"Let the dead bury the dead" Matt 8:21,22

There are at least 35 bible verses (Ex 20:12; Lev 19:13, for example) that talk about the importance of honoring one's Father or/and Mother and yet Jesus is quick to rebuke his disciple, by stipulating the above, who felt it his obligation to bury his now dead Father before 'taking up the cross' as it were. What can we glean from this?

One could argue that the love of God should be above all things, Matt 22:37, but surely a leave of absence could have been in order here. His Father may well have been 'spiritually dead' to Jesus and have had other 'spiritually dead' offspring to take up the task of burying, but this is far from clear.

Exodus 20:12 “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.

Deuteronomy 5:16 “Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God has commanded you, so that you may live long and that it may go well with you in the land the Lord your God is giving you.

  • 1
    Christ seems to have been very apt at discerning people's hearts (Matthew 9:4). In this particular case, He seems to have been worried that the apparently benign thought might have had hidden or unstated intentions behind it, namely wavering or indecision in terms of actually staying true to one's promise of returning to follow Him.
    – Lucian
    Commented May 7, 2021 at 17:22
  • @Lucian-Excellent point! Commented May 8, 2021 at 0:30
  • This is to let you know that I've upvoted this question, which I consider to be important. I also intended to take a look at some of your other q and a's... many of which were posted before I joined. Commented Oct 15, 2023 at 17:51
  • @DanFefferman - Thank you for this, never thought for one moment .... I'm flattered that you may be looking into other q and a's of mine, especially as you are a very busy man on this site. Your accumulation of pts in such a short time, is probably second only to Dottard, and that's saying something. He doesn't miss a thing, I, on the other hand miss a lot. The Q. has to intrigue me, but not always, as I have an affinity with some posters (you could become one of them). I have even gone weeks, if not months, without even checking in, due to either exasperation, or extraneous activities. Commented Oct 15, 2023 at 18:33

3 Answers 3


Here we must tread carefully - Jesus cannot and should not be taken literally in this instance precisely because, literally dead people cannot bury or do anything!!

The safest approach is to take the obvious spiritual meaning and use the metaphorical meaning of "dead" to indicate someone who is spiritually dead - such a meaning is found in:

  • Eph 2:5 - made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions--it is by grace you have been saved. See also V1.
  • Col 2:13 - When you were dead in your trespasses and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our trespasses,
  • Luke 15:32 - But it was fitting to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ ” See also VV24
  • Rom 6:11 - So you too must count yourselves dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus. See also V13
  • Rev 3:1 - These are the words of the One who holds the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation for being alive, yet you are dead.

Note the comments by Ellicott -

(22) Let the dead bury their dead.—The point of the half-epigrammatic, half-proverbial saying, lies in the contrast between the two meanings of the word “dead.” “Let those who have no spiritual life linger in the circle of outward routine duties, and sacrifice the highest spiritual possibilities of their nature to their fulfilment. Those who are really living will do the work to which their Master calls them, and leave the lower conventional duties to be done or left undone as the events of their life shall order.” Something there was, we may be sure, in the inward state of the disciple which called for the sternness of the rebuke. He had been called to a living work: he was resting in a dead one.

Similarly, Barnes has these comments:

Let the dead bury their dead - The word "dead" is used in this passage in two different senses. It is apparently a paradox, but is suited to convey the idea very distinctly to the mind. The Jews used the word "dead" often to express indifference toward a thing; or, rather, to show that that thing has no "influence" over us. Thus, to be dead to the world; to be dead to the law Romans 7:4; to be dead to sin Romans 6:11, means that the world, law, and sin have not influence or control over us; that we are free from them, and act "as though they were not." A body in the grave is unaffected by the pomp and vanity, by the gaiety and revelry, by the ambition and splendor that may be near the tomb. So people of the world are dead to religion. They see not its beauty, hear not its voice, are not won by its loveliness. This is the class of people to which the Saviour refers here. Let people, says he, who are uninterested in my work, and who are "dead in sin" Ephesians 2:1, take care of the dead. Your duty is now to follow me. There may have been several reasons for this apparently harsh direction. One may have been to "test" the character and attachment of the man. If he had proper love for Christ, he would be willing to leave his friends, even in the most tender and trying circumstances. This is required, Matthew 10:27; Luke 14:26. A second reason may have been, that if he returned "at that time," his friends might ridicule or oppose him, or present plausible arguments, "in the afflictions of the family," why he should not return to Christ. The thing to which he was called was moreover of more importance than any earthly consideration; and, for that time, Christ chose to require of the man a very extraordinary sacrifice, to show his sincere attachment to him. Or it may have been that the Saviour saw that the effect of visiting his home at that time might have been to drive away all his serious impressions, and that he would return to him no more.

  • Liked this answer better, particularly when it came to Barnes' expanded comments. Commented May 8, 2021 at 6:59

There is a parallel account in Luke 9:

59 He said to another man, “Follow me.”

But he replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”

60Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

I do feel that Jesus' wording was being rather strict and harsh here from our humans' point of view.

61Still another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.”

62Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”

I think Jesus saw through their hearts: their priorities were not in the right place in God.

Even in the OT, God demanded the best from the best (the Nazarites and high priests):

Numbers 6:7

Even if their [Nazarites] own father or mother or brother or sister dies, they must not make themselves ceremonially unclean on account of them, because the symbol of their dedication to God is on their head.

Leviticus 21:11

He [high priest] must not enter a place where there is a dead body. He must not make himself unclean, even for his father or mother,

  • Your answer (first answer) is much appreciated. Uncleanliness with regard to the ceremonial interesting addition. Commented May 8, 2021 at 6:17

Understanding these verses must begin with understanding Jesus' word usage. Remember when Jesus said of his dead friend Lazarus that he was sleeping? His disciples thought that Lazarus must be getting better if he were taking rest in sleep. But Jesus had to break it to them: Lazarus was dead.

Remember when Jesus spoke to the scribes and Pharisees saying they were as "whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness." (Matthew 23:27)? Obviously, dead bones in coffins aren't alive--yet he was addressing living persons. What then did it mean that he was ascribing "death" to these men? And how is it, by contrast, that of the deceased young lady, Jesus would say, "Why make ye this ado, and weep? the damsel is not dead, but sleepeth" (Mark 5:39)?

Jesus sees the heart. He sees the future of the soul. He knows that those who are alive spiritually will receive eternal life. In fact, John 3:36 indicates that eternal life can be ours even now, at present. Jesus spoke of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as being "alive" when he said: "I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living." (Matthew 22:32)

Notice, too, that Jesus did not say "let the dead bury the dead." He said "let the dead bury their dead." In other words, let those who are spiritually dead bury those whom they consider "dead."

Once someone has physically died, there is no way to honor them by burying them--at least, they will never know of it. "The dead know not anything" (Ecclesiastes 9:5). To honor one's parents is not done by lipservice nor by courtesies or formalities, as many suppose. To truly honor one's parents is to live a life that will make them proud; to live in such a was as will not make them ashamed before others to have brought such a one into the world. Whether one attends the funeral or not is of small account in comparison with how he or she is living.

Jesus gives this instruction because the Father's interest is more for the living, who have hope of salvation, than for the dead, whose probation is past (see Ecclesiastes 9:4). To honor our Father in heaven, we must recognize this same principle.

  • Thank you for your answer. Liked.... " To honor ones parents is not done by lip service nor by courtesies or formalities....live a life that will make them proud " Commented May 8, 2021 at 6:46

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