."
In most of the services of Death and Resurrection that I conducted, I didn't know the person whose body we were burying. I only know them through their family. Thus, by not truly knowing the spiritual relationship of the deceased with God, the services were mostly directed toward the living who were in attendance that they might grow spiritually and serve God more fully than the deceased may have done. As Jesus said in John 14:12, we, who truly believe and have faith, should be able to do ever greater works than Jesus was able to accomplish here on earth.
With this in mind, look at the verses that follow in Matthew.
24 And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being covered with the waves; but Jesus Himself was asleep.
25 And they came to Him and woke Him, saying, " Save us, Lord; we are perishing!"
26 He said to them, "Why are you afraid, you men of little faith?" Then He got up and rebuked the winds and the sea, and it became perfectly calm.
27 The men were amazed, and said, "What kind of a man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey Him?"
Jesus gave the disciples an example of the kind of faith they were to have, when he quieted the stormy waters. Perhaps it was a demonstration of showing graphically the way the power of God can overcome the powers that rule this world.
We are to honor our parents in their lifetime, and encourage others to do the same. But more importantly, we are to honor our Father who is in heaven, and who never dies. This would include respecting and caring for the whole of His creation (our fellow humans, the animals, and the environment in which we all live), and dispelling the forces of evil that seek to destroy it
This passage might sound harsh, but it doesn’t mean that we aren’t to burry our loved ones when they die. It is said in the context of separating heaven from hell, and directing people toward heaven, and the degree of commitment it requires.