Commentary on Matthew 8:18-22
There are times when Jesus goes out of his way to meet the crowds. On one occasion we are told he was filled with compassion because he saw them as sheep without a shepherd. But today, he gives orders to cross the lake apparently to avoid the crowds pressing in on him.
The crowds represent two kinds of people: those in real need of teaching and healing and those who are simply driven by a kind of curiosity for the unusual. Jesus is not particularly interested in the second kind; they represent a false interest in Jesus. For them he is just a sensation, a wonder-worker, ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’.
Similarly, when a scribe approaches Jesus and says, “Teacher, wherever you go I will come after you.” It seems like a generous offer but Jesus reminds the man of just what that may entail. “Foxes have lairs, birds in the sky their nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
To follow Jesus means, like him, to be ready to have nothing of one’s own. As Jesus said earlier in the Sermon on the Mount, we cannot at the same time serve two masters. To be with Jesus is to accept a situation where we may have nothing in the way of material possessions. Our security will be elsewhere.
We do not know whether the scribe took up the challenge or not. It does not really matter. Jesus’ words are recorded mainly for us to hear them. What do I think when I hear them? Have I made the choice between having Jesus and having things? Or do I think I can have both? Do I want to have both?
Another person, described as being already a disciple, asks for permission to go and bury his father first before following Jesus. It seems a fairly reasonable request and Jesus’ reply sounds rather harsh. “Follow me, and let the dead bury their dead.” Both the Jewish and Hellenistic world regarded this as a filial obligation of the highest importance. (I knew a man who asked to delay his becoming a Catholic until he could give his father a Buddhist burial; in the event he never did become a Christian.)
There are two ways we can understand this reply. In one case, the man is asking to postpone his following of Jesus until his father dies and he can bury him. But to follow Jesus is to enter a new family with a new set of obligations. It is not that the man should not honour his father but, in the meantime, there are other things of much greater importance that need to be done. In the new family, of which his father is just one member, there are more pressing obligations. It is another way of Jesus letting us know that our following of him has to be unconditional. We cannot say, “I will follow you if…” or “I will follow you when I am ready…” When he calls we have, like the first disciples, be ready to drop our nets, our boats and even our family members.
Another way of understanding Jesus’ words is to see his call as a call to a way of life. Those who want to go their own self-seeking ways belong to the spiritually dead. Leave the burial of the dead to them. The rituals of society, including burial, have their place, an important place but for Jesus the call to the Kingdom represents a commitment to a more important set of values.
We must put all these statements in their context. They make clear that following Jesus involves a radical commitment but it does not mean that that we act in ways that are inhumane or unreasonable. Soon after Peter and Andrew had abandoned their boats and their nets to follow Jesus, we find Jesus in their house tending to their mother-in-law who had fallen sick (Mark 1:29-31). There was a time when some religious sisters were not allowed to attend a family funeral. That has now changed – and rightly. At the same time, the call of Jesus still involves a total commitment.