“He said to another, “Follow Me.” But the man said, “Lord, let me go first and bury my father.” Jesus said to him, “Let the people who are dead bury their own dead. You go and preach about the holy nation of God.” Luke 9: 59-60 NLV
The last two men exemplify what could be called “delayed commitments.” Notice that in both cases the key word each man uses is “first:” “…let me first go….” (verse 59), and, “but first let me.… ” (verse 61). Notice also that in these instances no one has said anything about not following Jesus. What they are talking about is following Christ “when,” following Christ “if,” and following Christ “after.”
These two men fully intend to be Jesus’ disciples sometime and somehow, but not immediately. Thus we have these two offers of delayed commitment.
The first delay looks like an acceptable excuse for one’s absence, does not it? We all know that a death in the family, especially the death of one’s father, is a valid reason for taking time off work or putting something off for a while.
Some Bible scholars tell us that this “father” has not really died yet. Therefore, what this “disciple” is saying is that he must stay home with his parents until that time when his father dies, which may be a number of years. The text doesn’t really tell us this.
So let’s give this would-be disciple the benefit of the doubt and suppose that his father died that morning, and that he’s going to be buried that night. Now suppose that this man to whom Jesus has just said, “Follow Me,” is the oldest son. As the oldest son, he would be expected to stop what he was doing and to handle all of the arrangements. It is regarded as his duty. In spite of all this, Jesus says to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:60).
Do you think Jesus is being unduly demanding? Jesus could have said to him, “I’ll tell you what, we are going to go on. Why don’t you finish up with your father’s funeral and then catch up with us on our way to Jerusalem. We understand this is difficult for you, so just do what you’ve got to do. After all, it will only be a few days, so get your father buried, get your affairs in order, and then come join us.”
Jesus does not say that. What Jesus says is rather shocking, and it is not what everybody expects. The man’s request for a delay seems reasonable until you begin to look at what Jesus says in response. Jesus’ response brings His divine insight to reveal the problem.
When there is a death in the family, people are usually willing to set aside normal routines so that one’s family obligations can be fulfilled. Jesus challenges us on this point, He says: “No, you must follow Me now”, rather than go take the time to bury your father.
He will now tell us why. Ultimately, it all comes down to what is most important.
When Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their own dead,” He is saying that is a job anyone can do. More pointedly, an unbeliever (“the dead”) can handle a burial as well as a believer.
If I were forced to choose between following Jesus and burying my father, I would have to choose to follow Jesus to be a true disciple. Consider the eternal value of these two activities: (1) burying the dead; or, (2) preaching the gospel by which men can enter into eternal life. The first choice does nothing that others who are spiritually dead cannot do; the latter proclaims a message by which men can escape the bonds of death and receive the gift of eternal life. Is that not what the gospel is all about?
As part of our Christian responsibility to our family, we carry out such duties as burying the dead. But if we had to make the choice, as some people have, between following Christ and fulfilling our family duties, which would we choose?
Jesus suggests that the answer to this question should be determined according to what is eternally more important.