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Ask the Register: "Let the dead bury the dead"?

Q. In Luke 9, Jesus says “let the dead bury their dead. Go our and proclaim the Kingdom of God.” At the same time, burying the dead is a “work of mercy.” Is this contradictory to Scripture?

A. In Luke 9, Jesus calls a man to leave everything behind. The man asks if he might bury his father first, and Jesus rebukes him harshly: “Let the dead bury their dead.”  But the Church claims that burying the dead is a work of mercy.  It’s easy to wonder if these things are contradictory.

The Catechism says: “Burying the bodies of the dead reminds us of this hope we have in the Resurrection. It anticipates the reuniting of our body with our soul in heaven. Burial is not simply a disposing of the body but it is caring for that person to the point that it is even a corporal work of mercy to bury the dead.”   

Jesus, as a pious Jewish man, took the responsibility to bury the dead seriously. He knew that our bodies are created in the image and likeness of God, and that, as St. Paul says, our bodies are worth of being treated respectfully because they are temples of the Holy Spirit. In light of that, his rebuke seems confusing and contradictory. Most Scriptural scholars say that Jesus’ rebuke is a reminder that each one of us must be obedient to God in the way he calls us. While he calls some to day-to-day discipleship in the context of their homes and families, he calls others, like priests and religious, to a different kind of radical availability to God’s call. 

In the scene following Jesus’ rebuke, he commissions the 72 disciples to go forth, in pairs, to proclaim the Gospel across the world. Commentators say that Jesus rebuked the man not because burying the dead is unimportant, or because those who bury the dead are not spiritually alive, but because each of us must hear the God gives us—in the case of that man, the call was to follow Jesus into a life of missionary preaching.

We should bury the dead, and pray for the salvation of those who have died. But if Jesus calls us to a particular mission, or ministry, or way of life, we should be ready to leave everything behind to follow him.  

Related Item: "Burying the dead" guest column

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