Another of the disciples said to him, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” Matthew 8:21 ESV
First – Someone called me with a personal dilemma. “I feel as if my wife and I need to move [to another city]. But I have so much family here and they are in such need. My cousin is really sick and I have been ministering to him. My sister is having real trouble and I want to be here for her. And I’m concerned about my own health. What if I get sick and we are so far away from my doctor?”
I heard the similarity to Matthew. “First, let me take care of my family obligations, Lord. Then I will come and follow you.” Is it any different today? There are always things to take care of; things that are perfectly reasonable (or so it seems) that prevent us from doing what God is asking us to do.
But let’s take a closer look at this story in Matthew. Notice that the speaker is one of the disciples! Don’t write him off as some fair-weather follower. He is mathetes, a Greek word that means “disciple.” He was serious about learning from Yeshua. Ah, but that’s only part of the story. The TDNT notes that the root word, manthano, is used hundreds of times in classical Greek to describe the activity of a disciple, but in the New Testament it is astonishingly rare. In fact, manthano is used only 3 times in Matthew whereas didasko (to serve) is far more frequent and akolouthein (to follow) is the “true mark of the mathetes.” What does this mean? It means that in spite of the fact that this man is designated a matheton, he was not characterized by akolouthein. He was a disciple of learning, not a disciple of following.
There is a bit more to the story if we examine the culture. For this man to say, “Give me permission to first bury my father,” means that he is asking for an undetermined temporal hiatus. If his father were already dead, he wouldn’t even be with Yeshua. He would be sitting shiva (Leviticus 21:1-3). Therefore, his request is the equivalent of “Give me permission not to follow you until I bury my father.” Once we add the cultural element, it is clear that this man wanted only the intellectual lessons, not the transformational demands.
Matthew’s account ends with Yeshua’s statement, “Let the dead bury the dead.” Far too often Christian exegetes have treated this as if it were a spiritualized proclamation about salvation. They think that Yeshua is saying, “Let those who have not experienced forgiveness take care of those who are still outside the Kingdom. After all, they are all dead in their trespasses and sins.” But I doubt anyone present would have drawn such a conclusion. Everyone there knew that if this man’s father were actually dead he would be sitting shiva. Yeshua’s statement merely emphasizes this point. Death requires ritual performance. The dead demand compliance. Those who sit shiva are treated as if they were bound to the dead. Festival participation is cancelled. No one leaves the house. Speech is restricted to topics about the deceased. Ordinary activities of life are suspended. Prayers are recited. Services are held. And all of this continues for seven days. Yeshua is acknowledging that if this man were sitting shiva he would already be associated with the dead. Permission is not necessary. Shiva is commanded.
Are we any different than this excuse-prone disciple? Our conversations about following often begin with “First, give me permission.” What really comes first is “Follow me.”
Topical Index: dead, shiva, first, proton, Matthew 8:21
 TDNT abridged, p. 554.