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Christian Biblical Studies
‘Let the dead bury their own dead.’
All Scripture references are to the NIV-UK, 1984.
Q. In Matt. 8:21, 22 we read of a man who wished to be a follower of Jesus, but asked ‘first let me go and bury my father’. Jesus replied, ‘follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead’.
How should we understand this exchange?
A. Jesusʼ response, properly interpreted, would not have appeared callous nor impatient in the original context of this conversation. It is not that the man’s father had died that day and all that remained was the arrangement of a burial service. The man is described as a ‘disciple’, and so was already in sympathy with Jesus’ mission. Perhaps he was a casual follower and now contemplated a deeper commitment to the cause, wishing to accompany Jesus on His journeys. In effect he was saying, ‘I would like to be more engaged in the work than I am now, to follow you wherever you go, but I have commitments to my father, who is old, and needs me to look after him in his final years.’ It is to this sentiment that Jesus addresses his reply, ‘let the dead bury their own dead’. (In the related passage, Luke 9:59-60, Jesus adds, ‘. . . but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’)
Perhaps Jesus knew that if this young disciple took time off to serve his father for a few years, other business or pleasure would crowd upon him and he might never return to the higher service. Jesus succinctly conveys the primacy of His own mission, in which there must be no delay; and, also, the fact that those who have not accepted Christ as Saviour and Lord are already in a ʻdeadʼ condition. Those who believe are counted among the ‘living’.
For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to men in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit. – 1 Pet. 4:6
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