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  • Writer's pictureMarco Inniss

Why Did Jesus Tell People Not to Bury Their Father or Say Goodbye to Their Family? (Luke 9)

Luke 9:57–62 - 57As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 59To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” 60And Jesus1 said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Kingdom Priorities

The journey motif continues, for Jesus and his disciples are on their way to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51, 53), which, as we know, means that he is on his way to die. A would-be disciple approaches, promising to follow Jesus to any and all destinations. Jesus desires the man to understand what following him means, using illustrations from the world of mammals and birds. Foxes have holes in which to reside, and birds build nests for themselves and their young. Jesus, however, as the Son of Man, cannot call anywhere home. He has no permanent residence or fixed location to call his own. Thus the man who claims he would follow Jesus everywhere must realize that following Jesus requires being willing to forsake one’s home. Jesus offers no guarantees of comfort or of the security that comes from having a place in which to dwell.

Jesus encounters another man and calls him to follow him as a disciple. The man says that he must first bury his father before doing so. Burying one’s parents was considered a sacred duty in Jewish circles (Gen. 46:4; 49:29–50:13). Failure to do so would mean that one was not a responsible or godly son (cf. Jer. 16:5–7; Ezek. 24:15–24). Jesus replies in a way that would have shocked his contemporaries, saying that the dead should bury the dead. The man’s priority should be proclaiming the kingdom of God. Jesus probably means that those who are spiritually dead should bury those who are physically dead. Disciples have a more important calling and responsibility: heralding the good news of the kingdom.

Another man also wants to follow Jesus and to be his disciple. But he feels that he must fulfill his family duty and say goodbye to his family before doing so. The request seems reasonable. Even Elijah allowed Elisha to say goodbye to his family before the latter left his home (1 Kings 19:20). Shockingly, however, Jesus rejects the proposal, picking up an image from plowing, which was what Elisha was doing when Elijah called him (1 Kings 19:19–21). Those who start plowing and then turn back for other matters are unfit for the kingdom. When plowing, one must look straight ahead; if one looks back, especially on rocky ground, the plow will go askew. Looking back is not just a “momentary glance” but represents going back to one’s family. Lot’s wife looked back (Gen. 19:26), as did the nation of Israel after leaving Egypt (Ex. 16:3), and both longed for their old life. We see, incidentally, that discipleship is not something above and beyond salvation. Those who are not disciples of Jesus do not belong to the kingdom; they are citizens of another realm. We see here that family is subordinated to the kingdom, to the call of Jesus.

We see in these verses that following Jesus requires uncompromising commitment. A judge friend of mine said we must beware of “fuffrah”—fluffy Christianity that does not fit with costly discipleship. We tend to say to those who are half-interested that they are at least “in the circle,” but Jesus challenges us, asking if we are serious about following him; he rejects half-hearted followers. We learn that family does not come first—Jesus does. Perhaps God will call some of us to proclaim the gospel in dangerous places. Let us never make an idol of our families so that family relationships become more important than the kingdom of God. I have heard people say that they will not go to a certain place because of the weather or because it is too far from family, but as disciples of Jesus we cannot and must not say such things. We must be willing to go wherever and whenever Jesus wants us to go. We cannot tell God how close we will be to our parents or children. Of course, we cannot follow him apart from his grace or apart from his Spirit in our hearts. And, when we follow him, he will grant us joy inexpressible and full of glory. We will have no regrets or remorse for doing his will. We will be full of joy that the world does not understand.

We must be willing to go wherever and whenever Jesus wants us to go.

This article is by Thomas R. Schreiner and is adapted from ESV Expository Commentary: Matthew–Luke (Volume 8) edited by Iain M. Duguid, James M. Hamilton Jr., and Jay Sklar.

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