I am not dead. At least I wasn’t when I wrote this article. But I have come to see that Jesus was talking about people like me when he said, “Let the dead bury their own dead.” Let me explain.
While reflecting on Matthew 8:19-22, which contains that quote, I remembered something that had happened about 30 years ago during our 11-year ministry in England. During that time, I would spend about a month each year visiting churches in the United States that supported or might support our ministry. On one of those trips I was pleasantly surprised to find Lester Ford a member of a church in Florida I had not previously visited.
Dr. Ford had been president of Midwest Christian College in Oklahoma City when Bonnie and I were students there. He had had a long and distinguished career both as a minister and educator. But now he was in retirement and in failing health. He listened intently as I described our mission ministry in England. And he was enthusiastic in his encouragement. But then he said in all sincerity, “I just wish I was 20 years younger. I would go with you.” Both he and I knew that this was not possible. And yet his enthusiastic encouragement certainly ministered to me.
A Puzzling Passage
Now that I am about the age Dr. Ford was then, this encounter came to mind as a possible example of what Jesus had in mind when he said, “Let the dead bury their own dead.” It made sense out of an otherwise puzzling passage. A disciple (or perhaps a would-be disciple) had evidently been challenged by Jesus to leave home and follow him. The disciple seemed willing to follow Jesus, but he responded, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father” (v. 21).
We do not know the particular circumstances of this exchange. Had the father just died? And was the disciple going to have to take a few days to make arrangements for the funeral? If this were the case, then the disciple’s delay would not have been significant. And it would have seemed reasonable for Jesus to have said something like, “When your father’s funeral is over, meet me at the synagogue in Capernaum in about three days.” But this was not what Jesus said. Thus I do not think the disciple was talking about the immediate death of his father.
It is more likely the disciple had an aging father, perhaps infirm, but maybe not. Perhaps the disciple was an only son, and hence under Jewish law would have been obligated to care for his parents.
It’s possible the disciple had other brothers and sisters who could have cared for the father, and he was only using this as an excuse for his unwillingness to follow Jesus. But I discount this possibility because of how Jesus responded. Jesus did not say, “Let your brothers and sisters take care of your father and bury him when he dies.” Rather he said, “Let the dead bury their own dead” (v. 22).
Obviously the thrust of this passage is the call to discipleship. The man who said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father,” was called a disciple. Evidently he had been with Jesus and he had been learning from Jesus. But now he was being asked to leave home and follow Jesus.
Perhaps it had been comfortable to follow Jesus in and around Capernaum. In the evening the disciple could return home and be with his father. But now Jesus was headed farther afield. Jesus and his followers would be crossing the Sea of Galilee to the region of the Gadarenes. And the man perhaps had heard stories about the demon-possessed wild men who lived in the caves there. Perhaps this bit about caring for his aging father was only an excuse, and Jesus would not let him have this excuse!
There is a cost to discipleship, and it seems our excuses, no matter how good they sound, will not wash! But this article is not concerned with the disciple. Rather it is an attempt to understand the words of Jesus when he said, “Let the dead bury their own dead.”
A Time Bomb in My Chest
I would like to suggest that Jesus had in mind those of us who are elderly. (Some commentators suggest that Jesus is talking about the “spiritually dead.” I do not find this interpretation convincing.) Even if the euphemism “senior citizens” is used to describe us, we readily recognize we are a lot closer to death than we have ever been before! Furthermore, we may have come to that time of life, sometimes called retirement, in which we no longer have the health or strength to think about launching out into a new and demanding ministry.
We may be able to make contributions to care for the needy and do some volunteer service. But we do not have the prospect of years before us to make a long-term commitment to serve in a demanding mission that would require years of service to be effective.
This was a realization forced upon me when I had a heart attack and bypass surgery. A few years later I wrote a poem called, “I Have a Time Bomb in My Chest” (quoted on p. 14).
Hence the question is, How do we use our waning years in service to the Christ? Since Jesus talked about the dead burying the dead, it is worth noting that as you get older you find yourself attending more funerals than when you were younger. The fact is, many more friends and acquaintances around our age are dying! We go to those funerals in the hope we are able to bring some comfort to the family. Or we simply want to “pay our respects” to the deceased, perhaps like seeing a friend or relative off at the airport when they are beginning a long journey, and we know that we will not see them for a long time.
People Like Us?
Might we not be the kind of people Jesus had in mind when he said, “Let the dead bury their own dead?” Perhaps we can no longer respond to the call that Jesus was giving this disciple (i.e., to leave home and follow him in his rigorous and often hazardous ministry). After all, even if an old person did so with an enthusiasm that was rooted more in uninformed ego than Christian commitment, he could well end up being a burden on the very mission he had wanted to help. Thus, in my interpretation of this passage, the father and those who would eventually bury him were dead to the possibility of the kind of ministry to which Jesus was calling the disciple.
This being the case then, these men and women Jesus was calling dead still had a ministry. Their ministry was to bury the dead. But what could this mean? I would suggest that it meant far more than making the funeral arrangements when one of their number died. After all, God does not waste any of our experiences. And those experiences, even the bitter ones, can be turned into ministry as God works redemptively in the lives of those who are suffering or who perhaps just need some encouragement.
Recently Roy Lawson and I were talking about how our years had reshaped our attitude toward ministry. I said that as a young minister, I enjoyed performing weddings and dreaded conducting funerals. But we both agreed that as the years have gone by we have found it particularly rewarding to be able to minister to families when they have lost a loved one. This is especially true when it is someone who has lived a full life in the fellowship of the church. Yes, we grieve with those who grieve, but it is not a destructive grief.
Hence, at our age, we are the dead burying the dead . . . even though I am sure that Roy would be quick to remind me that he is considerably younger than I am. And furthermore, he has just accepted a call to begin a rigorous new ministry at Emmanuel Christian Seminary. But saying that, he is no spring chicken!
There is a sense in which I may be standing this passage of Scripture on its head. And I am standing it on its head if one reads the passage as Jesus implying that the only significant form of ministry is for a disciple to leave his father and follow Jesus on his mission, and furthermore, that the disciple should forget about his father and those like him, and let them take care of themselves. But I am suggesting that there are two different kinds of ministry here: one for the disciple and another kind for the father and those like him. The dead burying their dead is also ministry!
After all, Dr. Ford could not go with me to England. But it was a blessing for me to receive the enthusiastic encouragement of the man who had had to put up with our student antics during his presidency of our college. Furthermore, Dr. Ford now had a teaching and pastoral ministry among the people of the congregation he was attending even though he would not have been listed as a part of the “ministerial staff.”
As I was finishing this article, we received a call from the daughter of a neighbor. Our neighbor’s wife had recently died. He is agonizing for the loss of his wife as well as facing surgery for cancer. Perhaps taking him out for a meal might help. The article can wait . . . even though both the neighbor and the article are ministries of “the dead burying their own dead.”
C. Robert Wetzel is retired chancellor of Emmanuel Christian Seminary, Johnson City, Tennessee, adjunct professor of humanities at Milligan College in Tennessee, and an old man.
I Have a Time Bomb in My Chest
I have a time bomb in my chest
That ticks away relentlessly.
Perhaps its clock was set at birth,
But only age has made it known,
Not the time, but just the ticking.
Somehow I do not fear this fact
No more than when mortality
Was but a dim abstraction.
In this the seventh prime of life
Each morning is a blessed gift.
Each night a time of grateful rest.
How many days this replumbed heart
Of mine has yet to serve is quite unknown,
But grace and family and ministry
Bring daily joy and satisfaction.
And so I put my faith in you, O God,
Whose craft has shaped our blest eternity.
I look to you, O Holy Spirit,
To guide me in these waning days.
And in that final hour I rest in you, O Christ,
Who did not fear the grave
But looked to life beyond.