It seems harsh that Jesus would ask a son to forget about the burial of his dead father. Jewish society was a deeply patriarchal one, and an inheritance was often necessary for survival and maintaining the family’s good name. Almost as harsh was Jesus telling a teacher that in order to follow him he must forget about where he lived and leave behind the comforts of life.
Taking a deeper look into what Jesus is saying shows us that our Lord was actually being quite merciful. The path to life is through Christ and that path means dying to the world. Rather than asking would be followers to severely punish their bodies through starvation or some other grueling ritual, Jesus is instead asks these potential followers to forget about traditions and comforts and just follow him. He asks them to surrender their dreams, desires and life’s ambitions by parting with their old lives and ways for the sake of his ways.
The Gospel is not: Give up your life so that you can follow Jesus. Instead it is: Giving up your life is following Jesus. This is a subtle distinction with massive eternal consequences. When Jesus warns that we must set aside our dependencies on the world, found when we cling to comfortable homes and cozy families, he means it. “Let the dead bury their own dead,” he says. Let the dead have this world because they behave as it behaves, and they worry about what it desires. So Jesus says to them: The world is dead. It does dead things, including the burying of its own. But you forget about all that now. You come and follow me, and when you forget the world and come to me, then you will know that you are truly my follower.
Now Jesus isn’t saying we must abandon civilization. We don’t need to live monastic lives and live in some remote corner of the world despising humanity from afar. Jesus also teaches us that we live in the world, even if we are not to be of it. He says that though we live in its borders, we do not practice its customs.
Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegory of an awakened sinner running from his doomed city to heaven. And when the man runs, he leaves behind his stubborn family and his friends who refuse to believe and go with him. But though the man leaves his family, the allegory is also clear that the fleeing Christian is still physically living among them. We find out that it is not his body that flees, but his heart. It’s not his legs that run from his home, but his desires as he runs from the life he had always lived.
When a Christian repents his interests, his hobbies, his free time and his disposable hours are now dominated by new desires. He begins have passions to soak up the Wisdom of God and the Spirit of God. Prayer, reading of Scripture, godly conversations are now their primary interests instead of the things the world seeks after and enjoys.
Paradoxically, a born again soul has left everyone around them, while remaining very near. These are souls who have gone after Jesus and left the dead to bury their own dead.