Matthew 8:18-22

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Matthew 8

18 Now when Jesus saw a crowd around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. 19 And a scribe came up and said to him, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” 20 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.” 21 Another of the disciples said to him, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” 22 And Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.”

Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola have written about a sobering lesson and challenge to the church.

A few years ago a Christian group visited the Soviet Union before the fall of the Berlin wall.  When the guide who was showing the Christians around Leningrad came to a statue of Lenin, the guide paused and said reflectively, “You Christians have a great message, but we Communists will win the world.  Christ means something to you.  Communism means everything to us.”[1]

I wonder if that is so: Christ means something to us whereas other causes mean everything to their adherents. One is hesitant to generalize, but I will say this: that has certainly been true in my life at times and it would appear to be true of the church at large in the United States in certain ways as well.

It is a scandal.

Jesus calls us not to a fickle appreciation but to radical discipleship, to reckless abandon in our following of Jesus. “When Christ calls a man,” Bonhoeffer famously said, “he bids him come and die.” True. But He bids us come to die so that we might live, resurrected and transformed, in Him. This is made abundantly clear in the startling verses of Matthew 8:18-22.

To follow Christ is to break the thrall of all that used to hold us.

Our verses show us two men who approach Jesus and have an exchange with him about discipleship, about what it means to follow Him. The first man is cautioned about what he will have to leave behind to follow Jesus. The second is cautioned about the re-prioritization that will have to take place in his life. But first, the scribe, the first man, approached Jesus.

18 Now when Jesus saw a crowd around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. 19 And a scribe came up and said to him, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” 20 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.”

A scribe comes to Jesus and makes a most impressive vow. He begins by calling Jesus “teacher.” This is apparently a clue in the book of Matthew that things are not going to go well. Craig Blomberg interestingly observes that the word “teacher” (didaskale) is “a title given to Christ in Matthew only by those who do not fully believe in him (cf. 12:38; 19:16; 22:16,24,36).” He concludes that this “title is accurate but not adequate.”[2]

Accurate, but not adequate. The scribe was not wrong in what he called Jesus but he came up short in his understanding of exactly who Jesus was and what it would cost him. He promises to follow Jesus “wherever” he goes. Jesus’ response is most surprising:

20 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.”

Quite different from our modern eagerness to give a platform and a microphone to anybody who seems to feel favorably toward Jesus, Jesus seems to lean on this man’s confession. It is almost as if He is saying, “You sure about that?” Jesus’ response should likely cause us to be a bit cautious about singing B.B. McKinney’s great 1936 hymn:

Take up thy cross and follow me,
I heard my Master say;
I gave me life to ransom thee,
Surrender your all today.

Wherever He leads Ill go,
Wherever He leads Ill go,
Ill follow my Christ who loves me so,
Wherever He leads Ill go.

He drew me closer to His side,
I sought His will to know,
And in that will I now abide,
Wherever He leads Ill go.

It may be through the shadows dim,
Or oer the stormy sea,
I take my cross and follow Him,
Wherever He leadeth me.

What Jesus is asking the man is if he is willing to allow Him to break what Calvin Miller called “the sensual thrall.” The sensual—that which pleases us and makes us feel good (our materialism, our wealth, our pleasures) exerts a powerful thrall over us or command over us. Raymond C. Ortlund Jr. writes:

O Lord God, how comfortable we are.

How exquisitely complacent.

How deliciously at ease.

We, your church, loll drowsily amid our privileges.

We treat our spiritual treasures cheaply,

as if possessing them in abundance

were a natural state of affairs,

always to be expected.[3]

Indeed, we are comfortable! And, conditioned as we are to, as Ortlund said, “expect” our comforts, many American believers will have to be challenged to consider how following Jesus is a challenge to our addiction to comfort. To follow Jesus is to step out from under the thrall, the command, of that which meets our perceived felt needs.

There is an obvious warning in these words about materialism that we should not water down. Alan Hirsch and Tim Catchim pointed out some years back that, “[t]he U.S. church spends over $70 billion every decade on plant and resources, and we are experiencing decline in adherence and membership at an unprecedented rate. This is unacceptable.”[4]

There is a danger to comfort, a danger to the sensual thrall. Jesus appears to be grabbing the man by the shoulders and bringing His face close to the others to shout, “Do you know what you are saying?!

The day I left our last church in Georgia, some friends swung by the house to give me a gift. It was a t-shirt bearing a quote I had passed on some weeks before in a sermon. The quote, emblazoned on the front, said: “Jesus was homeless.” It is interesting to me how quickly our materialist, comfort-addicted selves want to qualify this. “But Jesus seems to have stayed in homes here and there.” Here and there, true, but hear His words again:

20 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.”

There is something deeper happening here than Jesus simply saying that He did not own walls and a roof. This is a call to detachment from the need to be defined by the material. This is a call not to misery but to freedom.

It is not a sin to own a home. It is a sin to be owned by your home.

It is not a sin to own a car. It is a sin to be owned by your car.

And lest you think I am giving myself and all of us a way out, hear me: I rather suspect that many if not most of us are more owned by our possessions than we realize. One way to gauge that is to ask how comfortable this passage makes you.

There is also a statement about the Kingdom here, as there are throughout all of the gospels and the rest of the New Testament. To follow Jesus is to become a pilgrim, a resident alien, an ambassador, to use Paul’s terminology, a resident whose citizenship is elsewhere. The church is indeed homeless on this side of heaven. We reside hear but we represent the Kingdom of our citizenship, the Kingdom of God.

To follow Christ is to radically re-prioritize our lives, placing Jesus in the first place.

Then another man comes, a man who professes that he too wants to follow but that he has obligations that must be fulfilled.

21 Another of the disciples said to him, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” 22 And Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.”

This is jarring to modern sensibilities. Does Jesus really not want the man to bury his father? Some say that the man’s father is not dead yet, or that he is asking for up to a year to complete the burial process. Regardless, the words of Jesus catch us off guard: “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their dead.”

To follow Jesus is to bring the sensual thrall of home and comfort. To follow Jesus is also to have our values radically re-prioritized Christward. It is to place Jesus first. This is shocking to us, it is true, but it was apparently even more shocking to a first century Jew. Michael Card quotes The Talmud, a venerated collection of Jesus teaching, as saying, “He who is confronted by the death of a relative is freed from reciting the Shema, from the 18 benedictions, and from all the commandments stated in the Torah.” Card writes of this:

In Judaism family is given priority over faith. In light of Jesus’ identity of absolute lordship, nothing, absolutely nothing, comes before him. All of our old obligations vanish when we take up his cross. (Mt 10:38).”[5]

Is it not the case, then, that Jesus redefines what we call “family values” in this text? Think of how Jesus redefined family in Mark 3:

31 And his mother and his brothers came, and standing outside they sent to him and called him. 32 And a crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, seeking you.” 33 And he answered them, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34 And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.”

He is even more blunt in Matthew 10:

34 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.36 And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. 37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

My goodness! What does Jesus have against family? In truth, nothing. Family is good and God-ordained. But Jesus hates idols, and oftentimes it is that which is most dear to us that most tempts us to idolatry. So He is saying this: if your earthly family is of more value to you than me then you have not really decided to follow. If you will not leave everything for me then you do not truly understand how I am redefining even your notion of “family”!

Jesus spoke against divorce. Jesus told us to honor our father’s and mother’s. Jesus cared for His own mother’s well-being while he hung on the cross (He gave her care to John). He is speaking prophetically, but that does not mean He is speaking in a way that is less true. We must not minimize His words, though we must understand.

To put even father or mother or family before Christ is to refuse to follow Christ as we must, for it is not until we can put Christ above our families that we are even able to love our families as we should. We love each other best by loving each other second to Christ.

In his memoir, Accidental Preacher, Will Willimon speaks of being a young man and listening to a Methodist preacher. Here is how Willimon recounts the sermon:

“We need to be more committed to Christ!” he said, hastily adding, “I don’t mean to the point of fanaticism, or to the neglect of family responsibilities. We are not Baptists, after all.” He guffawed apprehensively. None in the congregation returned his laugh.[6]

That “We are not Baptists, after all,” really gets me. Had that preacher ever met a Baptist? We are fanatical in our speech but fickle in our practice. We are like the scribe and this other man: making great vows but never quite willing to lay it all down. John Stott writes:

Our common way of avoiding radical discipleship is to be selective: choosing those areas in which commitment suits us and staying away from those areas in which it will be costly.  But because Jesus is Lord, we have no right to pick and choose the areas in which we will submit to his authority.[7]

Yes. That is so. “Selective discipleship” is the bane of the modern church. It is the bane of my own life. I pray that it will be burned out as I learn to walk with Jesus.

Gregory the Great said, “To renounce what one has is a minor thing; to renounce what one is, that is asking a lot.”[8] I think this statement, almost more than any other, is a perfect summary of what Jesus is saying here. It was not family or home or a burial that was the issue, it was what putting these things before Jesus revealed about these men—about us—that is the issue. He was not asking them to renounce what they had as much as He was asking them to renounce what they were…and their relationship to what they had was revealing what they were.

So there it is: the call to discipleship.

What is it that owns you. Can you put it beneath Jesus in terms of importance? Can you set it aside for Christ?

Whatever is above Christ is an idol.
“Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry” (1 Corinthians 10:14).

Flee and follow Jesus.


[1] Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola, Jesus Manifesto (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2010), p.91.

[2] Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew. The New American Commentary. Gen. Ed., David S. Dockery. Vol.22 (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1992), p.146.

[3] Quoted in Calvin Miller, The Disciplined Life, (Kindle Locations 35-43). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[4] Hirsch, Alan; Catchim, Tim (2012-01-06). The Permanent Revolution: Apostolic Imagination and Practice for the 21st Century Church (Jossey-Bass Leadership Network Series) (Kindle Locations 6679-6680). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

[5] Michael Card, Matthew. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013), p.81.

[6] Will Willimon, Accidental Preacher (Kindle Locations 1635-1637). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

[7] John Stott, The Radical Disciple (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010), p.14.

[8] Quoted in Calvin Miller, Kindle Locations 54-56.

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