Word Study: The Dead Bury The Dead


Matthew 8:22 “But Jesus said unto him, Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead.”

“East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet.” Rudyard Kipling

The above quote by Rudyard Kipling is from his poem The Ballad of East and West. Although taken out of context it is often quoted to express the differences between the thinking of the Eastern mind and the Western mind. Indeed, we often interpret the mindset of the East in light of Western thinking. We take a terrorist and say let us execute him to set an example so they know what will happen if they try to pull their terrorist stunts on us. Yet, in the Eastern mindset that is exactly what they want for by being a martyr they believe they will enter paradise and will die a hero. Instead of discouraging future terrorist we may be encouraging them.

I heard one CIA analyst on the news the other day, who was an expert in Middle Eastern matters, say, “When dealing with the Middle East you must leave room for the crazy.” I suspect the intelligence advisors to Eastern leaders are saying the same thing about the West. What appears crazy to us is normal for the Eastern mindset and what appears crazy to the Eastern mindset appears normal to us.

I have read many Western commentaries on Matthew 8:22 and they always come up with the same Western mindset leaving us to believe that Jesus was being cruel when the man who was seeking to follow Jesus asked to first be allowed to bury his father and Jesus told him to “let the dead bury the dead.” It is almost as if Jesus was telling the man to forget the fifth commandment when it comes to serving God. Most of our commentators do recognize that this man was saying that his father was still alive and well but they almost universally say that he was making up a lame excuse to not follow Jesus right away making fodder for many a sermon on putting off our service to God. Yet when viewed through the eyes of an Easterner this carries a much different idea.

In the Greek the word for dead is nekrous and indeed if we follow the Greek text it reads, let the dead bury the dead. Many commentators say that this is just Jesus way of saying let the spiritually dead bury the spiritually dead. I think these commentators are really stretching for some way to explain this impossible situation as the dead cannot bury the dead. Yet, Jesus spoke an Old Galilean Northern dialect of Aramaic and in the Aramaic, like Hebrew, there were no vowels. Vowels were inserted in later times by using markings rather than letters. However, in Jesus day there were many words that sound very similar because they shared the same consonants, yet meant different things. This opened the door to many play on words. These play words are not seen in our Western mind because we often just follow the Greek text which cannot express these play on words like the Aramaic and also because we do not understand the cultural context in which some of these phrases were made.

In this case the word for dead in the Aramaic is metta which is spelled Mem, Taw, and Aleph. The word for town is matta which is also spelled Mem, Taw, and Aleph. The difference in pronunciation is very slight and when vowel pointings are added a single dot is omitted under the second letter of the Aramaic word for dead. What Jesus most likely said in his own language was let the town bury the dead. Indeed in that culture the elderly were respected and cared for by the community if the elderly had no children to care for them. In fact they considered it an honor to care for the elderly. If a man had to go to war, or leave the town for any matter of great importance such as a religious service or training, the good citizens of his community would stand ready to care for his parents and if one parent should die while he was away in the service of his king or of God, the town would join together and bury that person’s parent.

This man wasn’t trying to weasel out of his desire to serve God; he was torn between his duty to his elderly father and his duty to God. Jesus had said earlier in Matthew 6:33 “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and then all these things will be added unto you.” The phrase, “I must bury my father” is an Oriental idiom which means, “My father is elderly and I must take care of him.” Jesus merely said, “Don’t worry about it, the people of this community will take good care of your father until you return.” Keep in mind that Jesus was not asking this man to become a career missionary, he was only inviting him to become a disciple for a year or two, as was common in that day, so he could learn of the kingdom of God and then return to his community to instruct them in God’s way. His mission field was to be his home town, the community that would take care of his father while he was away being discipled. Hence we have this little play on the words metta (dead) and matta (town). In other words the town was spiritual dead and he would train under Jesus so that He right return to bring spiritual life to his town. He would only leave his father for a year or two before he would return to be the new town chaplain. It was a great honor to be chosen as a disciple of a master teacher such as Jesus and this man’s parents would have been proud to let him serve Jesus.

God never asks us to shirk our duties and obligations to our family or community to serve Him. But He does ask us to seek Him and His kingdom first and all the rest will be taken care of.