Jesus said, “Let the dead bury the dead,” in response to a disciple who wanted to spend time at home before committing himself to the Lord. Jesus said, “‘Follow me.’ But the man replied, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God’” (Luke 9:59–60). This man may have wanted to fulfill the oldest son’s duty to bury the father, to be near the father in order to obtain an inheritance, or to remain near the body of his father for up to one year to rebury the bones, a practice of some Jews at the time. In any event, Jesus’ answer makes clear that this request would have involved putting tradition or the disciple’s own desires ahead of serving Jesus.
But who are “the dead” whom Jesus referred to as being the ones to bury their own dead? The word dead is used in this passage in two different senses. It is apparently a paradox and is used very effectively. The Jews used the word dead often to express indifference toward a thing or to express that something has no influence over us. To be dead to the law (Romans 7:4), to be dead to sin (Romans 6:11), means that the law and sin have no influence or control over us. We are free from them and act as though they are not.
So people of the world are dead to Christ. They do not see His beauty, nor do they hear His voice or desire to follow Him. Only His “sheep” will do those things (John 10:27). The people of the world are those whom the Savior describes here as the (spiritually) dead who should bury the (physically) dead. Let people, He says, who are not interested in My work, and who are “dead in sin” (Ephesians 2:1), take care of the dead. Your duty is now to follow Me.
While Scripture, and Jesus, are clear that we are to honor our parents (Ephesians 6:2), we have to understand that Jesus is to come first, and this would have been especially so in this instance, that is, with a direct command from the Lord. Peter, Andrew, James, John, and Matthew recognized the Lord and followed Him at once (Matthew 4:18–22; 9:9). The thing to which the man who wanted to bury his father was called was of more importance than any earthly consideration, and, for that time, Christ chose to require of the man a very extraordinary sacrifice to show his sincere attachment to Him.
As regards the people of the world, nothing is more important than responding to the gospel. This requires that the gospel be preached (Romans 10:14), so once we make the decision to follow Jesus and preach His good news, we must deny dead, worldly pursuits and comforts, and do the Lord’s work. Jesus wants followers, not professors, and those who are spiritually alive will be instruments in the Lord’s hands to call others to new life in Christ.