Q: Why did Jesus say, “Let the dead bury the dead?”
A: The Law requires a person to honor their parents, and to some Jesus’ statement would be contrary to the Law that He gave on Mount Sinai. As a result, there are different interpretations as to what this might mean. One is that the man was waiting around for his father to die. The thinking is that perhaps his father was elderly and that the man should not wait around for his death, but he should follow Jesus until it actually occurred.
The other interpretation is that it had spiritual applications. Burying the dead is a worldly exercise that involves various rituals. Since his father was physically dead, then it would make sense to let those who are spiritually dead carry out the rituals, while he followed Jesus.
However, there is a third interpretation that is probably correct because it involves the Jewish culture in relationship to burying the dead. According to Archeology and Biblical Research, at death, the body would be placed in the family burial cave. Scripturally we know this because Jesus’ body was placed in a newly hewn out tomb. However, the procedure does not stop with the tomb. After about a year, the body would have decomposed and there would be a final act of mourning before taking the bones and placing them in a chest in what was called the secondary burial. This is a historical fact because we have seen these stone chests that contained the bones of a person. In fact they thought a few years back that they had discovered the chest that would have contained James’ bones because his name was on the chest.
This ritual of putting the bones in the chest had a spiritual significance to it. According to the rabbis, this procedure would mark the person’s final atonement for sin; therefore, the bones could finally be laid to rest. However, by Jesus telling the man to ignore this final procedure He was implying that it was not necessary or that it was wrong. After all, atonement required some type of sacrifice, and Jesus knew He would become the ultimate sacrifice that would not only atone (cover) for sin, but He would take it away and bring lasting reconciliation between God and man.