[These are reflections from my morning quiet time with God today.]
Look: “Another disciple said to him, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’” (Matthew 8:21)
When Luke recounts this incident, he says that it’s “a man” who asks Jesus to allow him to bury his father before following Jesus. But Matthew tells us that this man is a “disciple.”
A disciple, a mathetes in the Greek in which the New Testament was written, is a follower, a student of the way of life that Jesus reveals.
This man then is more than just a “man” Jesus encounters. This is someone who supposedly already believes in and is following Jesus, a part of Christ’s Church, the body of Christ, like me. Yet, he wants to delay following Jesus.
Listen: People may find Jesus’ response to the man off-putting. Matthew says: “But Jesus told him, Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.’” (Matthew 8:22)
Burial customs in first-century Judea were the same as those practiced in modern, secular Israel and among Arabs. The body was buried as soon as possible, within a day. The man is asking Jesus to wait while he takes charge of burying his father.
It is possible for us to follow Jesus without going to other towns, countries, or peoples. While the apostle Paul carried the gospel to Turkey and Greece, for example, people like James stayed at home to carry the gospel to their own people. Mark 5:18-19 says that a man begged Jesus to allow him to travel on with Jesus after Jesus had healed him, but Jesus refused his request. “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” (Mark 5:19) The man was to evangelize his own community and people. That was what following Jesus meant for him.
I’ve had several people from Living Water tell me that they feel almost guilty for not going on an annual mission trip to Haiti in which a few of our folks participate. When I ask them if they feel guilty because they believe that God has called them go to Haiti, their perspective usually changes. “No,” they say. “That’s not what I feel God calls me to do.” “Then you shouldn’t feel guilty,” I tell them. The Christian’s call is to follow Jesus wherever He may lead us.
Apparently, the man Jesus encounters in Matthew 8:21, unlike those Living Water folks who have honestly wrestled with God’s call in their lives, is making excuses. Jesus refuses to accept excuses. And, in this instance, He seems to know that this disciple must be taken from his familiar surroundings in order to be broken open to true discipleship, to truly following Jesus.
Respond: Even disciples make excuses for not doing what Jesus is calling them to do.
I know that I do and I ask for forgiveness in Jesus’ name, Lord.
And sometimes, “disciples” who seem faithful may only be making a big show of the sacrifices they’re making to “follow” Jesus. I suspect that this is exactly what the disciple in Matthew 8:21 is being called out for by Jesus. “Disciples” like this may not be following Jesus at all.
Jesus once mentioned people who loved to say long prayers in public in order to be seen as pious. Those people got the reward they were seeking, Jesus said: the attention and commendation of people, the popular perception that these attention-hogs were actually faithful worshipers of God. The only reward a Christian seeks is Jesus Himself. Like Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, mentioned in the gospel of Luke, our call is to daily choose the one thing that’s needed, Jesus Himself.
To follow Jesus means to quit trying to prove myself, to live in the reality that I am saved by God’s grace through our faith in Jesus alone. It’s then that He gives me the freedom to follow wherever He leads, near or far, and simply be in His presence.
Lord Jesus, today, help me to live in the freedom of Your grace. Amen
[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]