Dead Bury Dead
What does the Bible mean by “let the dead bury the dead”?
The phrase you asked about occurs in Luke 9:60 (cf. Matt. 8:22). In context, a man whom Jesus commanded to follow him replies, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” In response, Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
Of the various suggestions interpreters have made, I think there are two that are more likely than the others.
- The first option suggests that “burial customs in the vicinity of Jerusalem from about 20 B.C. to A.D. 70 involved a reinterment of the bones a year after the initial burial, once the flesh had rotted away. At that point, the son would have placed his father’s bones in a special box known as an ossuary to be set into the wall of the tomb. Thus Jesus could well be rebuking the man for wanting to wait around for as much as a year before making a commitment to follow him” (NET Bible).
- The second possibility is that the man’s father was near the point of dying, and he wanted to wait until he died to follow Jesus. When you remember that Isaac thought he was going to die at age 100 but then lived another 80 years (!), there is no telling how long it would have been before the man followed Jesus.
Jesus’ statement, “Let the dead bury their dead,” probably means that those who are spiritually dead should be responsible for burying his father, but he must follow Jesus. It is difficult to know whether the father had already died or was near death. In either case, however, Jesus’ point is clear: following Him is the most important priority.