Following Jesus (Matt 8:18-22)

Before we get to Matthew 9 next week, there’s one story we skipped over in chapter 8. As we’ve seen Jesus healing lepers, responding to the faith of outsiders, calming actual storms, and driving out demons – we’ve been asking how should we respond? That’s what today’s brief story is all about, nestled in amongst all these stories of Jesus doing miraculous things.

 8:18-22 When Jesus saw the crowd around him, he gave orders to cross to the other side of the lake. Then a teacher of the law came to him and said, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” Another disciple said to him, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus told him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.” 

These two short responses of Jesus to would-be followers show us what it means to really follow the Son of God. And it goes against the cultural values not only of the first century AD, but also the twenty-first. A culture that sees material security as most important, and finds it hard to give it up in order to pursue eternal security. The first guy thinks he wants to follow Jesus all the way. “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” So Jesus asks him whether he understands what “all the way” really entails. It means giving up the pursuit of material comfort and security as the focus of life, and instead seeking first Jesus and his kingdom.

8:20 Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”

Or to put it in more familiar terminology: our neighbours have dens (plus four bedrooms, two and a half bathrooms, formal lounge/dining, with a rumpus out the back), our workmates have nest eggs (in a diversified, medium-risk, managed portfolio), but the Son of Man has no retirement savings plan. Following Jesus means we stop chasing after what everyone else is chasing, and chase after things of eternal value. Now it doesn’t mean we all have to be literally homeless to follow Jesus. Two billion homeless people wouldn’t be an effective global church; it’d be a humanitarian crisis of… unbiblical proportions. “We’d love to help the poor, but we’re all a little busy dying of cholera at the moment.” And when you look at the story of how the gospel spread in its earliest days, it was about a bunch of itinerant preachers like Paul who’d given up their homes, being supported by a bunch of people who used their homes – as meeting places, as accommodation for these traveling preachers. People who used their network of family and business contacts so that gospel workers could travel far & wide. in an age before western union money transfers and hotels. So it’s not necessarily about being literally homeless. No, it’s more about our attitude to our home and& our wealth. Being ready to leave any of it behind, for the sake of the gospel. Being ready to use it to help others, rather than to store up for ourselves. Treating our earthly home as the temporary accommodation it really is. I think that’s one of the biggest obstacles to gospel ministry in the West today: Christians forgetting that their homes and wealth are temporary. We buy into the surrounding culture that tells us to keep working so we can keep upgrading to the bigger and better house we deserve. Keep buying more stuff. Keep stockpiling more for those rainy days ahead. How many more gospel workers might there be among the unreached people groups of our world if followers of Jesus remembered that he had no place to lay his head? Except in a boat during a storm. The second person who thinks he’s prepared to follow Jesus makes what seems to be a perfectly reasonable request:

8:21-22 Another disciple said to him, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus told him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.”

Harsh. A bit like a boss who complains about giving you a day off to go to the funeral. What’s Jesus doing here? Commentators are divided. It may be intended as a shocking overstatement, like Jesus’ calls to gouge out your eye or cut off your hand. Trying to show how following Jesus comes before everything. Even something as significant as grieving for your family. Even something that was required by the law: honour your father and mother. Or it may be that the guy’s father wasn’t actually dead yet. “First, let me go and bury my father. It’ll take some time, as I’m still in the interview phase for a suitable hit man.” No, not like that. It may refer to his obligation to look after his aging parents until their death. Then – once he’s free from any family obligations – then he’ll leave everything and follow Jesus. To which Jesus says, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.” That is, leave those who are spiritually dead to worry about earthly matters. This is more important. This takes priority over even the most significant of human relationships. This can’t wait at the end of your priority list, once you’ve done everything else. Either way you take it, this speaks to us today, does it not? The cultural pressure to put family first – and to put them first in the way everyone else does. As Christians, we can still buy into the idea that we owe our children a certain level of opportunity. A certain standard in education. In music lessons. In clothing. In holidays. In birthday parties. In smartphones. And so we work even harder to provide all this stuff. And then there’s the school involvement. Don’t get me wrong: it’s important for us to be actively involved in our children’s education. But seriously, when people ask me what I do for a living, I now tell them that I work as a part of a two person support team for my children’s educational and social experiences – and I lecture in New Testament on the side when I get some free time. Assignments, permission notes, oddly-scheduled sports practices – it’s a full-time job keeping track of it all. (Sometimes I long for a return to the days where we only had to literally wipe their bottoms, as the metaphorical wiping seems much more complicated.) Our culture can make our children our idols, if we’re not careful. Now I say this to people in my stage of life, but from what I’ve seen, it applies in a similar way to grandparents. Particularly where both parents are often working and grandparents have greater expectations put on them. Now hear me correctly: Christian parents and grandparents need to be involved in their children’s lives, being interested and engaged; being supportive and empowering. But Christian parents also need to show their children that they’re not the centre of their universe. God is. You see it happen to people slowly over time. Those whose lives were all about serving God in their university years get a job, and it starts to tail off a bit, quite understandably. Then the kids come along, and life as they knew it ends. Again, understandable. But the problem is, when it never starts up again. “I’ll follow you, but first, let me get my kids through school and uni, and married off. Then I’ll follow you.” Twenty years or so later, and they’ve forgotten what it’s even like to put God first. If we follow Jesus, we want to pass on a different legacy. One that demonstrates the primacy of gospel ministry. Makes it a part of family life right from the beginning. I was fortunate enough to have that modelled for me. Some of my earliest memories are of my sister and me as youth group mascots, aged probably 2 and 5. Hanging out in our dressing gowns for the first bit of the Friday night programme my parents led, before being sent off to bed or packed off to grandparents. Sure, I had to participate in what – with hindsight – were embarrassing folk guitar sing-alongs, but hey, it was the 70s, everyone was doing it. (I didn’t inhale.) In my teens, we were involved in a church plant. Not just my parents, but our whole family. And at no point did it ever occur to me that we might have been missing out because of my parents’ commitment to ministry. It left a legacy of gospel service that was part of my journey into pastoral ministry. Now everyone’s story will be different, but you can see it can be a dangerous legacy to leave. Again, it’s a cost of following Jesus that needs to be counted. If you model this to your kids and grandkids,  they might end up in full-time ministry. They might end up going far away, among unreached people groups. They might end up paying the ultimate price for the sake of the gospel. If you model this as a family, then your kids might not be around to bury you. As hard as that would be, nothing would make me more satisfied as a parent: to know that my children had embraced God so fully, had followed Jesus so completely – that they were prepared to give up the den and the nest egg and the security of being around family – for the sake of the gospel. To follow anyone else like that, it’d be foolish. But to follow the one who heals the sick, who calms actual storms, who has power over the spirit world – to follow the one who conquered death and promises eternal life with him – isn’t that the only rational response?

To think about

What are you modelling? What kind of legacy do you want to leave?

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