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In Mathew 8:21-23 says "And another of his disciples said unto him, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father.But Jesus said unto him, Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead. And when he was entered into a ship, his disciples followed him." (Quoted from King James Version)

What is the meaning of dead burying their dead?

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I suggest migrating this to BH. –  Wikis Oct 15 '12 at 9:45
@Wikis I thourally agree this would be a better fit there as a question. Unfortunately migration of really old questions like this causes some issues -- most notably the high vote counts would make this an oddball question over there. Until SE starts resetting votes on migration questions like this put extra load on the receiving community to downvote/remove answers that are poor matches in the receiving site. I'm tempted to just leave it here with one of the banners noting that this is only valid as a historical question not as prove of ontopic. –  Caleb Oct 15 '12 at 12:40
@Wikis: I've asked the BH folks if they are interested in cleaning this up. I kind of think it's best to leave this post well enough along and if the question is really interesting to you, ask the same thing again over on BH. The overall question would be a better quality post over there if started and fully managed by that community. (But I'd be happy to migrate this too if the community there disagrees with me.) –  Caleb Oct 15 '12 at 13:08
@Caleb: ah, I did not notice how old it was. On balance, I still think it is best to migrate but will be content with whatever BH decides. –  Wikis Oct 15 '12 at 13:10
Jamess are you interested in the perspective you might get on BH? If so perhaps it would be good to repost your question there rather than have this migrated? –  Jack Douglas Oct 15 '12 at 17:40
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8 Answers

up vote 20 down vote accepted

To me, this is a very offensive direction that Jesus gives. And that isn't a bad thing -- frequently the Bible gives directions that are offensive to what we are accustomed to believing. We should always take them seriously.

In this case, I think the message is that we must put following Christ above everything, even our most important worldly concerns. In Hebrew culture, it is a son's duty to bury his father -- an important duty -- but Jesus is telling him to forget about that, to put following him first. The options are "bury your father, and get around to following me in a bit" or "follow me". As far as Jesus is concerned, there's only one choice. It's quite similar to Matthew 19:29:

And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life.

As to the specific wording, I would suggest that "follow me" is contrasted to death. So following Jesus is life, tarrying about with worldly duties is death. So the dead in spirit are left to bury the dead in body: the living are following Jesus along the way.

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Thanks. It looks like that Jesus saying that "Let Spirititualy dead bury the physically dead. But you think only on following me, let not smaller issues matter to you". Thanks lonesomeday. –  Jamess Sep 8 '11 at 21:54
+1 Yes, you have it mostly as I understand the sentence. (see answer below for the Aramaic expression, but you are essentially right.) –  Waeshael Aug 9 '13 at 16:22
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Perhaps I'm wrong, but I believe, this could be one of the earliest puns.

Jesus used the same word, but in two senses. Let's analyse the sentence:

Let the dead bury their dead.

The first "dead" is dead in a spiritual sense. The meaning of the first "dead" refers to the people who are spiritually dead.
The second "dead" is literally dead, as in a dead man.

Thus, with the combination of both "dead"'s, the statement can be understood:

Let the spiritually dead people bury their own who have died.

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This post does not cite any references or sources. Please help improve this post by adding citations to reliable sources. Unsourced material may be challenged and removed.

The purpose of His response may have been two fold. The first purpose was to encourage the disciples to faithfully follow Him. The second purpose and perhaps more importantly, was to teach correct theology.

First-Century Jewish Burial Practices

After a body was placed in a burial cave, it was left to decompose. The family mourned for seven days. This initial mourning period was followed by a less intense 30-day period of mourning, called shloshim. However, the entire mourning period was not fully over until the flesh of the deceased had decomposed, usually about a year later. The Jerusalem Talmud states: When the flesh had wasted away, the bones were collected and placed in chests (ossuaries). On that day (the son) mourned, but the following day he was glad, because his forebears rested from judgment. The final act of mourning, the gathering of the bones into a bone box called an ossuary, was called ossilegium, or secondary burial. According to the Rabbinic sources, the decomposition of the flesh atoned for the sins of the dead person (a kind of purgatory) and the final stage of this process was gathering the bones and placing them in an ossuary (Meyers 1971: 80-85). Jesus confronts this contrary theology. Only faith in Christ's redemptive work on the cross can atone for sin, not rotting flesh or any other work or merit of our own (Heb. 9:22, 26; Acts 4:12; Eph. 2:8, 9). Jesus may have rebuked the disciple rather harshly because they were following the corrupted practice of secondary burial.

The setting of the saying:

The Gospels record two incidents where disciples approached the Lord to request a leave of absence from following Him. The first request is recorded in Matthew 8. Jesus was about to take the Twelve across the Sea of Galilee to the Decapolis city of Gadara. Chronologically, this trip is the first recorded journey of Jesus to minister in Gentile territory. Maybe the disciple hesitated, probably because he did not want to go to those Gentiles so he made an excuse: Let me first go and bury my father.

He most likely appealed to the Jewish burial practice of ossilegium, or secondary burial, which would remove him from following the Lord for up to eleven months. Jesus saw this as an excuse not to minister to the Gentiles. As a result He rebuked him with a statement of irony and challenged the disciple to follow Him. I got most of the information here http://www.ldolphin.org/deaddead.html

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I've heard this explained as follows (but I haven't checked for myself):

The Jewish custom at that time was to bury the dead on the same day. If the disciple's father had died, they would have been burying him right now. The disciple was not asking to bury his dead father, but to wait for his father to die before following Jesus.

"Dead burying dead" might be a wordplay of a sort, or just a reference to the fact that everybody is dead eventually (referring to the way the disciple talked about his still-alive father).

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I would even make a link with the fact that Jesus said we need to be born again. –  ℝaphink Aug 24 '11 at 12:17
_1 for "wait for his father to die", but that only explains the 2nd dead. I think the first "dead" is that if you remain behind, death is what awaits you. If you want Life, follow Jesus now. –  Joel Coehoorn Oct 19 '12 at 13:34
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I think Jesus' answer can be taken on two levels. On the first level he was helping the individual who asked him to let him bury his dead. Jesus' response to him was that he could have little impact on the person that was already dead and should rather focus his efforts on helping to spread the Gospel that would impact the living before their death and subsequent judgement. Paul clarified the reason for focusing on the living when he said to the Hebrews in Hebrews 9:27 "And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment".

The second level comes in a prophetic form. Jesus did not waste opportunity to teach us and I think he knew that in future times there would come those who would teach false doctrines spending endless hours doing meaningless ordinances such as baptism for the dead as if the dead could change their outcome by repentance after death. How much more clearly could it be said since baptism represents burial. Therefore baptism or burial with Christ was a decision for this life only and would have as little effect on the salvation of the soul of that person as the burial of their bones would ultimately affect their Eternal outcome.

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It is an Aramaic colloquialism, and means that the son would take care of his aging father until he dies(or other relative), which might take many years. So the would-be disciple could not follow Jesus. see:

Idioms in the Bible Explained and A Key to the Original Gospels by George M. Lamsa HarperSanFrancisco (1985) As an example from the book: 21 And another of his disciples said unto him, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. meant“take care of my father until he dies.”

Jesus suggested that those not believing in Christ (the spiritually dead) should take care of the aging parent.

For more examples of Aramaic Idiom download my PDF


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My beautiful, kind, loving, wife died a few weeks ago. We had 4 children. I have a bachelor's degree in New Testament litterature. I have worked as a minister, youth minister and missionary. Today, I'm a professor teaching leadership, negotiation, OB, OD ,etc...

Before reading everything that people posted on this question...I decided to respond to this question first. Not that I'm an expert or know more than others...because I do not. In fact, it is likely that I'm wrong...but I wanted to respond to how I understood what Jesus meant when he said this.

But before I do, I just want to say...and I hate to admit it...I have been a bit superstious. I walk to the cemetary and talk to my wife with my dogs...that she loved by the way..they are her dogs.

I talk to my wife sometimes at the house or walking the dogs.

My wife was a beautiful person inside and out...but she was not perfect...just like every other human that has ever lived.

What I understand is this:

I think that what Jesus meant was that when someone has died, their body is not alive, their body is not important, nor spiritual. That humans think it is important to remember the dead...but Jesus thought that it was more important to think and work for Him and his purpose.

In other words...in spite of our superstitions...which I have also...that it is more important to think about a neighbor, friend, or fulfilling God's purpose in your life than it is to fulfill the ideas of what people think about how you should behave when someone close to you dies.

I still pray for my wife...but deep down know that nobody could ever care more for her than her Savior, God and Creator.

Please pray for me, that I would understand more and do more for Him than I would have without your prayers. By the way, my favorite slogan is: The church is a house for sinner and not a haven for saints. I can't stand the judgemental, evil people that call themselves Christian, when in reality... if I undertand anything, is that the priority of the Church (Christians) is to spread the good news that Christ died for all the sinners, you and me included. But still, I love my wife and I miss her sooo bad. take care, Mike

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Welcome to the site, and I'm very sorry for your loss. I can't imagine your sorrow. When you have time, feel free to stop in one of the chat rooms. As a new visitor, I'd recommend checking out the following posts, which are meant to help newcomers "learn the ropes": help page, How we are different than other sites? and What makes a good supported answer? –  David Stratton Nov 19 '13 at 23:49
I echo the sentiment, and this is a great bit of writing, but it belongs on your blog rather than here. I love this site, and it tends to be an academic place. I wouldn't want to cheapen your sorrow by subjecting it to others' votes. You are loved, and in my heart, and I want to encourage to keep this, but elsewhere. –  Affable Geek Nov 20 '13 at 14:50
Thanks for posting this. We share in your sorrow.I also pray for you brother. Since this site is designed in Q&A format to see answers to questions, I am not sure how to respond further. –  Jamess Nov 21 '13 at 6:25
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Jesus is God. Jesus is the physical part of the Trinity. we are made in God's image (Gen 1:26): Soul/God (Gen 2:7), Spirit/Holy spirit and Flesh/Jesus (I Thess 5:23). God sees the spirit in us (John 4:24). It is our spirit that will be judged on Judgment Day and it is our spirit that commits our sinful acts causing our flesh to fulfill them. It cannot be our soul that sins because our soul is of God.

Many say we are not to follow God's commandments but we are. He told us Himself (Please note all scripture recited from the KJV:

"If ye love me, keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever; Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you." John 14:15-17

Here Jesus is saying He is God because the commandments originally came from God (Ex 20:1-17). He is also saying that by keeping His commandments, this is the only way to receive the Holy Spirit/Comforter and the evidence of that is God's Spirit of Truth. One cannot have the Holy Ghost and still lie which would also break a commandment. According to James 2:10 if you break one you break them all.

"And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life? And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments." Matthew 19:16,17


"Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city. For without are dogs, and sorcerers, and whoremongers, and murderers, and idolaters, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie." Revelation 22:14,15


I have said all this because you are only the light of the world as a Christian if you obey the Lord (Acts 5:32). How does one obey the Lord? By following HIS COMMANDMENTS! If one does not, they are DEAD to Christ.

For the commandment is a lamp; and the law is light; and reproofs of instruction are the way of life:" Prov 6:23

"But the path of the just is as the shining light, that shineth more and more unto the perfect day." Prov 4:18

These scriptures tell us that commandments are a lamp and the law is light. We in the New Testament still have to follow the Law we just follow it spiritually. They circumcised their penises in the Physical Kin gdom (Old Testament) now in the Spiritual Kingdom (New Testament) we circumcise our hearts and that is what makes us SPIRITUAL JEWS (Romans 2:25-29; Gal 3:6-9, 26-29)

God cannot be around sin for He is Holy (I Peter 1:16; Hab 1:13) so if we do not make ourselves Holy for the Lord, He cannot be near us much less dwell in us. Yes. we can live a sinless life for I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me Phil 4:13. He can only strengthen you if you are close to Him an obey. Remember God is a Father and every father wants their child to obey him (Prov 6:20). When we fall we can ask for forgiveness but as Jesus said SIN NO MORE (John 8:11) when He forgave sins. Those that are alive with Christ HAVE TO BE DEAD TO SIN.

"Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection: Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. For he that is dead is freed from sin. Now if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him: Knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him. For in that he died, he died unto sin once: but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God. Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord." Romans 6:3-11

This passage shows that following the commandments is not the only thing required. We are to be born again of water and of spirit. Which means that we have to be baptized in JESUS NAME (Acts 2:38) as well in order to get to New Jerusalem. It has to be Jesus Name and not father, son and holy spirit because Jesus is the one that died for us and Lucifer also possesses these titles. We are to give credit to Him that died for us and use His name not His titles.

God is a God of the living not the dead. I could go on but I won't. It is because we do not know the meaning of dead and alive to God why we have the Rapture incorrect. God is not a man and we should not treat Him as such.

To sum it up, dead to God is dead in spirit. Those that are dead in spirit are those that do not have His Spirit because He is the Light (John 8:12) and should shine brightly in us. If we are not letting our Light shine we are hiding Him and not one of Him. We let our Light shine by obeying Him and the only way to obey Him is to follow His commandments. The word Christ-ian means Christ like. we are to be like Christ or else we take His name in vain when we do things that are not of Him and cause others to not follow Him. This breaks a commandment as well. We are to be Holy as He set the physical Israelites to be holy and they later fell so He went to the Gentiles spiritually. We are to be Holy spiritually which will make us Holy physically. We need to follow God's commandments but also be baptized in His Name, JESUS, in order to make it to New Jerusalem. If we do not do these things then we are dead to the Lord and our Light is not shinning. We are not seen by God.

The question that should be asked is why are our churches preaching that the commandments are not necessary when it was one of the LAST things that Jesus warned us about before He ended the Bible (Rev 22:14,15). We would be able to understand the Bible if we would follow God's commandments.

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Welcome to the site... You may want to read the FAQ and possibly What Christianity.StackExchange is (and more importantly, what it isn't) You seem to have mistaken the purpose of this site. It's not a discussion forum and it's certainly not a source for Truth. –  David Stratton Jun 5 '13 at 22:35
Also, your answer is filled with a lot of unnecessary comments. Another sign that you may have mistaken this for a discussion forum... Perhaps the About page would be good reading as well. Your answers should stick to answering the question, and definitely should not include comments to the moderators that are trying to help you learn site guidelines, or casting doubts as to whether they are "for God". That's uncalled for. If you wish to get a moderator's attention, use the "flag" or take it to Christianity Chat. –  David Stratton Jun 5 '13 at 22:43
Please also do not use signatures or tag lines: christianity.stackexchange.com/helpcenter/behavior –  wax eagle Jun 6 '13 at 0:08
In response to your concern about editing posts, there is some information about that in our faq. If you aren't comfortable with the community editing your posts, this might not be the right site for you because we're all about that. We can help you understand why specific edits have been made so you can better understand our community. If you have specific concerns about this feel free to open a new question on our Christianity Meta site in regard to this issue. Thanks for understanding. –  Caleb Jun 6 '13 at 9:38
Although not quite as blatant on this post, some of the concerns I commented about on your other post also apply in part to this one. If this is't making sense after reading those comments please do head over to meta where we can actually discuss this and ask a question with your concern. –  Caleb Jun 6 '13 at 9:41
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