Let the Dead Bury the Dead: What Does Matthew 8:22 Mean?


Matthew 8:22 reads, “But Jesus said unto him, Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead.” King James Version (KJV)

TranslationMatthew 8:22
ESVAnd Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.”
NASBBut Jesus said to him, “Follow Me, and allow the dead to bury their own dead.”
NIVBut Jesus told him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.”
NLTBut Jesus told him, “Follow me now. Let the spiritually dead bury their own dead.”

Let the Dead Bury the Dead: Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary

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.

Matthew 8:22 | Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary

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.

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