Mike Licona has started a Vimeo series, which comes out every few weeks or so with little known and random facts about biblical history. For instance, his first was on the history of the bird (not that bird but the… bird). His latest refers to the genealogies of Jesus. Please follow and benefit from his other videos he has added to his channel.
As they were going along the road, someone said to Him, “I will follow You wherever You go.” 58And Jesus said to him, “The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” 59And He said to another, “Follow Me.” But he said, “Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father.” 60But He said to him, “Allow the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim everywhere the kingdom of God.” 61Another also said, “I will follow You, Lord; but first permit me to say good-bye to those at home.” 62But Jesus said to him, “No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”
The passage in Luke is in reference to a problem passage where Jesus describes the costs to being His disciple by claiming that you must put Him at priority above all else. In a culture completely different from first century Judaism, the words spoken by Jesus are incredibly problematic and make Jesus seem to be unsympathetic to a man in grief. The historical context to Jesus’ words serve to eliminate the problem of sympathy and goes to show that His words carry much further to a deeper and more profound meaning.
The key historical context that is needed is to understand is the Jewish thought and priority to the parents. Parents were to always be shown favor. In light of parents being due honor in the Ten Commandments, it was esteemed with more honor than many other commandments (Letter of Aristeas 228). Tobit [4.3-4; 6.14-5] gives further historical background on the priority and respect given to parents in the context of the death of a parent.
Josephus elaborated on the view of funerals and the dead from a [Jewish] legal perspective according to the law [Against Apion 2.27-28 §§205-206]. The death of anyone was an event that was highly respected. During the funeral procession, anyone who passes by was to join with those who are mourning and lament. Josephus adds that the death of a parent is honored immediately after God Himself and if anyone does not honor this law then that person is to be stoned.
The historical facts that make these words of Jesus so incredibly profound are that it involved the death of someone and the death was of the man’s father. The question that immediately arises is whether or not Jesus broke the law by telling the man to follow Him. The answer would simply be “no,” He did not break the law. Jesus completely overrode that priority given to parents and in doing so actually made a claim of divinity. Notice that Josephus pointed out that parents were a priority immediately after God Himself. In Jesus saying that He had priority over the death of this man’s father was a claim, which would be understood to those who knew the law, that He was God. Jesus [as God] has immediate priority over everything.