READ : Matthew 8:18-22
Whenever Jesus talked to people about following him, he insisted on two points. One was how difficult that is to do. The other was how crucially important it is that we actually do follow him.
So far in this series of programs from the eighth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew we have seen nothing but stories of healing miracles. But Jesus is more than just a wonder-worker. He didn’t come only to comfort and heal the sick. Jesus has an agenda: nothing less than saving the world. To do that he enlists the aid of followers; “disciples,” to use the New Testament word. And disciple means “learner.” If you want to belong to Jesus, if you want to do something for Jesus, you have to learn what it really means to follow him, and the next story Matthew tells us offers some important lessons to would-be disciples.
Now when Jesus saw a crowd around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. And a scribe came up and said to him, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Another of the disciples said to him, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.”
Jesus, who has been working non-stop now for hours on end, finally decides to get away. He tells his disciples to get one of their fishing boats ready in order to cross the Sea of Galilee. Perhaps on the far side of that lake, in a less populated region, Jesus will be able to find some time to be alone with his closest followers. After all, he has many things to teach them, a lot to prepare them for. But as Jesus is about to leave, two of his followers—or at least potential followers—come up to speak to him.
The first man is a scribe, that is, a Bible teacher. We might even call him a member of the clergy. He approaches Jesus and declares boldly, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” Now there’s an enthusiastic offer. It certainly sounds good! A bit impulsive, perhaps, but most of the people who met Jesus never offered to do this much. Surely Jesus must be pleased with this disciple. Surely he will accept such an eager volunteer gladly, and be grateful for his commitment.
But before we jump all over this man in our haste to welcome him into the church, let’s listen more carefully to the tone and nuances of his bold claim. There’s just a whiff of arrogance there, as if the man thought he might be doing Jesus a favor by joining his little band of followers; you know, raising the overall intellectual level of the group. And consider the word he uses to address Jesus: “Teacher.” This man was a professional teacher himself. He undoubtedly had just finished listening to the Sermon on the Mount, and was impressed with Jesus’ skill and authority. So he approaches him as one teacher to another, suggesting perhaps a collegial relationship. But Jesus doesn’t need any colleagues. He wants followers. He’s not interested in people who simply call him, “Teacher.” He’s looking for people who call him, “Lord.”
So Jesus puts the Bible teacher off. He responds with a warning about what life with him is like: “Foxes have their holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man [Jesus himself] has nowhere to lay his head.” There’s a word for us comfortable Christians to meditate on. If you offer to follow him anywhere, you may end up with nowhere.
You see, this man had no idea of what discipleship really involved. John Calvin said about him:
He wishes indeed to follow Christ, but dreams of an easy and agreeable life, and of dwellings filled with every convenience; whereas the disciples of Christ must walk among thorns, and march to the cross.
A lot of people today seem to think that following Jesus is a free ticket to the good life. But they haven’t looked very carefully at where Jesus himself is going. He’s on the way to the cross. And this is what Jesus says to any would-be disciple: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). Those who impulsively rush after Christ are later the first to stumble and then desert. “It wasn’t what I bargained for,” they explain.
The second disciple here is the mirror image of the first, and Jesus treats him in a completely different way. Here Jesus gives the command. He says, “Follow me” (see Luke 9:59). But this man, far from being over enthusiastic and too impulsive, begins to stall and make excuses. “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And then Jesus makes a very curious reply to him. He says, “You follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.”
Now why would he say that? What does it mean? Was this man’s request so unreasonable? After all, we do have a responsibility to our families, don’t we? Couldn’t the man take time off even for his father’s funeral? In that culture, a duty to one’s father was considered the highest sort of obligation. But the point here is the tremendous urgency of following Jesus right now. The people of the world have all these other concerns, Jesus says. And in their time and place that’s appropriate. But for now you need to think about following me. That’s of overriding importance. Nothing must take precedence over discipleship. Nothing must interfere with it, even things that may be good and praiseworthy in themselves. Following Jesus is the supreme demand. It’s the best thing anyone can do.
And you know what? Often we are most tempted to trade what is best in life, not for something bad, but for something that’s merely good. It’s so much easier to excuse our failure to be serious followers of Jesus if we are investing our lives in some good cause instead. We say to ourselves, “Well, look, I’m not a bad person. I’ve devoted my whole life to . . . my family . . . my career . . . my community . . . my business . . . my country . . . my _________ (you fill in the blank).” But nothing can ever be a substitute for following Jesus.
It is absolutely crucial to follow him when he calls, for the opportunity may never come again. You see, this man wanted Jesus to wait for him, but Jesus doesn’t do that. He expected Jesus to be there when he returned, but Jesus would be gone. What this man really wanted was discipleship on his own terms. “Lord, let me first. . . .” But conditional discipleship is no discipleship at all!
Sometimes we try to substitute a program we have mapped out for ourselves for simple obedience to Christ. “I’ll do this for myself first and then I’ll serve Christ.” But it doesn’t work. You can’t plan to be a disciple. You can only hear Jesus when he calls and respond then and there. Jesus bids us leave our old lives and come follow him. This man wants to leave Jesus to go back to his old life. Sometimes people who are thinking about making a Christian commitment try to strike a compromise between Christ and the world, to accept him while giving up as little as possible. But there is only one way to be a disciple, and that’s to leave everything and follow Jesus without a backward glance.
The Cost of Non-discipleship
We find a very similar account of this encounter in the Gospel of Luke who also tells us the story of these condition-making disciples. In Luke 9 Jesus adds a very searching comment after dealing with these men. “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). Looking back can be a sign of lack of commitment. It indicates a hesitant and divided allegiance. To look back may be enjoyable and satisfying when you’re sitting in an armchair by the fire, reflecting on the years gone by. But if you are a climber on the face of a mountain, looking back is suicide.
That is exactly what Jesus is talking about when he says: “No one who puts his hand to the plow . . . .” To look back, for the follower of Jesus Christ, is to want to return to your old life apart from Christ. When disciples look back they are turning away from Jesus, who is leading them onwards into his kingdom, into the world from which they’ve come. We need to understand just how significant this is. It seems like a small thing in a way; after all, what’s a backward glance? But it is, in fact, a very revealing thing, a straw that shows which way the wind is blowing.
Have you ever plowed a field? Once some years ago a good friend of mine who is a farmer showed me how to plow, and actually let me try it for a little while. Now, modern agriculture is vastly different from farming in Jesus’ day, but I discovered for myself that one thing at least is still the same. Whether you are riding in a huge tractor or walking behind a donkey or an ox, you simply cannot plow a straight furrow if you’re looking back all the time.
Nor can you ever accomplish much for Christ if your heart is not entirely his. If you follow him at all, follow him for his own sake with no other motives. If you have any faith at all, let it be real faith, genuine, wholehearted faith. Follow Christ with all you are and all you have, without ever looking back. Yes, there’s a price to pay for that kind of discipleship. It will cost you everything! But don’t forget, there’s also a price for not following Christ. The price of that is missing out on the kingdom of God.
And that means losing everything in the end.