Sunday, July 1, 2007

“Let the dead bury their dead.”

Sunday’s Gospel reading has the following verses in it that has always perplexed me:

And to another he said, “Follow me.” But he replied, ”(Lord,) let me go first and bury my father.” But he answered him, “Let the dead bury their dead. But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
Most homilies you hear on these verses will touch on the fact the importance of having our priorites in the proper order and the fact that being a disciple of Christ’s takes a radical commitment. Amen! But what just doesn’t seem right is that Jesus seems to say that in order to follow Him the man must ignore the seventh corporal works of mercy and in a way the fourth commandment to honor your father and mother.

So I decided to look into this. I started by looking at the occasionally helpful footnotes in the NAB for this verse and found:

Let the dead bury their dead: i.e., let the spiritually dead (those who do not follow) bury their physically dead. See also the note on Matthew 8:22.
So I then looked at the footnotes for Matthew 8:22 and found:

Let the dead bury their dead: the demand of Jesus overrides what both the Jewish and the Hellenistic world regarded as a filial obligation of the highest importance. See the note on Luke 9:60.
So then I checked the footnotes for Luke 9:60, and ... Ok, this just wasn’t helping me resolve the issue. So I began to dig a little deeper into some other areas and ran across some information that was new to me and seems to help it all make a little more sense.

In the time of the Second Temple (516 BC – 70 AD), the Jewish people used tombs carved out of stone in their burial. Just as Jesus was laid in a tomb, so were most other people after they died. This was known as the “first burial”.

So death after death, year after year, the bodies of the dead were laid in cave-like tombs. Now any one who knows how relativley small Jerusalem is knows that you have a real estate problem regarding all these tombs.

But this really wasn’t a problem. Most people don’t realize that the bodies which were laid in the tomb were not laid there forever. The bodies were allowed to lay there for one year to allow for the flesh to rot away. After one year, the family (usually the oldest son) would enter the tomb, collect the bones, and place them in a box called an ossuary. This was known as the “second burial”. This box would be placed in the back of the tomb or another location depending on the family’s situation, and the tomb would be reused by another dead body.

I’m sure you’ve all heard about the bonebox, or ossuary they found last Easter that was supposed to hold the remains (bones) of the Holy Family. Or the ossuary found a couple years ago that made the headlines containing the inscription, “James son of Joseph, brother of Jesus”. These boneboxes, both prooving to not contain the claimed occupants, are the results of the Jewish burial rights of the Second Temple era.

So let’s assume that the idea of the two-burial system was an assumption to those durring the 1st century. If this was the case, which burial was the disciple referring to? The death of a person was followed by a week of mourning where the family was expected to stay in the home after the burial to receive other mourners and well-wishers. Since the disciple was with Jesus and not at home, the mourning period would have been complete and thus the first burial completed. So this would seem to leave us with the fact that the disciple was talking about the second burial.

In this case Jesus’ words, “Let the dead bury their dead.” may have the same meaning, but a slightly different context. The disciple had already buried his father as the Law of the Old Testament required, Jesus was calling him to leave the second burial, the gathering of his dead fathers bones (a cultural norm) to the dead. Jesus was calling for him to follow him in a radical way by placing the call to, “go and proclaim the kingdom of God,” above any care of this world.


Anonymous said...

Serviam, I'm not sure if you've solved this riddle or not, but it gives us some more to think about regarding this Gospel reading. Thanks for the information.

Anonymous said...

I'm not Catholic, rather Baptist, and this passage has perplexed me until I took the time tonight to do a little "googling" on it. I like your explanation which is consistent with the link I found and posted above.

diether808 said...

To God, the meaning of "dead" is not confined to the physical, but to the spiritual. A person who "is born again" becomes spiritually alive, those who are spiritually dead are the same as physically dead.

Anonymous said...

Let me share my answer regarding that passage and hope this could help.

What it really means 'bout let the dead bury their dead is this.

Dead most often in the scriptures even that the Lord Jesus mentioned was about the unsaved or spiritually dead(Romans 6:23,Eph 2:1). That means, if you're trusting your good works, best efforts and being righteous to attain the Kingdom of God and NOT CHRIST the SAVIOR, then you were SPIRITUALLY DEAD(John 3:18) and were condemned already.

To put it simply, Jesus Christ is telling, let the dead(his unsaved or spiritually dead loveones or relatives) bury his father.

What's wrong with most people is that, they look for footnotes after footnotes, reference after reference and other's opinions.. not the HOLY SPIRIT that guides in all TRUTH(John 16:13)

Hope that helps you give an answer.

And if you ask why I was brought here in your blog, I believe it was not an accident.

I am googling(ofcourse, I prayed first and asked for the Holy Spirit's Guidance) about this passage for my message preparation for my unsaved loveones.

God's grace is upon us all and His Salvation is FREE. Trust in the Lord Jesus Christ and Him ALONE of what He did in the cross for you and for me(not on our good works(Eph 2:8-9)). Paying the penalty of our SINS that we might inherit the Kingdom of God(Romans 3:23).

All the Glory and Honor to the Lord Jesus Christ! Amen

Anonymous said...

I read a commentary in the Catholic lent devotional found in the booklets from "" (July 2012, page 66) that had a different take on this passage that may be the most accurate. In essence it said that the man's father was not actually dead, but up in years and getting close to death. The man was saying (in essence) to Jesus, "My dad is old, he'll die soon. I will bury him and then I will tidy up the family business affairs and once those are settled...I will come follow you." The message is that we always have loose ends but Jesus is calling us to stop where we are, turn and follow Him.

Kristin Parker said...

Extremely interesting analysis! Very helpful. Thank you so much!

chykdon said...

Quite apt & interstn angle to that statement, let d dead bury d dead. I had thot it referd to those who felt more empathy or 'deadened' by d death of a relative & ergo, needs to see about d final rites. But the situation referd to d man's father which of course affects d son wholesomely(deadened), bt Christ is redirecting him to leave such to others who are equally ' deadened' or affected by such death to go go ahead & do d dead their honours, whereas he that has bn called should not b distracted by d burial burdens, & just plain drop every encumbrance & follow Christs Calling pronto, instead of dilly dallying.

Dia Darcey said...

Thanks for the additional idea!