‘And Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.”’ (Matthew 8:22 ESV)

This was the response that Jesus gave to the man who expressed interest in following Jesus, yet asked for a delay in reporting to duty in order to bury his father. It seems a harsh response, but it clarifies the priority of which the call of Christ demands. Jesus asks those that would follow Him to leave all behind and to put Him first. But before jumping to judge Christ’s reply too harshly, consider the possible meanings:
1) Christ is not banning His followers from attending funerals. He is taking away excuses from those that would delay following. (How many have told a teacher that they missed school on a test day because their great aunt died?).
2) Christ is making a connection between being spiritually dead and physically dead when He says let the dead (spiritually) bury the dead (physically). In contrast, Christ’s disciples are to be involved in the ministry of bringing the spiritually dead to life.
3) When the disciple asked for a delay in following, so that he could bury his father, it didn’t necessarily mean that his father had died. He may have meant that he wanted to stay home until his aged father died, before following Jesus. He didn’t feel that he could answer Christ’s missional call until his father was dead.
4) It also may have been a reference to the possibility that his father had already died, but the son now felt constrained to enter into the year-long Jewish burial practice of that day. According to this practice, the body would be laid out on one side of a burial crypt until it decayed, then the bones would be placed in an ossuary box and put with the other boxes on the other side of the crypt nearly a year later.
Regardless of the setting, Jesus knew the man’s heart and gave the very response to the man’s request that was needed to expose it. He was asking him the same question He later asked Peter, “Do you love Me more than these?” (John 21:15).