Let The Dead Bury Their Own Dead (Matthew 8:22; Luke 9:60) -- By: Gordon Franz
BSP 5:2 (Spring 1992) p. 54
Let The Dead Bury Their Own Dead
(Matthew 8:22; Luke 9:60)
There are two incidents recorded in the Gospels when a disciple requested a “leave of absence” in order to “bury” his father (Mt 8:21–22; Lk 9:59–60). Although the requests appear reasonable, Jesus gave a seemingly harsh reply in each case: “Follow Me, let the dead bury their own dead.”
This statement is often considered a “hard saying” of Jesus (Bruce 1983:161–163). Some critical scholars suggest that Jesus was encouraging His disciples to break the fifth commandment (honor your father and mother) by not giving their fathers a proper burial (Sanders 1985:252–255). Is He really demanding this? Most commentators suggest Jesus meant, “Leave the (spiritual) dead to bury the (physical) dead” (Fitzmyer 1981:836; Liefeld 1984:935). This interpretation, though common (Fitzmyer calls it the “majority interpretation”), is not consistent with the text and with Jewish ‘burial practices of the first century AD.
Problems With the “Majority Interpretation”
Byron McCane, of Duke University, points out three problems with the “majority interpretation” (hereafter MI; 1990:38–39). First, it does not give an adequate explanation of the disciples’ request, “Let me first go and bury my father.” The MI sees the request as a conflict of loyalties between the disciples’ responsibilities to their dead fathers and their commitment to follow Jesus. This minimizes the importance of the adverb “first.” In each case, a disciple was requesting time to fulfill his family obligation regarding the burial of his father. Once this was discharged, the disciple would return and follow Jesus. Thus the MI does not explain the disciples’ request for time
Secondly, those who follow the MI generally omit the words “their own dead,” because they want to distinguish between two meanings of the word “dead.” “Let the spiritually dead bury the physically dead.” However, the text says, “their own dead,” indicating that both occurrences of “dead” are connected in a reflexive possessive relation. There is no need to spiritualize the text regarding the dead; both are physically dead!
Finally, the MI goes against first-century Jewish burial customs. In the first century, when a person died, they normally were taken and buried immediately in the family burial cave which
BSP 5:2 (Spring 1992) p. 55
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