How would you respond to a volunteer eager to be part of the church? Look at Jesus’ response to would-be followers in Matthew 8:18–22.
Why do you want to follow Jesus? Motives for following Jesus vary. Large crowds followed Jesus, Matthew 8:16; 8:1; 4:23-25. Motives surely were varied. Some came with true faith (8:10; 9:2). Many came seeking healing for themselves or others. While this is a legitimate reason, it alone is not enough. (Note the popularity of the health and wealth gospel today.) Some may have been simply curious, or caught up in the excitement. Others may have had motives of self-advancement (was that true of Judas?). Matthew challenges you to look at your motives for following Jesus.
Jesus leaves this crowd. Jesus’ escape across the sea may simply be for a break from the overwhelming demands. But Matthew might focusing on this crowd. Jesus’ earlier response of compassionate healing seems contrasted with his leaving. Note how Matthew places the interaction with the two would-be disciples after the decision to leave, but before the account of the crossing. The setting is self-consciously done, and differs from that of Luke 9:57–60. Matthew may be suggesting that the superficial desire to follow motivated Jesus’ departure.
Recognize who Jesus is. Jesus calls himself the Son of Man. This is the first use of the term in Matthew. It is always a self-designation by Jesus. The designation does not refer primarily to Jesus’ humanity or even his humiliation. It is far more than simply “a man,” or “myself.” We may associate the term with Jesus’ humanity and suffering (partly because of the setting in which Jesus uses it here), but the term itself does not imply humiliation. Jesus picks a description based on the glory of Daniel 7:13,14 to identify himself. The reference to the Ancient of Days, to the clouds (theophanic accompaniments in the Old Testament), and to the dominion given him all point to his glorious majesty. Jesus may use this term because it was relatively unused in his day, and did not have the mistaken nationalistic overtones of “Messiah” or “Savior.” “So then Jesus chose this name for himself to make known: (1) that he was not just the Son of David and King of Israel but the Son of Man, connected with all humans and giving his life as a ransom for many: (2) that he nonetheless occupied an utterly unique place among all humans, because he had descended from above, from heaven, lived in constant communion with the Father during his stay on earth, and had the power to forgive sins, to bestow eternal life, to distribute to his own all the goods of he kingdom; (3) that he could not grasp this power by violence, as the Jews expected their Messiah to do, but that as the Servant of the Lord, he had to suffer and die for his people; and (4) that precisely by taking this road he would attain to the glory of the resurrection and the ascension, the elevation to God’s right hand, and the coming again for judgment.” (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 3, pages 250–251).
The Son of Man is homeless! One of man’s basic needs is shelter, and most of us would go to some length to secure that. Even the foxes have their humble dens, and the birds have their nests. However, the Son of Man has no place to lay his head. Jesus was not attached to the things of this world. His goal in life was not to become a millionaire by 30! — or even to accumulate the things that you might consider basic. Rather, the glorious Son of Man came to this earth to be identified with his lost and suffering people. “In the saying that contrasts the shelterless Son of man with the foxes and birds the contrast loses its point if Jesus is set over against these animals merely as a man, generically, and even more so if He is set over against them as a weak, humiliated subject per se. The very point of the saying obviously is that the highest of the high, according to the name borne by Him, should nevertheless have to do without such common creature comforts as even foxes and birds enjoy.” (Geerhardus Vos, The Self-Disclosure of Jesus, p. 237). Ultimately, the Son of Man came to die for his people. John 19:30 speaks of Jesus laying his head, using the same language as Matthew 8:20. There it is translated, “bowed.” The one place the Son of Man found to lay his head was on the cross, giving up his life for you, his people. Through that humiliation and suffering he enters his glory.
Follow Jesus! Count the cost. To follow the Son of Man does not mean immediate gratification of your desires. It is not a short cut to wealth and health. Jesus is challenging you to examine the cost before you commit to following him. He is not interested in a superficial, selfish attendant. Put Jesus ahead even of your family ties! The request to be allowed to bury the father sounds strange. Don’t think of a dead body laid out, and only needing to be interred. Rather, look at this against the background of the Middle Eastern family, in which the children seek their parents’ counsel and have the responsibility of caring for their parents. The expression refers to caring for the father until his death–then the man will follow Jesus. Jesus requires that you put allegiance to him ahead of everything else. (Middle Eastern students have been known to go pale at recognizing the implications of Jesus’ demand.)
Respond to Jesus’ command to follow him. “Let the dead bury the dead” may sound harsh to our ears, but Jesus is simply claiming that your relationship with him must come first. He will not be satisfied with a qualified commitment. Jesus, speaking with all the authority of the glorious Son of Man summons you to follow him. Notice that Matthew does not tell you what the response of either would be follower was. Speculation has gone in both directions. However, he may well leave that question unanswered so that you focus, not on what happened to these two, but on your response to the Son of Man. The Son of Man calls you, not just to accompany him when it suits you, not just to identify with his name, but to live as one of his people. He calls you to be united with him in his sufferings, if you hope also to share in his glory.
Don’t just ask how you would respond to an eager volunteer. Don’t just get caught up in the response (or lack thereof) of these two followers. Rather, listen to the command of the Son of Man and respond by following him.