Matthew 8:22
But Jesus said to him, Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead.
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(22) Let the dead bury their dead.—The point of the half-epigrammatic, half-proverbial saying, lies in the contrast between the two meanings of the word “dead.” “Let those who have no spiritual life linger in the circle of outward routine duties, and sacrifice the highest spiritual possibilities of their nature to their fulfilment. Those who are really living will do the work to which their Master calls them, and leave the lower conventional duties to be done or left undone as the events of their life shall order.” Something there was, we may be sure, in the inward state of the disciple which called for the sternness of the rebuke. He had been called to a living work: he was resting in a dead one.

8:18-22 One of the scribes was too hasty in promising; he proffers himself to be a close follower of Christ. He seems to be very resolute. Many resolutions for religion are produced by sudden conviction, and taken up without due consideration; these come to nothing. When this scribe offered to follow Christ, one would think he should have been encouraged; one scribe might do more credit and service than twelve fishermen; but Christ saw his heart, and answered to its thoughts, and therein teaches all how to come to Christ. His resolve seems to have been from a worldly, covetous principle; but Christ had not a place to lay his head on, and if he follows him, he must not expect to fare better than he fared. We have reason to think this scribe went away. Another was too slow. Delay in doing is as bad on the one hand, as hastiness in resolving is on the other. He asked leave to attend his father to his grave, and then he would be at Christ's service. This seemed reasonable, yet it was not right. He had not true zeal for the work. Burying the dead, especially a dead father, is a good work, but it is not thy work at this time. If Christ requires our service, affection even for the nearest and dearest relatives, and for things otherwise our duty, must give way. An unwilling mind never wants an excuse. Jesus said to him, Follow me; and, no doubt, power went with this word to him as to others; he did follow Christ, and cleaved to him. The scribe said, I will follow thee; to this man Christ said, Follow me; comparing them together, it shows that we are brought to Christ by the force of his call to us, Ro 9:16.Let the dead bury their dead - The word "dead" is used in this passage in two different senses. It is apparently a paradox, but is suited to convey the idea very distinctly to the mind. The Jews used the word "dead" often to express indifference toward a thing; or, rather, to show that that thing has no "influence" over us. Thus, to be dead to the world; to be dead to the law Romans 7:4; to be dead to sin Romans 6:11, means that the world, law, and sin have not influence or control over us; that we are free from them, and act "as though they were not." A body in the grave is unaffected by the pomp and vanity, by the gaiety and revelry, by the ambition and splendor that may be near the tomb. So people of the world are dead to religion. They see not its beauty, hear not its voice, are not won by its loveliness. This is the class of people to which the Saviour refers here. Let people, says he, who are uninterested in my work, and who are "dead in sin" Ephesians 2:1, take care of the dead. Your duty is now to follow me.

There may have been several reasons for this apparently harsh direction. One may have been to "test" the character and attachment of the man. If he had proper love for Christ, he would be willing to leave his friends, even in the most tender and trying circumstances. This is required, Matthew 10:27; Luke 14:26. A second reason may have been, that if he returned "at that time," his friends might ridicule or oppose him, or present plausible arguments, "in the afflictions of the family," why he should not return to Christ. The thing to which he was called was moreover of more importance than any earthly consideration; and, for that time, Christ chose to require of the man a very extraordinary sacrifice, to show his sincere attachment to him. Or it may have been that the Saviour saw that the effect of visiting his home at that time might have been to drive away all his serious impressions, and that he would return to him no more.

His impressions may not have been deep enough, and his purpose to follow the Saviour may not have been strong enough to bear the trial to which he would be subjected. Strange as it may seem, there are few scenes better suited to drive away serious impressions than those connected with a funeral. We should have supposed it would be otherwise: but facts show it to be so, and demonstrate that if this was one of the reasons which influenced the Saviour, he had a thorough knowledge of human nature. The arrangements for the funeral, the preparation of mourning apparel, and the depth of sorrow in such cases, divert the mind from its sins and its personal need of a Saviour; and hence few persons are awakened or converted as the result of death in a family. The case here was a "strong" one - it was as strong as can well be conceived; and the Saviour meant to teach by this that nothing is to be allowed to divert the mind from religion nothing to be an excuse for not following him. Not even the death of a father, and the sorrows of an afflicted family, are to be suffered to lead a man to defer religion, or to put off the purpose to be a Christian. That is a fixed duty - a duty not to be deferred or neglected, whether in sickness or health, at home or abroad whether surrounded by living and happy kindred, or whether a father, a mother, a child, or a sister lies in our house dead.

It is the "regular" duty of children to obey their parents, and to show them kindness in affliction, and to evince proper care and respect for them when dead. Nor did our Saviour show himself insensible to these duties. He taught here, however, as he always taught, that a regard to friends, and ease, and comfort, should be "subordinate to the gospel;" and that we should always be ready to sacrifice these when duty to God requires it.

20. And Jesus saith unto him, The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head—Few as there were of the scribes who attached themselves to Jesus, it would appear, from his calling Him Teacher, that this one was a "disciple" in that looser sense of the word in which it is applied to the crowds who flocked after Him, with more or less conviction that His claims were well founded. But from the answer which he received we are led to infer that there was more of transient emotion—of temporary impulse—than of intelligent principle in the speech. The preaching of Christ had riveted and charmed him; his heart had swelled; his enthusiasm had been kindled; and in this state of mind he will go anywhere with Him, and feels impelled to tell Him so. "Wilt thou?" replies the Lord Jesus. "Knowest thou whom thou art pledging thyself to follow, and whither haply He may lead thee? No warm home, no downy pillow has He for thee: He has them not for Himself. The foxes are not without their holes, nor do the birds of the air lack their nests; but the Son of man has to depend on the hospitality of others, and borrow the pillow whereon He lays His head." How affecting is this reply! And yet He rejects not this man's offer, nor refuses him the liberty to follow Him. Only He will have him know what he is doing, and "count the cost." He will have him weigh well the real nature and the strength of his attachment, whether it be such as will abide in the day of trial. If so, he will be right welcome, for Christ puts none away. But it seems too plain that in this case that had not been done. And so we have called this the Rash or Precipitate Disciple.

II. The Procrastinating or Entangled Disciple (Mt 8:21, 22).

As this is more fully given in Luke (Lu 9:59), we must take both together. "And He said unto another of His disciples, Follow Me. But he said,"

Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. But Jesus said unto him, Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead—or, as more definitely in Luke, "Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of God" (Lu 9:60). This disciple did not, like the former, volunteer his services, but is called by the Lord Jesus, not only to follow, but to preach Him. And he is quite willing; only he is not ready just yet. "Lord, I will; but"—"There is a difficulty in the way just now; but that once removed, I am Thine." What now is this difficulty? Was his father actually dead—lying a corpse—having only to be buried? Impossible. As it was the practice, as noticed on Lu 7:12, to bury on the day of death, it is not very likely that this disciple would have been here at all if his father had just breathed his last; nor would the Lord, if He was there, have hindered him discharging the last duties of a son to a father. No doubt it was the common case of a son having a frail or aged father, not likely to live long, whose head he thinks it his duty to see under the ground ere he goes abroad. "This aged father of mine will soon be removed; and if I might but delay till I see him decently interred, I should then be free to preach the kingdom of God wherever duty might call me." This view of the case will explain the curt reply, "Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of God." Like all the other paradoxical sayings of our Lord, the key to it is the different senses—a higher and a lower—in which the same word "dead" is used: There are two kingdoms of God in existence upon earth; the kingdom of nature, and the kingdom of grace: To the one kingdom all the children of this world, even the most ungodly, are fully alive; to the other, only the children of light: The reigning irreligion consists not in indifference to the common humanities of social life, but to things spiritual and eternal: Fear not, therefore, that your father will in your absence be neglected, and that when he breathes his last there will not be relatives and friends ready enough to do to him the last offices of kindness. Your wish to discharge these yourself is natural, and to be allowed to do it a privilege not lightly to be foregone. But the kingdom of God lies now all neglected and needy: Its more exalted character few discern; to its paramount claims few are alive: and to "preach" it fewer still are qualified and called: But thou art: The Lord therefore hath need of thee: Leave, then, those claims of nature, high though they be, to those who are dead to the still higher claims of the kingdom of grace, which God is now erecting upon earth—Let the dead bury their dead; but go thou and preach the kingdom of God. And so have we here the genuine, but Procrastinating or Entangled Disciple.

The next case is recorded only by Luke:

III. The Irresolute or Wavering Disciple (Lu 9:61, 62).

Lu 9:61:

And another also said, Lord, I will follow thee; but let me first go bid them farewell which are at home at my house.

Lu 9:62:

And Jesus said unto him, No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God. But for the very different replies given, we should hardly have discerned the difference between this and the second case: the one man called, indeed, and the other volunteering, as did the first; but both seemingly alike willing, and only having a difficulty in their way just at that moment. But, by help of what is said respectively to each, we perceive the great difference between the two cases. From the warning given against "looking back," it is evident that this man's discipleship was not yet thorough, his separation from the world not entire. It is not a case of going back, but of looking back; and as there is here a manifest reference to the case of "Lot's wife" (Ge 19:26; and see on [1236]Lu 17:32), we see that it is not actual return to the world that we have here to deal with, but a reluctance to break with it. The figure of putting one's hand to the plough and looking back is an exceedingly vivid one, and to an agricultural people most impressive. As ploughing requires an eye intent on the furrow to be made, and is marred the instant one turns about, so will they come short of salvation who prosecute the work of God with a distracted attention, a divided heart. The reference may be chiefly to ministers; but the application at least is general. As the image seems plainly to have been suggested by the case of Elijah and Elisha, a difficulty may be raised, requiring a moment's attention. When Elijah cast his mantle about Elisha, which the youth quite understood to mean appointing him his successor, he was ploughing with twelve yoke of oxen, the last pair held by himself. Leaving his oxen, he ran after the prophet, and said, "Let me, I pray thee, kiss my father and my mother, and [then] I will follow thee." Was this said in the same spirit with the same speech uttered by our disciple? Let us see. "And Elijah said unto him, Go back again: for what have I done to thee." Commentators take this to mean that Elijah had really done nothing to hinder him from going on with all his ordinary duties. But to us it seems clear that Elijah's intention was to try what manner of spirit the youth was of:—"Kiss thy father and mother? And why not? By all means, go home and stay with them; for what have I done to thee? I did but throw a mantle about thee; but what of that?" If this was his meaning, Elisha thoroughly apprehended and nobly met it. "He returned back from him, and took a yoke of oxen, and slew them, and boiled their flesh with the instruments of the oxen (the wood of his ploughing implements), and gave unto the people, and they did eat: then he arose, and went after Elijah, and ministered unto him" (1Ki 19:19-21). We know not if even his father and mother had time to be called to this hasty feast. But this much is plain, that, though in affluent circumstances, he gave up his lower calling, with all its prospects, for the higher and at that time perilous, office to which he was called. What now is the bearing of these two cases? Did Elisha do wrong in bidding them farewell with whom he was associated in his early calling? Or, if not, would this disciple have done wrong if he had done the same thing, and in the same spirit, with Elisha? Clearly not. Elisha's doing it proved that he could with safety do it; and our Lord's warning is not against bidding them farewell which were at home at his house, but against the probable fatal consequences of that step; lest the embraces of earthly relationship should prove too strong for him, and he should never return to follow Christ. Accordingly, we have called this the Irresolute or Wavering Disciple.

Ver. 21,22. Luke repeating the same history, Luke 9:59,60, saith that Christ said to this man, Follow me. He replies, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father; to live at home with my father, who is an old man, till I have performed my last filial office to him in burying him. Others think that he was already dead, and that this disciple would not have begged leave for so uncertain a time. Christ saith unto him,

Follow me; not that our Lord disapproved the decent manner of burying the dead, but by this let him know, that no office of love and duty to men must be preferred before our duty to God, to whom we owe our first obedience. It appeareth by Luke 9:60, that this disciple was called to preach the gospel, a work not to be omitted or neglected for any offices to men. Of old, the high priests and the Nazarites were not to touch dead bodies, Numbers 6:6, because of their separation to the more immediate service of God. Preachers of the gospel ought to keep themselves as free as they can from what may distract them. Saith our Saviour,

Let the dead bury their dead: there are enough to bury the dead; persons that are spiritually dead, not alive to God, let them take care of those meaner offices; I have higher employment for thee than that is. Lawful and decent offices become sinful when they hinder greater duties. But Jesus said unto him, follow thou me,.... Christ would not excuse him on this account, but insists on what he had before called him to; to attend upon him, and give himself up to the ministry of the word: which was done, partly to shew, that a greater regard ought to be had to him, than to the nearest relation and friend whatever; and partly, on account of the dignity of the Gospel ministry, which greatly exceeds any such services; as also to signify, of what little account were the traditions of the elders with him; wherefore he says,

let the dead bury the dead. Our Lord is not to be understood, as speaking against, or disrespectfully of burying the dead; his words suppose it ought to be done: only it was not proper, that this person should be concerned in it at this time, who was called to an higher employment; and therefore should leave this to be done by persons, whom it better became. And however strange and odd such a phrase may sound in the ears of some, of one dead man's burying another, it was easily understood by a Jew; with whom it is common to say, , "that a sinner is counted as (g) dead, and that ungodly persons, even while they are alive", , are "called dead" (h). And in this sense is the word used, in the former part of this phrase; and Christ's meaning is, let such who are dead in trespasses and sins, and to all that is spiritually good, bury those who are dead in a natural or corporal sense. It is likely the deceased was an unregenerate man; however, it is plainly suggested, that many of the relations were; and there were enough of them to take care of this service: and therefore, there was no need why he should neglect the ministry of the Gospel to attend that; but, ought to leave it to persons who were fitter for it.

(g) Tzeror Hammor, fol. 6. 2.((h) T. Bab. Beracot, fol. 18. 2. Jarchi in Genesis 11. 32. Baal Hatturim, in Deuteronomy 17.6. Tzeror Hammor, fol. 58. 3. Midrash Kohelet. fol. 78. 2. Caphtor, fol. 79. 1, 2. & 84. 1.

But Jesus said unto him, Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead.
Matthew 8:22. Τοὺς νεκροὺςνεκρούς] The first νεκρ. (not the second likewise, as Weisse improperly holds) denotes the spiritually dead (comp. on Matthew 4:16, on John 5:21; John 5:25, and on Luke 15:24), who are without the spiritual life that comes through Christ. Origen in Cramer’s Catena: ψυχὴ ἐν κακίᾳ οὖσα νεκρά ἐστιν. The second literally; the dead belonging to their own circles. Fritzsche (comp. Kaeuffer, de not. ζωῆς αἰων. p. 34) interprets literally in both cases: let the dead bury themselves among one another, as a paradox by way of refusing the request. What a meaningless view of Jesus’ thoughtful way of putting it! The seeming harshness of Jesus’ reply (in answer to Weisse, Bruno Bauer) must be judged of by considering the necessity which he saw of decided and immediate separation, as compared with the danger of the contrary (Chrysostom); comp. Matthew 10:37. Moreover, it is to be inferred from ἀκολούθει μοι. Comp. with Luke 9:60, that this μαθητής proceeded at once to follow the Lord, while that γραμματεύς of Matthew 8:19 probably went away like the rich young man mentioned in Matthew 19:22.Matthew 8:22. Ἀκολούθει μοι: the reply is a stern refusal, and the reason apparently hard and unfeeling—ἄφες τοὺς νεκροὺςνεκρούς: word for word the same in Luke (Luke 9:60), an unforgettable, mystic, hard saying. The dead must be taken in two senses = let the spiritually dead, not yet alive to the claims of the kingdom, bury the naturally dead. Fritzsche objects, and finds in the saying the paradox: “let the dead bury each other the best way they can,” which, as Weiss says, is not a paradox, but nonsense. Another eccentric idea of some commentators is that the first νεκροὺς refers to the vespillones, the corpse-bearers who carried out the bodies of the poor at night, in Hebrew phrase, the men of the dead. Take it as we will, it seems a hard, heartless saying, difficult to reconcile with Christ’s denunciation of the Corban casuistry, by which humanity and filial piety were sacrificed on the altar of religion (Matthew 15:3-6). But, doubtless, Jesus knew to whom He was speaking. The saying can be understood and justified; but it can also very easily be misunderstood and abused, and woe to the man who does so. From these two examples we see that Jesus had a startling way of speaking to disciples, which would create reflection and also give rise to remark. The disciple-logia are original, severe, fitted to impress, sift and confirm.22. let the dead bury their dead] Or, their own dead. The exact force of this is not quite clear. The word “dead” is used first in a figurative, secondly, in a literal sense. In a figurative sense by the “dead” are intended those who are outside the kingdom, who are dead to the true life. Perhaps a brother or brothers of the disciple had rejected Christ, “let them bury their father.” Another way of understanding the proverb is: Let those who are dead in Christ, dead to the world, bury their dead—their affections and lusts, all that connects them with that dead past. St Luke, after “let the dead bury their dead,” adds, “but go thou and preach the kingdom of God.” Perhaps no incident marks more decisively the height of self-abandonment required by Jesus of His followers. In this instance the disciple is called upon to renounce for Christ’s sake the last and most sacred of filial duties. The unswerving devotion to Christ is illustrated in the parallel passage (Luke 9:62) by “the man who puts his hand to the plough.”Matthew 8:22. Τοὺς νεκροὺς, the dead) An expression urgently commanding the man to follow Him, and therefore embracing many things. Both the dead who are to be buried, and the dead who are to bury them, must come under consideration. The dead who are to be buried, are without doubt those literally dead, whether the father of this disciple was already then dead or old, and near to death, and with only this one son. Cf. Tob 14:12. The dead who bury, or those to whom the burial of the dead should be left, are partly those who are also about to die, mortals bound to the law of death (cf. Romans 8:10), as distinguished from the hope of a better life—that hope, however, being not altogether taken away. The appellation is to be limited by the context: as in Luke 20:34, they, who nevertheless are capable of being saved, are called the children of this world; so they are called dead, who are more fit for burying than for announcing the kingdom of God. As in ch. Matthew 9:24, the girl is called not dead, who soon shall live (cf. John 11:4), so they are called dead, who soon shall die.[379] In the time of pestilence, the dead are buried by those who soon themselves die. Nor is the case very different with successive generations of mortals in the course of ages. Partly, they are already dead; and with regard to them the expression is hypothetical, with this meaning—Do thou follow Me, and leave the burial of the dead to the dead themselves; i.e. Let the dead, as far as you are concerned, remain unburied. A similar mode of expression occurs in Exodus 21:14, Let the murderer be taken from the altar: i.e. let him be slain, even if he has fled to the altar. The appellation, therefore, of the dead who bury, is abrupt, and suitable to a command which could brook no delay—a command which had sacred grounds, and flowed from the divine perception of the Saviour. We ought to surrender ourselves wholly and immediately.—τοὺς ἑαυτῶν, their own) sc. relatives. See Genesis 23:4. It was the duty of this disciple to deny his father.[380]

[379] The dead are in their lasting home, and the mourners are not far off from the same, but continue wandering all around it, until they themselves also enter it.—See Ecclesiastes 12:5.—V. g.

[380] The winds and the sea, on this occasion, sooner obeyed the will of Christ than did men.—Harm. 269, 270.Verse 22. - But Jesus said unto him, Follow me, and let; Revised Version, leave. Yet the thought of leaving seems here merged in that of permitting (cf. Matthew 23:14; Mark 5:37; Mark 10:14). The dead (Revised Version, to) bury their (Revised Version, own) dead (τοὺς ἑαυτῶν νεκρούς). The paradox was self-interpreting. Let the spiritually dead have to do with death; dead men belong in a special sense to them. Observe that there was no danger of his father remaining unburied. Christ means that there are times when his service admits of no postponement, however sacred the conflicting duty. His followers must on such occasions be very Nazarites (Numbers 6:7) or high priests (Leviticus 21:11). St. Luke adds, "But go thou, and publish abroad the kingdom of God," and adds a third similar case.
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