“Lord, first let me go bury my father,” a disciple said to Jesus, asking to defer his commitment as a follower of Christ. There were three historical circumstances that could have prompted that request:
1) The man’s father had just passed away, and so the disciple needed to take a short break to attend to the funeral. It was highly unlikely this was the case, though. Dr. Lawrence Richards informs us that, “Jewish burial customs involved the disposal of the corpse immediately upon death. If the father had died, the young man already would have been on the way to the tomb with the corpse.” Instead, Scripture indicates he was hanging around here, having a conversation about discipleship with Jesus and a teacher of the law. The context suggest that his request about burying his father was actually a response to Jesus’ statement to the teacher of the law about the cost of discipleship (Matthew 8:18-20).
2) The man’s father had passed away within the past year. In Jewish society, it was the responsibility of the oldest son to handle his father’s burial. Craig Keener reveals that, “The initial burial took place shortly after a person’s decease…[and] a year after the first burial, after the flesh had rotted off the bones, the son would return to rebury the bones in a special box in a slot in the tomb’s wall. The son in this narrative could thus be asking for as much as a year’s delay.” This is more probable than the first option, but again unlikely. Since Matthew identifies this man as “another disciple,” his leaving to perform a second burial of his father would’ve meant the man was reneging on his previous, solemn oath to follow Christ in order to perform a chore any other member of his family could have handled.
3) The man’s father had not yet died. This is the commonly-held view among most Bible historians. The man wanted to take an indefinite leave from following Jesus so that he’d be present to claim an inheritance at the time of his father’s death—whenever that might be. Being in charge of the burial of his father would have ensured that he received his father’s estate. Maybe he reasoned this kind of “time-out” from commitment right now would give him greater resources to use in future service to Christ’s ministry. Or maybe he just didn’t want to give up his inheritance in order to follow some itinerant preacher. We’ll never know.
Regardless of the exact situation, we do know this: Jesus took no circumstance as an excuse to postpone dedicating one’s life him—and he demanded nothing less than total commitment from all of his disciples.
This was a hard truth to face, and it’s one we must still wrestle with today—and every day.
[BAH, 275; BBC, 68; IBC, 1130]
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