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Jesus told a potential disciple 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.”

On the other hand, Moses commanded the Israelites in 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.

Wasn't burying one's own father a way to honor his death?

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  • That's a possibility.
    – Tony Chan
    Aug 27, 2021 at 14:33
  • Write it up as an answer and provide some references and I'll upvote it :)
    – Tony Chan
    Aug 27, 2021 at 15:20
  • 1
    The man seems to have used said occasion as an excuse to evade following Christ, and Jesus saw through that; otherwise, there would have been no need to withhold permission (1 Kings 19:20-21).
    – Lucian
    Aug 27, 2021 at 16:33
  • @Tony Chan Had Moses had another rendez vous with Lord some time after he brought down the Decalogue to his people, and had his parent died for the time of this rendez vous, I do not think Moses would prefer his parent’s funeral to the meeting with his parent’s Creator. Contradiction is only apparent. There is a hierarchy of values, even divinely ordained values, and moreover, one can be necessitated to be absent from parent's funeral for some valid and noble reason, while continuing respecting parent according to Decalogue, and what can be nobler than following the Lord, Setter of all values. Sep 3, 2021 at 7:49
  • P.s. moreover: who is greater the Law-Giver or the Law? Of course the Law-Giver. Thus, if the Law-Giver, Christ, commands one to follow Him, then only a misunderstander of Law can pit it against Christ’s command, for Law correctly interpreted in Holy Spirit cannot be at odds with the Law-Giver’s command. Sep 3, 2021 at 14:52

5 Answers 5

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The custom at the time was to bury the dead on the day of death or as soon as practical:

The traditional Palestinian preference for prompt burial continued throughout the first century. In Mark 5:38, funeral preparations for Jairus’s daughter begin right away, and in John 11 Lazarus is buried on his day of death. According to Mishnah Sanhedrin 6.6, a corpse should be kept unburied overnight only on rare occasions.1

The "burial" would be in a cave or sepulcher (as described in the burial of Lazarus and Jesus). Mourning would go on for a short period on time, 7-days or, in some cases, one month (cf. Deuteronomy 34:8), or in the case of a parent, for a full year:

After seven days, most aspects of ordinary life resumed. The death of a parent was an exception: children mourned their parents for a full year, until the time of secondary burial. At that time, in a private ceremony, family members returned to the tomb, took the bones of the deceased from their resting place on a shelf or a niche, and placed them in a niche, pit, or ossuary. The ossuary, which might be marked with the name of the deceased, was then placed either on the shelf, on the floor, or in a niche. When a loculus niche became filled with ossuaries—and some loculi have been found to contain as many as five or six—it could be sealed with a stone slab.2

The man who approached Jesus is not in mourning and is not referring to the immediate burial of his father. Therefore the man is referring to the custom of the second burial: the collection of bones for placement in an ossuary on the anniversary of the death.

"Let the dead bury the dead" is speaking to this collection of bones one year after the death. The "dead" who are to perform this second burial are those who reject Jesus; that is, do not have eternal life. The man on the other hand, is to "go and proclaim the Kingdom of God."

The "long life" promised in the instruction to honor your father and mother... Is found in the Good News of eternal life obtained by becoming a believer in Jesus.


1. Burial Practices in First Century Palestine
2. Ibid.

2

The best way to understand Jesus' statement in Luke 9:60 is by contrast with some others, in the previous chapter of Luke 5.

  • Luke 5:10, 11 - “Do not be afraid,” Jesus said to Simon. “From now on you will catch men.” And when they had brought their boats ashore, they left everything and followed Him.
  • Luke 5:27, 28 - After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector named Levi sitting at the tax booth. “Follow Me,” He told him, and Levi got up, left everything, and followed Him.

It is true that leaving someone unburied was considered a great disgrace in the NT times (compare the comment about the two witnesses in Rev 11:8). Jesus places this in context when He says in Luke 14:26 -

“If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be My disciple.

Now, in view of the commandment to honor our parents (Ex 20:12, Deut 5:16) this simply means to love God and Jesus supremely. (The "hate" is simply is a Hebraism for loving less that something else as per a previous question about Rachel and Leah.)

"Let the dead bury their own dead"

Clearly, if someone is dead, they cannot bury or do anything. Jesus uses the word "dead" in two common senses - biologically dead and spiritually dead. Ellicott sums this well in comments on the parallel passage in Matt 8:22 -

(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.

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In Matthew 15:4-6, Jesus upholds the commandment to honor one’s parents:

For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘The one who speaks evil of father or mother is to be put to death.’ 5 But you say, ‘Whoever says to his father or mother, “Whatever I have that would help you has been given to God,” 6 he is not to honor his father or mother.’ And by this you have invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition. – Mt 15:4-6

In the passage, Jesus criticizes the Pharisees for upholding traditions that conflict with the commandments of God.

“Why do you yourselves also break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” – Mt 15:3

Parsing Jesus’ words in Matthew 15:4-6, the commandment to honor one’s parents is about the respect and care that is due to the living. The customs and rites of burial, on the other hand, pertain to obligations that are owed to the dead. In some respects, they have more to do with human tradition than the commandment of God. When such is the case, the fulfilling of these obligations are of little spiritual value or benefit. Spiritually speaking, those who cling to or prioritize human tradition are dead in the sense that they are distant from God.

“‘This people honors Me with their lips, But their heart is far away from Me. And in vain do they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’” – Mt 15:8-9

“Let the dead bury the dead.” Though these words are difficult to accept and understand, the point may simply be that the commandment to love and care for those who are living is greater than any obligation to traditions that govern the burial of the dead.

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The Jewish principle of having greater commands superseding the lesser commands easily solves this contradiction. Craig Keener notes that some sages might demand a greater honor than parents in principle, but neglecting a father's burial would make the son a reproach for the community. The command of Jesus is definitely difficult, as it indeed basically asks to denounce the most basic rites and rituals of our the society. If Jesus had himself neglected the rituals, customs and tradition for the sake of his spiritual or religious endeavors, then he would have been himself living as a reproach in his family, to be seen as arrogant antisocial. Either Jesus really practiced and preached such an austere lifestyle for all his followers, or these words were rhetorical. Jesus and John the Baptist were basically close to the Essenes and did not live a regular life, so it is safe to assume that prophets and strict disciples must have denounced a lot of societal norms, as evident from their lives. John was living as in the wilderness, eating grasshoppers, he must have cut all ties with his family. The way John and Jesus died clearly shows that they defamed their family name on the social level. We should also rethink about the command of honoring the parents, that these things like neglecting the funeral doesn't violate the honor, but things like not providing for their needs (Mark 7:11-12). In Matt 12, Jesus didn't acknowledge his mother:

[Matt 12:46-50 ESV] 46While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. 47--- 48But he replied to the man who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 50For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

Jesus had made it clear that his followers would have to hate his family to follow him, if necessary; and that he came to bring division among family members with a sword, not to bring peace. Another reason for this extreme urgency and determination to follow God could be the impending end times (the genocides by the Romans), for which he came to rescue his people.

[Luke 9:57-62 ESV] 57As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 59To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” 60And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

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A similar kind of question can be raised about Matthew 10:37

Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.

Does this contradict 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.

No. Jesus demands everything from us.

Matthew 22:37

Jesus replied: “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’

When you have to choose between God and your parent, you have to choose God. God takes the highest precedence.

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