Was Jesus Being Insensitive When He Said, ‘Let the Dead Bury the Dead’?

Regardless of the reason, this man was missing the urgency in Jesus’ explanation. Without Christ, we are dead in our sins. Jesus knew this. We may be very much alive, strong and healthy physically, and yet be spiritually dead, which is far more serious.

Heather Riggleman
Ushers carrying a casket

A funeral is a moment marked in time when we have the opportunity to say goodbye to our loved ones that have passed from this side of heaven into eternity. It is a chance to have closure. It’s a moment to celebrate their memory and grieve the loss of their presence in our daily lives. It’s a significant moment marked in time when we are surrounded by family and friends to mourn the loss.

It is straightforward, minus a few differences between burying a casket or spreading ashes, but we all know what to expect and it’s over within a few days. Then we are left to work through the grief process. 

Unless we’re the disciple that made it into the scriptures in Matthew. He wanted to bury his father. Was that too much to ask? After all, it is a loved one. It is death we’re talking about. Why would Jesus be so harsh, cold, and seemingly uncaring? 

So, what did Jesus mean in Matthew 8:22 when he beckoned a man to follow him and the young man asked to stay behind and bury this father? Was Jesus being rash when he replied, “Let the dead bury the dead.” It might seem like Jesus was being insensitive and selfish. His words might sound harsh, but we must read this passage within its context, beginning with verse 19 and reading to 22:

Now when Jesus saw a crowd around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. And a scribe came up and said to him, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Another of the disciples said to him, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.”

In those days, waiting to bury the dead didn’t necessarily mean a loved one had physically passed from this life to the next. In fact, this young man’s father was alive and well despite the fact he pleaded before Jesus and made it seem as though his father had just passed away. 

The Reality: You’re the Walking Dead without Christ

It might have even been another decade before the man’s father passed. So, when Jesus asked this disciple to follow him, the disciple made excuses as to why he wasn’t quite ready to give up everything and follow him.

This man may have been waiting to claim his inheritance. Or perhaps he didn’t want to face his father’s wrath by leaving or maybe his father truly had passed. Whatever the reason, whether it was financial security, family approval, family loyalty, or something else, he did not want to commit himself to Jesus yet. 

In other words, he was stating to Christ, “Jesus, of course, I want to follow you, but I have some money coming to me and I want to claim my inheritance first. Once I get all my affairs in order, then I’ll follow you.” This man was asking Jesus to excuse him of his spiritual responsibilities so that he could return and live with his aging father and reap a physical reward with his father’s dying breath. It seems as though he was asking Jesus to give him permission to skirt his spiritual calling. 

Regardless of the reason, this man was missing the urgency in Jesus’ explanation. Without Christ, each and every one of us are the walking dead. We are dead in our sins regardless of whether or not our heads are resting on the silk pillows of our caskets. Jesus knew this. We may be very much alive, strong and healthy physically, and yet be spiritually dead — which is far more serious.

Jesus was forcing this man to face reality and make a decision. He was telling him, “If you’re going to follow me, do it right now, today. Don’t waste another second. Who knows what could happen five minutes for five years from now?” Hebrews 3:15 reminds us, “As has just been said: ‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion.’” 

Jesus was always direct with those who wanted to follow him. He made sure they not only counted the cost but laid everything aside so that nothing would hinder their journey with him, nor would following him be conditional. 

As God’s son, Jesus knew the cost. He was counting on it. He wanted to ensure every bit of pain and suffering to the point of death meant our freedom in the life he laid down for us. This included family loyalty and honoring parents. 

Remember this is the same man who stated in front of his mother and brothers who were waiting for him, “Who is my mother and who are my brothers? For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my mother and brothers,” (Matthew 12:48-50).

Let’s also keep in mind Jesus wasn’t insensitive to the pain and suffering of death. It was one of the very reasons he came to this earth that we might not feel its bite or sting. Jesus himself wept when his close friend Lazarus passed before he visited his grave and called Lazarus out to live again (John 11:1-16). 

What Holds You Back from Following Jesus?

Jesus doesn’t want any of us to perish. He came so that we could live life abundantly with him forever. Like this man who asked to bury his father, we cannot be doubleminded when it comes to Christ. Either he is King and we lay down our crowns or the world reigns. We cannot prioritize our personal interests over Christ.

The question you need to ask yourself today is this: What are you prioritizing over your relationship with God? What is holding you back from being all in for Jesus? 

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/RobertHoetink


Heather Riggleman is an author, national speaker, former award-winning journalist and podcast co-host of the Moms Together Podcast. She calls Nebraska home with her three kids and a husband of 21 years. She believes Jazzercise, Jesus, and tacos can fix anything and not necessarily in that order! She is author of I Call Him By Name Bible Study, the Bold Truths Prayer Journal,  Mama Needs a Time Out, and Let’s Talk About Prayer and a contributor to several books.  Her work has been featured on Proverbs 31 Ministries, MOPS, Today's Christian Woman, and Focus On the Family. You can find her at www.heatherriggleman.com or on Facebook.  


Originally published July 28, 2020.