The next Son of Man saying in the Gospel of Luke is found in Lk 9:58, part of a sequence of three sayings (9:57-62) regarding the “cost of discipleship” in following Jesus (cf. the prior note on Lk 9:23-27). The first two sayings are also found in Matthew (Matt 8:18-22, part of the so-called “Q” material), but in a different location within the narrative.
Here is an outline of the passage:
- Narrative setting (v. 57a)—”And (on) their traveling in/on the way…” [i.e. “as they traveled along the way”]
- 1st Encounter with a follower (v. 57 b) and Jesus’ response (Saying 1, v. 58)
- 2nd Encounter with a follower (v. 59) and Jesus’ response (Saying 2, v. 60)
- 3rd Encounter with a follower (v. 61) and Jesus’ response (Saying 3, v. 62)
The reference to the “Son of Man” is found in the first saying, in response to the first would-be follower who approaches Jesus and declares: “I will follow you wherever you should go from (here) [i.e. from here on]”. Jesus answers him:
“The foxes have holes/burrows (to live in), the birds of the heaven [i.e. the sky] (have) ‘tents’ put down [i.e. nests] (for them), but the Son of Man does not have (any)where to bend (down) his head [i.e. to sleep/reside].”
The saying has a proverbial feel about it, and certainly draws upon the same common-place imagery from nature regularly used by Jesus in his parables and illustrations. As in a number of the Son-of-Man sayings, there are two points of emphasis at work:
- Jesus identifies himself with humankind, especially in its weakness and lowliness. It is possible that, at the historical level, Jesus is simply using “Son of Man” in place of “I” (as a self-reference). The (Aramaic and/or Hebrew) expression is known to have been used this way, but its currency at the time of Jesus is quite uncertain.
- He particularly stresses the suffering and/or humiliation endured by the “Son of Man”. If, by this expression, a coming heavenly/Messianic figure is meant (cf. the note on Lk 9:26f), then it offers a striking contrast to his power/glory, as appears to be the case in the earlier Passion predictions (Lk 9:21, 43-45).
On the more practical, ethical level, Jesus presents himself as an example of self-denial and poverty, having abandoned everything, and now with nothing, no place to call his own—not even a pillow for his head! Those who would follow him must be willing to live the same way.
Now let us briefly consider the last two sayings. Each is set as an encounter with a would-be follower, but in a slightly different format—(1) Jesus calls the person to follow him, (2) the person requests time first to deal with family business, and (3) Jesus answers with a stark (even harsh) saying regarding the cost of following him. Here are the two encounters in outline:
- Jesus: “Follow me”
Response: “[Lord,] turn/give upon me (permission) to go from (here) first (and) to bury my father” (v. 59)
Jesus’ saying: “Leave/release the dead to bury their (own) dead; but you, go from (here and) give throughout the message (of) [i.e. declare/announce] the kingdom of God!” (v. 60)
- Jesus: (“Follow me”)
Response: “Lord, I will follow you, but first turn/give upon me (permission) to arrange (things and depart) from the (one)s in my house” (v. 61)
Jesus’ saying: “No one casting a hand upon the plough and looking (back) to the (thing)s behind is set (very) well for the kingdom of God!” (v. 62)
- Jesus: “Follow me”
On the surface, both men make very reasonable requests of Jesus—they are apparently willing to leave their homes to follow Jesus, but ask permission to go and set their affairs in order first. In each instance, however, Jesus responds with a striking proverb illustrating the cost of discipleship and the requirement to follow him immediately. Each saying also makes mention of the “kingdom of God”. The latter saying is more in keeping with Jesus’ parables regarding the kingdom, and the typical imagery from nature and agriculture used so often in them; it is also relatively simple and straightforward to understand. The former saying is far more difficult, and has proven quite problematic (even troubling) for Christians over the centuries, especially since Jesus appears to be telling the man to abandon his filial obligation toward his parents, seemingly in violation of the commandment to honor one’s father and mother (Exod 19:12 par). This is not the place to survey the history of interpretation and the various attempts to explain (away) the difficulty of the saying, other than to note that it is best to take the saying at face value and to allow its full impact. In my view, there are two primary ways to read the saying:
- “Let the dead bury themselves”—i.e. forget about the obligation to bury the dead, you must follow me right now!
- “Let those who are dead (figuratively) bury their own people”—i.e., for you, following me takes priority over the ordinary (family/community) activities of (living and) dying; a deeper theological/spiritual interpretation along these same lines might be, e.g. “those who do not (or refuse to) follow me are dead; as for you, follow me and be among the living” (cf. Lk 24:5, also Lk 9:24; 17:18-22 par, etc).