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.