Open Matthew 8:18-22.
Jesus had great sensitivity to people. Especially hurting people. But some of the language he used for gospel invitations would make you cringe.
Like, “teach people to obey my commands” (Matthew 28:19). People don’t like being commanded; they like to make their own decisions. Surely we’d be more successful if we just asked them to invite Jesus into their hearts, for a personal makeover.
There was this scribe who came up to Jesus and said, “Teacher, I’ll follow you wherever you go” (8:19). How good is that? Scribes didn’t do that. They knew the Old Testament intimately, but they often weren’t keen on Jesus. So here’s a guy making a well-informed commitment to follow Jesus, wherever it takes him. Most pastors would be over the moon to have this guy’s response.
But Jesus pushes back. Effectively, he says, “You don’t realize what you’re committing yourself to. I don’t think you’ve got what it takes. Go away and reconsider” (compare 8:20). Ouch. Not great technique?
It gets worse.
Another guy is already one of Jesus’ disciples. He’s probably the oldest son in his family, so he asks his Master for leave to go and arrange his father’s funeral (8:21). Outrageously, Jesus refuses his request. More than insensitive, Jesus’ reply sounds downright rude: “Leave the dead to bury their own dead” (8:22).
Some try to get Jesus off the hook by suggesting that perhaps the guy’s Dad hadn’t died yet, that “to bury the father” meant to take care of family business. You might find an example of that somewhere in an Arab culture, but it’s drawing a long bow to extrapolate that to Galilee in Jesus’ time.
Others try to get Jesus off the hook by spiritualizing his words: leave those who are spiritually dead to take care of those who are spiritually dead. That’s very bad theology (advising people not to care for those who are spiritually dead), not to mention the jarring disconnect with the context: the guy didn’t say his father was spiritually dead, but that he needed to be buried.
Jesus’ statement sounds macabre. Only in a raging battle would it make sense to command someone to leave the dead to bury the dead.
So, did Jesus lose this disciple? Probably. Surely we could do a better job of selling people the gospel message. How about some popular music, with a good light show to load up people’s senses? Then get a motivational speaker to convince them they could fulfil their potential much better with faith. Then reel ’em in with a moment of decision, where they can buy in simply by raising their hand. We could make it so easy, with no expectations or demands on their life. We could even ask the crowd to close their eyes, since it’s just a personal decision and we wouldn’t want them publicly embarrassed.
Yep. In the last 200 years, we’ve finally developed what Jesus was missing: a response mechanism that’s sophisticated, slick and sensitive. It’s so much easier to get results now than with his approach.
I mean, we wouldn’t want people to go away with the idea that following Jesus would so change their priorities that they could end up homeless. We wouldn’t want people to think following Jesus would take priority over every other duty in life.
When Jesus spoke of lacking accommodation, he meant it literally: he and his followers slept rough as they travelled from place to place. Perhaps his comments about death also reflected awareness of the final battle they would face in Jerusalem.
There’s something honest about Jesus’ picture of discipleship as suffering and struggle. He called people to give their lives for the kingdom of God. Do you think Aussies could handle that kind of honesty?
What others are saying
Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 274–275:
First, following Jesus may cost a disciple even the most basic security such as a place to live (8:18–20). … Second, following Jesus takes precedence over all social obligations, even those family obligations one’s society and religion declare to be ultimate (8:21–22).
Scot McKnight, The End of Evangelicalism 5 (2012), summarizing David Fitch, The End of Evangelicalism? Discerning a New Faithfulness for Mission (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011):
Fitch’s big claim is this: the obsession in evangelicalism with making The Decision has cut off Christians from the necessity of personal transformation and from ecclesial robustness. In other words, as long as you’ve had the experience you don’t really have to change and you don’t really have to see your life in the context of a church life.
John Stott, The Radical Disciple: Wholehearted Christian Living (Nottingham, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 2010), 137:
Basic to all discipleship is our resolve not only to address Jesus with polite titles, but to follow his teaching and obey his commands.
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