Great crowds follow Jesus early in His ministry. Opposition has not begun in earnest, so there are many would-be disciples who want to follow Him. Yet, Jesus wants to escape from the growing crowds to spend some time alone and with His Father. This decision results in a separation of His true followers from less committed supporters (Matthew 8:18ff). The two individuals who come to Him here are not of importance to the story as much as they provide an opportunity for Jesus to make an important point. The first person…a scribe…addresses Jesus as “Teacher” -- a term used only by outsiders in Matthew. He seems to believe that discipleship, or following Jesus, is more like volunteering to follow the local Rabbi as a pupil. His statement that “he will follow Jesus wherever He goes,” is probably not much more than accompanying Him across the lake. It is certainly not that he has thoughtfully considered this “following” to be a lifetime commitment…and so we have Jesus’ response. Jesus’ reply reveals that He is not your typical rabbi, and that following Him is no simple matter. His chosen lifestyle is one of homelessness -- foxes have holes, birds have nests, but Jesus has no “home.” He is lacking the securities of this world, and His disciples are called to share in this same type of life.
The next individual is called “a disciple.” Note his use of the term “Lord,” which is ironic, given the situation. What comes into question is not his overall commitment, but to what degree is he committed. Jesus’ response is probably not what many would expect. He is not disrespecting the disciple’s father, as some might be inclined to think. With many of Jesus’ statements we need to dig deeper in order to get to the meaning that can elude us. His point is likely, “Let the spiritually dead take care of their own business…but not so with you!” If his father is indeed already gone, his request would be a natural one…even essential. The dead, according to Jewish customs, must be buried within 24 hours, and the duty fell to the Son. It is most probable that the father is still living, and the verse should be translated, “what if my father should die?” The disciple is truly putting “commitment” to the test. This disciple’s request meets with a firm refusal. Jesus sees through the disciple’s request to the heart of the matter. The point is -- following Jesus takes precedence over family or other obligations. And the bottom line is – disciples of Jesus must have the right priorities in life…it is better to preach the gospel and give life to the spiritually dead than to wait for death of a family member in order to bury them.
Ed Skidmore shares, When Joseph Ton was a pastor in Romania some years ago, he was arrested by the secret police for publishing a sermon calling for the churches to refuse to submit to the Communist government’s demand for control over their ministries. When an official told him he must renounce his sermon, he replied, "No, sir! I won’t do that!" The official, surprised that anyone would respond so forcefully to the secret police, said, "Aren’t you aware that I can use force against you?" "Sir, let me explain that to you," Ton said. "You see, your supreme weapon is killing. My supreme weapon is dying. You know that my sermons are spread all over the country. When you kill me, I only sprinkle them with my blood. They will speak 10 times louder after that, because everybody will say, ’That preacher meant it because he sealed it with his blood.’ So go on, sir, kill me. When you kill me, I win the supreme victory." The secret police released him, knowing his martyrdom would be far more of a problem than his sermon. Ton is living testimony to the truth of Paul’s words, written from prison. “Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly. It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so in love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel (Philippians 1:12-16, NIV).
This type of devotion…the type of devotion that marked Joseph Ton’s life and ministry…is mostly foreign to us, as we typically do not have to face this type of challenge when it comes to our faith. I recognize that this is a message difficult to discern and understand. I turn to some thoughts from a fellow preacher-man to offer some appropriate follow-up. Steve Pankey shares this – Concerning stories like this, and the one concerning the Rich, Young Ruler, he says (a bit tongue-in-cheek), “Oh, Jesus wasn’t talking universally, but rather giving very specific directions to just one would-be disciple who had a bit too much pride and a whole lot of money.” This is the easiest and best way to preach that story. It is a nice, safe interpretation because it doesn’t demand anything of us except to shake our heads and say, “Boy, I’m glad I’m not like that guy.” Preaching devotion to Jesus in this way has become something of the American Way as Christianity continues a three decades’ long shrinking process and the Church tries its best to “sell” discipleship as easy, fun, and a free eternal life insurance policy. The lie is…that faith in Jesus is easy. Worse yet, when we water “the faith” down enough, the Church has nothing to say when the going gets tough…You can’t be a disciple if you don’t give up everything you’ve got. Maybe he is talking about stuff. Maybe Jesus actually means we should live in communes and share everything. Or maybe, and quite frankly…hopefully…it means that we shouldn’t be tied to all of our stuff. Maybe as long as we are chasing bigger houses, better cars, or the latest Apple release, we can’t really be focused on Christ…maybe as long as are paying attention to what the Jones’ are up to, we can’t be paying attention to what God is wanting to do in and through and for us. Maybe discipleship really means hating everything of this world and living a single-minded life of devotion to the one who came to save us from our distractions, who set us free from sin and death, and who calls us to follow him…through the good and bad, and even through the valley of the shadow of death. If it sounds difficult, it is. If it sounds foolish, it is, but…each of us has a choice. We can take up our cross and follow Jesus toward life, or we can turn around and walk away unhappy.” I will say this -- if what outsiders see in us Christians today is primarily “affluence” from the world and little “influence” for the Lord, then why would they look any further? Yet, it is not supposed to be simple…it is not supposed to be easy. Jesus had no foxhole…He had no place of refuge. He relied on His faith and trust in His father. This is all that He needed. Truthfully, it is all that we need.