by Paul George
We know people refuse to follow Jesus, but what makes Jesus refuse would-be followers. The answer is found in Matthew 8:18-22.
Verse 18 – “Now, when Jesus saw a crowd around Him, He gave orders to depart to the other side of the sea.”
Jesus and His disciples had been on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. Since the crowd around them was becoming so massive and the Lord was physically exhausted, they entered a boat to depart to the opposite shore. This afforded the Lord some necessary time for prayer, meditation, and relief from the pressures of the crowds. Such pressures, not necessarily part of God’s plan, motivated Jesus to leave for ministry in a new place.
As He left, the issue of commitment faced certain people. By that time, many people were following Him. In fact, Mark tells us that several other boats followed behind Him like a little flotilla. Therefore, some people were at the very crux of decision: “Do I get in the boat and go, or do I stay?” Matthew identifies two individuals who must make similar decisions.
Verse 19 – “Then a scribe came and said to Him, ‘Teacher I will follow You wherever You go.’”
What a tremendous statement of dedication! Apparently, he was making a permanent commitment. I am sure the scribe thought that Jesus was the greatest teacher he had ever heard, and when he saw Christ’s miracles, he concluded that they were from God. He was attracted to the unique and impressive person and power of Christ. If that man showed up at a church today, most people would immediately sign him up. However, Jesus was not so eager. He tested the scribe’s true level of commitment:
Verse 20 – “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.’”
That is a proverbial saying that simply means Jesus would not regularly experience the basic comforts of life that wild animals had. The implication seems to be that He did not have His own house. Often He would spend the night at the Mount of Olives in prayer with the Father. Although, the gospels tell us that Jesus occasionally stayed in a house in Bethany, He had few personal possessions. He had no guarantee of comfort to offer this scribe. Being able to read his mind, Jesus forced him to face the unpleasant reality of discomfort.
Like the scribe, there are people who want to jump on the Christian bandwagon, but as soon as the persecution starts and following Christ is not comfortable anymore, they want out.
The scribe wanted to join the cause, but Jesus knew that human nature is fickle and self-centered. He knew that it hungers for sensations: the crowd, the miracles, and the excitement. Jesus saw the shallow eagerness of the scribe is like a seed on stony ground that grows quickly but dies under the heat of persecution. Evidently, that man never understood the basic elements of discipleship: self-denial and suffering. After Jesus told the scribe what he could expect, you will notice that the next verse does not say anything about him. Do you know why? He probably was not around. The Lord put him under the spotlights and he left.
Jesus is so unlike us. We sugarcoat the message so everybody can get in as easily as possible. However, Jesus told it like it was and in so doing, kept many insincere people from following Him.
Jesus affirmed that He was “the Son of Man, a Messianic title that first appears in Daniel 7:13 and is used in the gospels eighty-eight times. The term, “Son of God” speaks of Jesus’ deity, whereas, “Son of Man” emphasizes His humiliation. Jesus is saying to those who want to follow Him, “In My humble estate I do not even have the basic comforts of life that foxes and birds have. And if you’re going to follow Me, you need to be willing to give them up.” In fact, the New Testament makes it clear that persecution would accompany those who follow Christ and live righteously (Matthew 10:16-18, 19, 22, 23; John 15-16).
There is a price to pay for being a Christian, but the scribe was not willing to pay it; he just wanted to add excitement to his life. He was a potential Judas and nobody needs more of that type. Therefore, Jesus’ explanation of the way things really are drove him away. We do Jesus a grave disservice if we lead people to believe that the Christian way is an easy way. It is not. There is no thrill like following Christ, and there is no glory like the end of a life of obedience to Him, but Jesus never said it would be easy–He always said you had to take up your cross. People who want personal comfort plus Christ merely want to add Jesus to their previously established pattern of life. He refuses such people as His disciples.
Verse 21 – “Another of the disciples said to Him, ‘Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father.’”
That sounds like a reasonable request. The son could not just forget about his father if he were dead; he would have to bury him quickly because Jewish people did not embalm. Furthermore, Jewish custom taught that one needed to mourn for your father and mother for thirty days after they died. Genesis tells us that the last responsibility of a son in his final act of devotion to his parents was to make sure he cared for their burial (Genesis 25:9; 35:29; 49:28-33; 50:13-14). So maybe he was talking about needing a month to mourn and take care of family business. However, the implication of the phrase to bury one’s father can mean that a person would prefer to wait until his father passes away so that he can receive his inheritance. That seems to be what the son in Matthew 8 had in mind.
Verse 22 – “But Jesus said to him, ‘Follow Me, and let the dead to bury the dead.’”
At first, Jesus’ response seems to be almost ridicules, how can dead people bury other dead people? The solution must be that the first kind of dead people refer to those who are spiritually dead. In other words, Jesus is saying, “Let the spiritually dead bury the physically dead, let the secular world take care of its own issues, you have been called to the Kingdom of God. Let the system take care of itself.” Jesus was not saying that Christians are forbidden to go to funerals, or that Christians are not supposed to make sure their father or mother is buried. He simply pointed out that the world’s passing affairs regarding death and inheritance are part of a dead system.
The young man’s priorities were fouled up. He had stressed secular matters above spiritual ones. Personal possessions were important to him; he had waited a long time for his inheritance and he was not going to leave now. He was attracted to Jesus by the thrill of the cause, but exhibited no commitment. He wanted his money more than he wanted the Messiah. He reminds me of the rich young ruler in Matthew 19.
Personal relations, personal riches, and personal comfort all stand in the way of following Christ. Even though Jesus said in John 6:37 that “the one who comes to Me I will certainty not cast,” He will not accept those who have no intention of making a true commitment. The one who comes to Jesus, He will not reject if he comes with a begging in his spirit, mourning over his sin, meek before God, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, crying for mercy, and willing to be persecuted, hated and reviled for His sake.