Matthew 8:14-22: Come and Die
January 20, 2021
TODAY'S BIBLE READING:
We see now the beauty and the sacrifice of following Jesus. First, we meet Jesus among a family—Peter’s family. Jesus is not distant from the earthly realities of life, he does not sneer or act superior towards the needs of family, child, nursery, and mother-in-law. He was welcome in families and among family members. Devotion to Christ also does not mean a lack of care for those nearest and dearest to us. Peter cared for his family and his mother-in-law. Followers of Jesus, disciples like Peter, are to have a similar care for their families.
Jesus sees the situation and acts upon the need (8:14-15). He touches her. We have seen Jesus healing at a mere word, now we see him healing at a simple touch. The touch of love, the touch of care, and the touch of healing. Often people are in need of human companionship and a simple pure touch, a laying on of hands, can communicate much that long lectures do not communicate. But Jesus does more than touch; he heals. This healing then leads to multiple healings (8:16). Jesus is doing this as he goes about in his earthly life constantly saving sinners, healing the sick, all in fulfillment of what the Messiah would do according to Isaiah 53:4 (8:17).
Well, such actions inevitably draw a crowd. Astonishingly for us who so long to be popular, Jesus is not satisfied by mere numerical success. He is wary of the crowd, because who he is as Messiah is not yet clear in their minds. It must be defined carefully in his core group of disciples before the message of the gospel can be taken to all nations—to crowds upon crowds—as he will commission them to do in a special way at the end of the gospel in Matthew 28:16-20.
As Jesus is getting ready to depart and put some distance between him and the crowd (8:18), a scribe, someone learned in the Scriptures and who was skilled in writing and interpreting the Scriptures, offers himself to follow Jesus. He is signing up to the team, following him as a disciple would a Rabbi of old. But Jesus is always ready to make sure that potential recruits understand the full ramifications of the situation; to follow Jesus is not an easy ride. “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (8:20). Because we instead are so quick to accept any sign of spiritual interest as genuine, without urging people to count the cost, we have people who appear to be real regenerate born again Christians who are by their actions denying the Christ they claim to follow. To truly follow Jesus means at the least to have as a principal commitment that you will follow him even if your house is taken away, even if someone throws you in jail for your commitment to Christ. Following Jesus demands that kind of commitment to him as the Lord.
The second person, verse 21, who wants to follow Jesus receives what appears to be an even sterner reply. “Leave the dead to bury their own dead” (8:22). Countless words have been written to attempt to interpret this saying of Jesus. What could he have meant? Did he really expect the man to leave his dead father’s body rotting at the side of the road? Surely not. In my view, Jesus is setting out his call to discipleship in contrast to the call of discipleship of the Old Testament. He is saying that he is greater than the Rabbis at the time (in the first challenge), and now greater than the great prophets of the Old Testament. So when Elijah calls Elisha to follow him—as his disciple—Elisha says something fairly similar to this man. He wants to say goodbye to his family first. Elijah makes it clear that he is allowed to do this, “What have I with you?” In other words, he is not making a greater claim on Elisha than the claim of family (1 Kings 19:19-21). But Jesus is making a greater claim, so that this man cannot first wait until his father goes through late stage retirement (in our terms), and has the will disbursement appropriately organized, before he follows Jesus. No, it is now, and it cannot wait.
The first picture in this section, with Jesus healing and saving, shows how much it is worth it to follow Jesus. The second picture, with these men apparently wanting to follow Jesus but needing to count the cost, shows how much it will take to follow Jesus. As Bonhoeffer so famously put it: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Josh Moody (Ph.D., University of Cambridge) is the senior pastor of College Church in Wheaton, IL., president and founder of God Centered Life Ministries, and author of several books including How the Bible Can Change Your Life and John 1-12 For You.
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