Jesus sees that his healings and miracles have attracted a crowd, so he makes preparations to ditch them to the other side of the sea. What? You'd think Jesus would be thrilled about all the people's he's attracting! Yet when it comes to choosing his disciples, Jesus has never taken a "the more the merrier" approach. He is much more interested in the motives of people's hearts. And so even as he's hastening to make his exit, he starts rebuffing people's attempts to cling to him. This is a far cry from the Jesus we often present in our evangelism: a needy guy desperate for friends who begs people to follow him, bribes them with promises of a better life, and floods the town with "Jesus loves you" billboards and bumper stickers.
A scribe comes right up to Jesus and says, "I will follow you wherever you go." Let me tell you, if anyone whom I've been trying to evangelize came up to me and said, "I'm ready to follow Jesus wherever he leads me," I'd be ecstatic. Not Jesus. His answer has an "oh, really?" tone to it. "The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." If you say you want to follow me, Jesus says, let me first give you a reason why you shouldn't. As a scribe, the man probably enjoys some respect in the community, but as a disciple of Jesus he would run the risk of being ostracized, even homeless. He would have to eat with tax collectors and sinners. He might have to enter the home of an unclean Gentile. As a result his fellow scribes might disdain him, his home town might not welcome him, even his own family might reject him. Like Jesus he would find himself without a place to lay his head.
Another of the disciples said, "Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father." He was probably among the general followers of Jesus and not one of the twelve, since it's obvious that Jesus viewed his commitment as less than satisfactory. "Follow me, and allow the dead to bury their own dead," Jesus replies. There's some debate over whether the man's father had already died and he was asking leave to take care of funeral preparations, or whether his father was still alive and he was asking if he could put off following Jesus until his father passed away. A lot of people favor the latter idea because then it makes Jesus seem less harsh. Then you don't have to explain why Jesus could be so unreasonable that he wouldn't even let a guy go bury his father and grieve with his family for a few days. But if the man was asking to delay following Jesus indefinitely until his father died, then Jesus' hard-line approach would seem more justified.
I'm not sure it's all that critical to decide which scenario it is, because Jesus never says, "Following me means neglecting your family responsibilities." We just saw in a previous passage that Peter didn't neglect his responsibility toward his ailing mother-in-law even though he was a sold-out follower of Jesus. Jesus' point is that following him should take priority over everything else. Whether or not the man's father has already passed away, the man shouldn't be bargaining with Jesus over the terms of discipleship no matter what the situation. And in this particular case the responsibility of burying one's father, while important, doesn't even come close to being as important as following Jesus. A dead father is physically dead and unbelieving family members are spiritually dead. Let the spiritually dead bury the physically dead. Let them go about the business of death while you attend to matters of life, making it a priority to follow the One who is Life.
Thinking about this passage has made me wonder whether we aren't seriously distorting who Jesus is when we present him to our unbelieving friends and family members. Jesus never promises to make your life better or smoother; in fact, following him is almost guaranteed to have just the opposite result. And it only makes sense if Jesus is all that he claims to be. He seeks worthy disciples who are willing to sell all they have to obtain the pearl of great price. But if you present Jesus like a cheap sales pitch, people will naturally question the quality of your product; they will naturally assume it's a con. Jesus never allows himself to be cheapened like that. He knows his own infinite worth and never apologizes for making that truth known.