Matthew, a Jew in writing to Jews who greatly valued their families, mentioned that one of Jesus’ early disciples asked of Him, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father” (Mt 8:21). In societies as the Jews that greatly valued the family, what Jesus said to this son would seem almost inexcusably harsh: “Follow Me, and let the dead bury their own dead” (Mt 8:22).
We believe that Jesus assumed that the disciple should have understood that the “spiritually dead” must bury their own “spiritually dead.” But still, it was the young man’s own father. Does discipleship at times call on us to commit to Jesus more than burying one’s own father?
The historical context of the above incident could have been that the father was not yet dead. The son simply wanted to hang around home close to his father until the aged father died. Matthew stated that the son was a disciple. But even at this time in the ministry of Jesus, the young disciple realized that the gospel message that Jesus was introducing would eventually demand of him as a disciple to go far beyond Judea, Samaria, but into the uttermost parts of the world. Peter, James, John and the other disciples had made this commitment to allow Jesus to move them beyond their fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters, even their own lands, which to the Jews was a sacred heritage (Consider At 4:32-37). Even if one could not go into all the world, he or she could, as Gaius, financially support those who could (See 3 Jn 5-7). One is a disciple of Jesus by either going personally to preach the gospel, or going through the sending of others (See Rm 10:14,15). One is not truly a disciple if he or she is doing neither.
Many years ago we were in the coastal city of Malindi, Kenya. We were about to teach a seminar for area religious leaders. Before the meeting began, one young leader showed up just before the seminar started. While he was introducing himself, he said to all of us, “My wife and I were on our way to the burial of a relative and I heard about the seminar on the way.”
The committed disciple then informed us, “I said to my wife to go on to the burial of the relative. The seminar on Bible study was more important. I will go to the seminar.”
If a possible conflict arises that calls for a decision to be made between Jesus and funerals, does Jesus really call on us to commit to Him above the burial of relatives?
On the occasion of the introductory incident during the ministry of Jesus, Jesus was passing through the area of the young disciple. The opportunity to follow Jesus was brief. Our preceding Kenyan friend knew that the seminar was only for two days. The opportunity would pass by the time he returned from the burial of his relative in a far village. He made a decision, and that decision was to seek first kingdom business. He seized the opportunity to follow when the opportunity presented itself. He obeyed that command of the Holy Spirit in Ephesians 4:27: “Do not give opportunity to the devil.”
Jesus was not teaching that everyone must forsake their families in order to be His disciple. But it does mean that we must have our priorities correct in reference to putting Him first before all human relationships of this world.
We never cease to be amazed at the cleverness of Satan. If Christians could only be as clever as Satan in reference to committing themselves to preaching the gospel, then we would have long ago preached the gospel to the entire world, and then called on Jesus to come and end it all. But Satan is clever. He would convince good-hearted Christians to consume all their financial resources on good things, but things that do not involve the saving of the lost.
We recently heard a new phrase that expressed a thought that we had read in our Bibles and preached for over a half century. But we had never heard the teaching expressed so specifically. We heard the phrase at a local restaurant while enjoying a great cup of coffee with a religious leader of a local fellowship with whom we had recently encountered.
During the conversation, the husband and wife team said, “We have trouble with ‘family idolatry.’”
Did that ever ring a bell of reality in a culture where family, as in the Jewish culture, is often prized above faith. When relatives are in town, faith and God’s family is forsaken for family in the flesh.
These two committed disciples further explained that family relations and earthly considerations in their area of work were almost always considered more important than God’s work. Paying for private education, bigger houses, and new cars were always more important than contributing to the preaching of the gospel to the world.
They explained that when relatives were visiting one of the members of their group, the members would shut down their association with the family of God in order to be with the visiting relatives. There was sin beneath the good. The sin to forsake the family of God seemed justified by “burying the dead” of visiting relatives. This is nothing new in Satan’s bag of clever tricks to divert the attention of Christians from the prime objective of our Founder who said, “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness …” (Mt 6:33). “For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Lk 19:10).
It is certainly right to bury one’s father. But when Jesus called a disciple from burying his own father in order to go into all the world, there would have been sin beneath the good if the disciple had forsaken Jesus for a funeral service. Was Jesus simply teaching a hyperbole of discipleship? Or, was He teaching a principle that family, lands and things, should never be exalted over commitment to preach His gospel message to the world?
I remember that in my world ministry of preaching the gospel, I personally never had the opportunity to bury my own father or mother who at the time lived on the other side of the world. I was somewhere in the world when both passed away. Fellow brothers and sisters at home who had partnered with me in world evangelism carried out the burial necessities without my presence. If I had left my mission to bury either father or mother, my faithful mother would have “rolled over in her grave” if I dared leave the mission of preaching the gospel in order to throw dirt on her grave. She understood precisely what Jesus meant when He called His disciples to exalt Him above family. Our memory of her commitment to Jesus throughout her life echoed in our hearts to stay the course of preaching the gospel of Jesus to the world. While she was living, both of us were willing to exchange “good bye’s” for “hello’s” in heaven. Both my wife and I determined long ago not to involve ourselves in “family idolatry.”
Jesus calls for total commitment, the level of commitment that calls on us to refrain from making our families the god of our lives. “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me” (Mt 10:37). According to the meaning of this statement, those who are involved in “family idolatry” have judged themselves to be unworthy of Jesus. Jesus continued, “And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me” (Mt 10:37).
We know fathers and mothers, sons and daughters who would consider family business above kingdom business. Peter, and the other eleven disciples of Jesus, were willing to make the sacrifice of family for faith.
“Then Peter began to say to Him [Jesus], “Behold, we have left all and have followed You.” And Jesus answered and said, “Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands for My sake and the gospel’s, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life” (Mk 10:28,29).
Peter and the other disciples were not “family idolaters.” Peter was a good husband and providing son (See Mt 8:14,15). The Holy Spirit instructed that one must provide food and shelter for his own family, though he does not need to stay at home in order to do this (1 Tm 5:8). When providing beyond food and shelter, one must be careful not to forsake his or her commitment as a disciple of Jesus by focusing on things of this world that will pass away. Seeking first the kingdom of God may involve allowing someone else to bury our fathers.