(Mt. 8:21-22) Wasn’t this insensitive and cruel?

CLAIM: One of the disciples said, “Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father” (Mt. 8:21). But Jesus said, “Follow Me, and allow the dead to bury their own dead” (Mt. 8:22). Wasn’t this a cruel and insensitive statement from Jesus?

RESPONSE: Jesus was in favor on honoring our parents (Mark 7:9-13), so he isn’t anti-family. Instead, he is claiming that we should have our priorities in order. As he says two chapters later, we should prioritize God—even over our own family (Mt. 10:37), because God is an ultimate good. Jesus wasn’t a hypocrite in this regard, because he did this in his own life (Mark 3:31-35). Origen argued that there are many people who can perform funerals, but not as many who can proclaim the kingdom.[1] So putting the kingdom first is more important than anything else happening on Earth.

Additionally, Palestinian practice had the person wait for a year after the death of the person to collect the dead person’s bones into an ossuary. So this could have been an intense time commitment (see the notes from the NET Bible). Morris writes, “The Jews counted proper burial as most important; to leave the father unburied ‘was something scandalous to a Jew’ (Marshall). The duty of burial took precedence over the study of the law, the temple service, the killing of the Passover sacrifice, the observance of circumcision and the reading of the Megillah (Megillah 3b). But the demands of the kingdom are more urgent still. Jesus could not wait until the man got through all that burial meant.”[2]

Others have argued that he’s waiting for his father’s death, so that he can get the inheritance. This would fit with the context of leaving our comfort to follow Christ in verse 20 (“The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head”).

[1] Luz, U. (2001). Matthew: a commentary. (H. Koester, Ed.) (p. 19). Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg.

[2] Morris, L. (1988). Luke: an introduction and commentary (Vol. 3, p. 199). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.