And [Jesus] said unto another, “Follow me.”
But he said, “Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father.”
But He said unto him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead; but go thou and publish abroad the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:59-60).
We can gain an understanding of the critical importance of the Kingdom and its proclamation to Jesus by seeing how He calls people for His purposes.
One of the commands Jesus gives frequently is to be willing to give up family relations for the sake of the Kingdom (cf. Matthew 10:34-39, Luke 14:25-26). Here this principle is on display.
Jesus calls a man to follow Him. According to the account in Matthew, he is already a disciple– not one of the Twelve, but someone else with an interest in Jesus (Matthew 8:21-22). Perhaps he has only recently begun to listen to Jesus; perhaps Jesus knows what is in his heart and is bringing the matter to the surface.
Regardless, the man has a challenge. He needs to bury his father. Perhaps his father has already actually died; it is as likely, if not more so, that he is still alive but near death.
This is not an unbecoming request. Children are to honor their parents (Exodus 20:12, Ephesians 6:1-3). To provide for fathers at the end of life was honorable: this was the comfort God gave Jacob, that Joseph would “put his hands on your eyes” (Genesis 46:3-4), and Joseph makes elaborate preparation to bury his father (Genesis 50:1-14).
Jesus understands this. We do not get the impression that He wishes to cause the elderly gentleman any disrespect or disservice. But the task of burial should be done by another– He says to “let the dead bury the dead” (Luke 9:60).
We understand that He is not speaking literally– no zombies here. Let the (spiritually) dead bury the (physically) dead is the import of the message. Yes, burial preparations must be made– but not by this man. He has been called to something greater and more urgent! There are plenty of other people around who are worldly-minded and able to handle that responsibility.
The proclamation of the message of the Gospel cannot wait. The twelve disciples watching this will learn this message well; as the Apostles, they would not allow the matter of serving tables get in the way of their devotion to God in prayer and His word (Acts 6:1-2). Someone can be found to take care of the burial process. The important thing for this disciple is to proclaim God’s message!
It is easy for us to see various commands of Jesus and initially find a way to blunt its force. This is especially true of the commands about renouncing family relations, ourselves, and our stuff for the Kingdom’s sake. We see what Jesus says about loving God more than family (e.g. Matthew 10:37), and we remind ourselves that we are to honor and respect family. It is true that we are to honor and respect family, as far as that goes. But we must be exceedingly careful lest we be guilty of forsaking God’s word to bury the dead when the dead should be left to bury the dead!
All good things are not created equal. There is not enough time, money, or resources in the world to fulfill every good thing. We must prioritize. There are the “greater goods” in life along with the “lesser goods”. We must do the best we can to keep these in perspective.
Jesus has made it abundantly clear what is the greatest good– the Kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33, 10:34-37, 13:44-46, 16:24-28). Therefore, every other “good” must be subordinated to this greater good. It will not matter how many good things you have done in life– if you have sacrificed the greater good, the Kingdom, in order to accomplish all of those lesser goods, it leads to condemnation (Matthew 7:21-23)!
This is the lesson that this disciple must learn in a stunning way. To go and bury his father is to sacrifice the greater good for the sake of the lesser good. Therefore, he must allow the dead to bury the dead, and to go himself to accomplish the greater good of proclaiming the message of God’s Kingdom.
So it is with us. If Jesus appeared to you and charged you to follow Him, what would you say? Would you ask Him to suffer you to “bury your father”– provide for parents, spouse, children, finish up some undone business, or the like? If so, what do you imagine He would say? “Let the dead bury the dead.” Let worldly concerns be handled by those whose only hope is in the world. Meanwhile, we must go and do the greater good, proclaiming the message of God’s Kingdom!
Let us be clear: taking care of one’s own is part of one’s responsibility to God (1 Timothy 5:8). But far too often we allow the “lesser goods” of this life (and, far too often, that which is not good at all!) to crowd out the greatest good. We will find time for everything but the advancement of God’s purposes. This should not be. Let the dead bury the dead– but let us proclaim God’s message before it is too late!
Ethan R. Longhenry