Burying the Dead (Matthew 8:21-22)

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esus is about to travel to the far side of the lake. He gave orders to set out for there after seeing the crowds gather again. Some from the crowd had followed Him over, and even as He prepares to embark on His travels, people have come up to Him with questions. One of them – a teacher of the law – professed that he would follow Him wherever He went. Jesus dismissed him because He is not looking for a bunch of groupies. He is looking for disciples who will join with Him in His ministry. But before Jesus can leave, “Another disciple said to him, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus told him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.”  Unlike the teacher of the law, this person can accurately be called a disciple because He’s already learned to address Jesus as “Lord”. His request is that he be excused from active involvement in the ministry because he has a pressing family obligation. 

In ancient Israeli culture, such a request would not be unwarranted. Moses had made it clear that the Lord placed a high value on family and family relationships, to the point that a recently married man was not to engage in civic service or any other obligation for a full year (Duet 24:5). As honoring your parents was enshrined in the Decalogue (The Ten Commandments), caring for a recently deceased parent (and especially a father) was one of the highest cultural priorities. So much so, that a rabbi once write, “He who is confronted by a dead relative is freed from reciting the Shema, from the Eighteen Benedictions, and from all the commandments stated in the Torah.” To our day, time off for family funerals is an expectation that cannot be ignored – it comes before every other pressing obligation.

All the same, Jesus summarily dismisses this disciples’ predicament, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.” Jesus’ response may seem harsh, but that’s only because we tend to read it as though He was being unmindful of the disciple’s circumstance – which we have to know was not the case. He was just told it, and He knows every man’s heart besides – how could He possibly be ignorant of what this particular disciple was going through? No, it is not that Jesus was unaware of this man’s loss or his social obligations. Rather, Jesus was pointing out the real and obvious priority.  After all, that particular disciple is in the middle of a conversation with God in the flesh. God Most High is standing in front of him, speaking to him and inviting him to follow! 

There are many offers we can refuse just because they seem uncomfortable to us. There are many offers we can refuse because they are inconvenient. There are many offers we can refuse because we have other pressing obligations. But when the Creator looks at you and speaks to you and extends an offer to you to follow Him – that is an offer you cannot refuse. For what could you possibly do that is better than obeying the Source of all life? 

In saying this, Jesus is pointing out that He is paramount. He is pointing out that what He is doing is paramount, and that engaging in what God is doing is not optional for His disciples. Simply put, there is no circumstance that allows a vacation from the responsibility of following God’s very clear and explicit direction.

All of mankind is made for one purpose – to bring glory to God. We do that best by enjoying Him in God-centred worship and active participation in what He Himself is doing. God, and God’s purposes – are not duties or burdens to be reluctantly carried out from time to time. It is life to know God, it is life to be a witness for God and it is life to imitate Him in what He is doing, because He is life. As Jesus later confessed, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” We never willingly set our own life aside, so why would we even consider to set the source of life aside? To do so – and that to care for the dead of all things – is both unthinkable and foolish. Seen from that perspective, one can see that Christ’s comment to this grieving disciple is logical and obvious. You do not stop being a disciple because you need to engage in grief, or attend to pressing family matters. In fact, it is during such times that your discipleship is most prominently on display. 

Commitment to Jesus is to be without reservation

Stuart K. Weber

APPLICATION: Intentionality

Discipleship is costly. It mandates focus, commitment and wholehearted engagement. Are you prepared to go and do what Christ asks you to go and do?  

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