Was Jesus “heartless” in Matthew 8:22?


by Shawn Brasseaux

“[21] And another of his disciples said unto him, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. [22] But Jesus said unto him, Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead” (Matthew 8:21-22). Was Jesus inconsiderate here? Why did He tell this man to follow Him instead of go bury his father? In the Bible study, we will unravel this enigma!

Due to His spectacular miracles and profound teachings thus far, great crowds are gathering around and following Jesus. Verse 18 says, “Now when Jesus saw great multitudes about him, he gave commandment to depart unto the other side.” (Notice how, contrary to the nature of most modern-day preachers, Jesus avoided publicity as much as possible. He did not want them gravitating toward Him per se. He wanted His Heavenly Father to receive the glory!) Before He enters a ship to cross the Sea of Galilee (verse 23ff.), Matthew reports two individuals approach Christ.

One man is a scribe who tells Him, “Master, I will follow thee whithersoever thou goest” (verse 19). Jesus replies, “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head” (verse 20). In other words, this scribe is very hasty in his decision to follow Christ wherever He goes. So, Christ tells him, paraphrased: “Do you realize what you are saying? You know, I have no certain dwelling-place because Israel largely rejects Me. Rather than welcoming Me, they want Me to leave. Are you really so dedicated to Me that you are willing to bear My reproach and also be persecuted for following Me?”

The other man is the individual who appears at the opening of this Bible study. For some time, he has been following Jesus. Perhaps in light of what Jesus has just told the scribe (previous paragraph), this man says he has something he must do before he can follow Him. He asks that Jesus first allow him to bury his father, and then he will return and follow Jesus. Rather than Jesus permitting the man to go and bury his father, He says, “Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead.” This may shock you, as it has surprised others. How could Jesus be so “insensitive” here? Did not Jesus care that the man’s father needed to be buried? Why did Jesus not give the man some time to depart and grieve the loss of his father? We must stop and consider some realities here.

Dear friends, remember, up to that point, Jesus had been performing all sorts of miracles (Matthew 4:23-24; Matthew 8:1-17). The man who asked to go bury his father never asked Jesus to raise his father from the dead. So, it is not unreasonable to assume that the father was still alive. The man’s father was living. It was not that he had died and his funeral was pending. Rather, the son wanted to serve his father until his father died, and then he would come and follow Jesus. Matthew 8:21 again: “And another of his disciples said unto him, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father.” If you permit me to paraphrase that disciple, it would be something like: “Lord, let me go take of my father until he dies. Once he expires and I bury him, then I will follow Thou wherever Thou goest.”

Our Lord replied, “Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead.” In other words, “Rather than worrying about your father, you need to follow Me. Let the dead bury their dead.” This sounds harsh, but Jesus was accentuating a very simple truth that had to be said. Please understand that the Lord Jesus Christ was a very compassionate Man. When you study His earthly life, how He conducted Himself—what He did and what He said—He made every attempt to help people. He grew very angry to see Israel’s religious leaders so unconcerned about His nation’s spiritual welfare. There was so much deception, so much false teaching, and so much strict legalism. Rather than having mercy on the sick, they sat in their self-righteous seats! In stark contrast, Jesus had such concern for those wayward souls. When He saw crippled people hobbling along, He healed them. He had such compassion on the blind, deaf, and mute. He healed them as well. When He saw sincere souls endeavoring so desperately to find the truth, He did not hesitate to preach it to them. All of this said, Jesus was not being insensitive to the man wanting to bury his father. He had a very important reason for saying what He did. Much light will be shed here if we consider that last statement, “And let the dead bury their dead.”

Reading between the lines, the father was unbelieving, for he was not with Jesus as his son was. Furthermore, in contrast to his son, that father had no interest whatsoever in coming to God’s truth. Hence, Jesus said, “Let the [spiritually] dead bury their [physical] dead.” The man’s father was a lost, unsaved, unredeemed individual, part of Satan’s crowd. Once he died, other lost people could be concerned with burying him. His son, a follower of Christ, however, need not involve himself in the affairs of lost people. The Lord Jesus knew that, had the son returned home to take care of his father, it was highly possible the father would discourage his son from ever coming back to follow Christ. Satan would certainly take great pleasure in that!

If we go over to the parallel passage, Luke 9:57-62, we see there was a third individual who approached Jesus. That third person helps us further understand the matter.

We read in Luke 9:57-62: “[57] And it came to pass, that, as they went in the way, a certain man said unto him, Lord, I will follow thee whithersoever thou goest. [58] And Jesus said unto him, Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head. [59] And he said unto another, Follow me. But he said, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. [60] Jesus said unto him, Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of God. [61] And another also said, Lord, I will follow thee; but let me first go bid them farewell, which are at home at my house. [62] And Jesus said unto him, No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”

In addition to a scribe wanting to follow Jesus everywhere, and the man wanting to return to take care of his father until death, a third individual wanted to go back home and tell his family goodbye. This third person would experience a problem similar to the man wanting to bury his father. That third man would also possibly be influenced into staying with his lost relatives. They would do everything they could to talk him out of returning to be a follower of Jesus. Like the man wanting to bury his father, he too risked the likelihood of never coming back to following Christ. Such reluctance Jesus wanted these men to avoid. If they were to follow Him, there could be no looking back. Israel had been so corrupted by vain religion, Satanic deception, to return home and leave Jesus’ teachings would automatically make one vulnerable to the Devil’s lies.

By the way, in case you missed it, concerning the man who wanted to bury his father, Luke records something that Matthew left out. “Jesus said unto him, Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of God(Luke 9:60). That man could have been a mighty preacher for the kingdom of God. He could have traveled all over Israel telling his fellow Jews about Jesus being Christ/Messiah-King. But, he had the desire to go back home and stay with his unsaved father instead! (The Bible never says what happened to any of these three men. We know not if the scribe followed Jesus throughout those trials. We know not if the man wanting to bury father returned to take care of his father until death, or if he stayed with Christ and preached the kingdom of God. We know not if the man longing to go home and bid his family goodbye, ever went back, or if he continued to follow Jesus.)

Saints, please do not misunderstand these verses. Just because we are Christians, that does not mean we abandon our lost loved ones. That does not necessitate we leave them behind and travel the world to preach the Gospel. We should take of our family members, even lost ones. BUT, here is what we should take from these verses. There will come a time, if not already, when we have to sacrifice some, most, or all of our human relationships to follow Jesus Christ. If ever we reach a point where we have to choose between keeping close ties with family and friends, and obeying the Lord, these verses tell us what we should do. Our parents, spouses, children, siblings, “friends,” they may all disown us. They may count us “dead,” and may ever literally hold funerals for us because we have left “family religion” to embrace God’s truth. They may call us nasty names, threaten us, physically harm us, or even take our earthly lives. People all around the world, and throughout the centuries, have been subjected to all sorts of hardships for their coming to Jesus Christ. They have lost so many relatives and “friends.” But, they (and we) have gained the entire family of God (Ephesians 2:19; Galatians 3:26)!

Galatians 1:10: “For do I now persuade men, or God? or do I seek to please men? for if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ.”

Also see:
» How could ‘wise’ Solomon let foreign women deceive him?
» Can we witness “too much” to family members?
» If dispensational Bible study is true, how come so few believe it?