'Let the dead bury their own dead' - it sounds like a line from a zombie movie - but it is something that Jesus said. Most people just try to explain this away as if it was an absent-minded, embarrassing tweet from Jesus. It is however a deep spiritual saying full of power and wisdom.
Another of his disciples said to him, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead - Matthew 8:21-22 (NRSV)A bit shocking at first glance - isn't it?!
In the traditions of the time a person would have been buried on the same day. So the fact that the person can't follow Jesus at this stage but first need time to bury his father tells us that his father is probably still alive - possibly old and in need of care. Is Jesus really telling the disciple to abandon his dying father?!
Common interpretations that I think is incorrect
- The father already died but the son still needed to perform a final burial that takes place a year later after the body has decomposed. This interpretation however does not make sense as the son could still follow Jesus while he waited the year for the second ritual. It would also not explain why Jesus said 'let the dead bury the dead'.
- The oldest son according to tradition had to wait to receive his inheritance. The problem would then have been the son and not the father. Again, why would Jesus then say 'let the dead bury the dead'.
- We have to put Jesus first. While this is true - leaving and old man to struggle and suffer in his final days alone goes against everything that Jesus teaches. If you read Matthew 15:4-9 you will see how strong Jesus feels about someone that uses religion to neglect taking care of his parents. Also think of all the times Jesus talks about love and taking care for those in need.
Instead of trying to give an explanation of why Jesus said such a shocking thing, we should look for the truth of what Jesus were teaching us. For a long time this verse was a problem for me - until I read the Gospel of Thomas.
Jesus said, "How miserable is the body that depends on a body, and how miserable is the soul that depends on these two". - Gospel of Thomas, saying 87.'A body that depends on a body' sound very similar to 'the dead that buries the dead!'
Lets look at the saying from the Gospel of Thomas first ...
A 'body' is a person without spiritual enlightenment - a person (body) without God. What hope is there for such a person? If all that person has to depend on is another body (another human being that is also without God) or another earthly resource (doctors, medicine, etc) - how miserably will that person (soul) be?
Doctors, medicine, family and friends are all good and helps - but if that is all you have - if there is no spiritual enlightenment - then the day will come when all will fail.
Now, lets look at 'let the dead bury the dead' again ...
The first saying in the Gospel of Thomas says "Whoever discovers the interpretation of these sayings will not taste death.".
(I believe) Jesus is saying to the disciple - if you go back now, you will be of no use to your father. A 'dead body' can do nothing for another 'dead body'.
Leave them alone; they are blind guides [a][leading blind followers]. If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit - Matthew 15:14 (AMP)(I believe) Jesus is saying - learn from me - then you will be able to make a difference. Then you will really be able to help someone.
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