Quite the opposite. In fact, Jesus was trying to help the man understand a few important truths.
In the Gospels, Jesus’ demands about loyalty to Him are crystal clear. He pulls no punches when He talks about how committed His followers must be. And in Matthew 8:18-23 (as well as Luke 9:57-62), we find a “hard saying” by Jesus that sounds…well…cruel:
When Jesus saw the crowd around him, he gave orders to cross to the other side of the lake. Then a teacher of the law came to him and said, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus replied, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” Another disciple said to him, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus told him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.” Then he got into the boat and his disciples followed him.
Some people try to soften this statement from Jesus by interpreting it to mean “let the spiritually dead bury the physically dead.” But that understanding is misguided at best; the fifth commandment in the Mosaic Law commands children to “honor father and mother,” which is what the man was trying to do. Moreover, God had also given the Jews specific laws regarding proper burial practices in other parts of the Old Testament.
Other people respond to this passage by simply labeling Jesus a jerk, but that’s misguided, as well. Granted, this passage makes Jesus appear unloving, but when we properly understand its context and historical backdrop, we discover that Jesus was actually showing perfect love. We just need to understand a few important points.
The Jews of Jesus’ day had burial practices that were very different than ours today. The most noteworthy distinction was their use of two burials that took place at least one year apart. The first burial happened within the family’s burial cave, known as being “gathered to the fathers,” and was followed by a period of mourning. The Jews did this to be compliant with the Old Testament.
But one year later, after the flesh had decomposed, the Jews would perform a second burial for the dead person, which appears to be the burial Jesus addresses with His statement. In this second burial custom, the remains of the deceased would be placed in an ossuary (bone box) with the remains of other family members. This tradition, known as ossilegium, was practiced by the Jews because some rabbis taught that the act of decomposition had a purifying/atoning effect on the dead person’s sins.
Of course, God is the only One who can atone for sins; the unbiblical teaching by the rabbis only misled the people. Thus, the “harsh” statement by Jesus was actually a much-needed correction! According to archaeologist Randall Price, Jesus’s teaching was actually quite simple and could be stated this way:
Look, you have already honored your father by giving him a proper burial in the family tomb. Now, instead of waiting for the flesh to decompose, which cannot atone for sin, go preach the Kingdom of God and tell of the only true means of atonement. Let the bones of your dead father’s ancestors gather his bones and place them in an ossuary. You follow Me!
Jesus wasn’t being a jerk. He was just telling the truth!
The Stones Cry Out: What Archaeology Reveals About the Truth of the Bible by Randall Price. Harvest House Publishers, 1997, Pages 42-43.
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