Matthew 8:18–22 (ESV): The Cost of Following Jesus
In this passage, a couple of people approach Jesus, saying that they want to follow him, but he warns them that it’s not so simple.
First a scribe approaches, and tells Jesus that he’ll follow wherever Jesus goes, but Jesus tells him that, unlike foxes and birds, the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.
Then one of his disciples—it actually says “another of the disciples” (verse 21 (ESV)), which leads me to believe that the scribe was a disciple too—anyway, this other disciple asks Jesus for permission to go and bury his father, first, to which Jesus replies, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead” (verse 22 (ESV)).
The dual point of this passage is that following Jesus is not going to be easy—he didn’t even have a place to sleep, so how can his followers expect to have it easier than he did?—but that it’s also more important than anything else. (I was tempted to put that in bold, or italics; it’s more important than anything else. It’s more important than anything else!)
It’s interesting that this passage doesn’t tell us the response of the two men in question. Did the scribe follow Jesus anyway? Did the disciple follow Jesus? There is a parallel passage in Luke 9:57–62 (ESV), but that passage doesn’t specify either.
The startling part of this passage is the second man, whom Jesus tells to let the dead bury their own dead. Isn’t that a bit harsh? A bit cold, for the loving God of the Bible? Jesus’ point is simply that following him is more important than anything else; obviously we are to honour our parents, (e.g. Matthew 15:1–9 (ESV)), and we are to love our families, and we are to do what is right by them. But not even those things are more important than following Jesus. I also don’t believe that this person’s father is actually dead; I think he was probably near death (or sick), and the man was making an excuse to delay his following of Jesus. I mean, if the father was actually dead, the person wouldn’t be asking about it, he would have just gone; the funeral only takes a short period of time, and then it would be over, so it doesn’t seem to me that it would make sense to even ask the question of Jesus in the first place. But even if the father was already dead, and the person was simply going to take care of the actual funeral, I think it’s fair to say that Jesus’ response would have been, “follow me as you take care of the funeral.”
Although the hypothetical point is that nothing is more important than following Jesus—not even taking care of one’s family—it should also be noted that this is a hypothetical point; it’s not an either/or situation. Jesus isn’t saying that you can either follow him or you can love your family; loving him should cause you to love your family all the more, and all the more to do right by them. If anything, the more common scenario would be that a man who is not doing right by his family would get saved, and then become a better husband and father. Hypothetically, if there were an aspect of family life that would get in the way of following Jesus, then following him would be more important, but we shouldn’t take that point too far, and decide that once we become Christians we should leave our families behind. This is another reason leading me to believe that the man in this passage was more interested in procrastinating than he was in actually following Jesus. (Again, though, it’s interesting that his response is not mentioned here, so we don’t know if he was convinced by Jesus’ words or not.)