What did Christ mean when He said Let the dead bury the dead? Fr. John Whiteford answers this question with the help of the holy fathers.
We find this statement recorded in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke:
And another of his disciples said unto him, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. But Jesus said unto him, Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead (Matt. 8:21-22).
And he said unto another, Follow me. But he said, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. Jesus said unto him, Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of God (Lk. 9:59-60).
Blessed Theophylact gives a concise explanation:
“He is saying, “Let your dead relatives, that is, those who do not believe, take care of your unbelieving father in his old age until death.” To bury means here to bestow care on him even to the grave. Even in common parlance we say, “So and so buried his father,” which means not only that he placed him in the ground when he died, but that he also did every other good thing for him that was necessary, caring for him until his end and his burial. Therefore, let the dead bury their dead; that is, let those who are unbelievers take care of your unbelieving father, but because you have believed, you must preach the Gospel as my disciple. The Lord said this not to forbid us from caring for our parents, but to teach us that we ought to place piety above the demands of unbelieving parents. We must allow no obstacle to our doing of good, and we must scorn nature itself when it stands in the way” (The Explanation of the Holy Gospel According to Luke. Fr. Christopher Stade, Trans. [House Springs, MO: Chrysostom Press, 1997], p. 106).
When faced with the demands for complete commitment to the Lord, we are often tempted to make excuses, and we usually to try find the most noble excuses possible. The Lord who commands us to honor our fathers and mothers does not forbid us to provide proper care or burial for our parents, but the Lord’s claim on our time, treasure, labor, and devotion, must always take the first priority. Even love for parents, spouse, or children cannot come before our obedience to the Lord.