Potential, fixable followers.

by K.W. Leslie, 19 October

These aren’t people who didn’t make the cut. They, like all of us, need work.

Matthew 8.18-22 • Luke 9.57-62

In Mark and Luke, after Jesus taught his parables he crossed the lake, and had to stop the weather. In Matthew, Jesus made these comments just before boarding the boat. Whereas in Luke, Jesus made ’em enroute to Jerusalem to die.

If you’re the sort who goes absolutely nuts because gospel passages won’t sync up as perfectly as you’d like, tough: The gospels’ authors had entirely different priorities than you do. They weren’t trying to follow a timeline; they were trying to bunch themes together. It’s entirely likely none of these sayings took place at the same time; if only life could be so neat. More likely they were three different guys on three different occasions. All of them prospective followers, and all of them not entirely ready for God’s kingdom. All of ’em object lessons in case we’re not ready: Get ready!

Matthew only brings up two of them, but don’t fret. I’ll cover all three. Starting with Jesus’s teaching about foxes, birds, and the Son of Man.

Matthew 8.18-20 KWL
18 Jesus, seeing a crowd round him, ordered his students to go to the far side of the lake.
19 But one of the scribes, approaching Jesus, told him, “Teacher, I’ll follow you anyplace you may go.”
20 Jesus told him, “Foxes have holes, and wild birds nests.
The Son of Man hasn’t anyplace he can lay his head.”
Luke 9.57-58 KWL
57 While they went on the road, someone told Jesus, “I’ll follow you anyplace you may go.”
58 Jesus told him, “Foxes have holes, and wild birds nests.
The Son of Man hasn’t anyplace he can lay his head.”

Christians get confused by this statement, and produce confusing teachings about it. Because we self-centeredly try to identify with this guy, whom Matthew identifies as a scribe. We wanna follow Jesus wherever he may go. Thing is, we don’t mean it as literally as this scribe does.

See, Jesus is currently in heaven, and we‘re on earth. We’re only “following” him in the sense that we’re doing as he taught. Well, sorta doing as he taught. Well, doing a few things he taught. Yeah, we kinda suck. But we’re trying, right? Hope so. Anyway, we’re not literally walking behind Jesus as he walks the land.

Whereas this scribe was literally planning to follow Jesus. If Jesus got in a boat, the scribe’d get in the boat too. If Jesus climbed a hill, the scribe wanted to be right behind him. If Jesus took a dump, guess who’d be holding the wipes. “Wherever you may go” was an earnest promise: He’d follow Jesus anyplace.

Then Jesus informed him he wasn’t going anyplace.

Wait, what? Yeah, read the scriptures again. Foxes have holes. Birds have nests. Jesus had nothing. He didn’t own a home; he lived with family. He didn’t own a boat; they belonged to his students. If you literally follow Jesus the Nazarene around first-century Israel, you’re gonna have to come up with your own accommodations. Like a tent, or relatives in every city who might give you shelter.

Jesus wasn’t trying to discourage this scribe; that’s not his character. But it sure is our character. That’s why to this day I hear preachers claim Jesus was trying to discourage the guy: “You only think you’re ready to follow me anyplace. You’re not. I’m gonna die, son. You haven’t the stones to follow me that far.” Jesus had no patience for namby-pambly overzealous followers, and wanted to knock this guy down a few pegs. Again, it’s not who Jesus is: He works with plenty of overzealous people. Like he did with the first 12 apostles. Like he does with many of us. He fixes that character flaw in us. He doesn’t drive us away because we’re not yet perfect; he does grace, not karma.

So that’s the character flaw we demonstrate whenever we treat this guy like Jesus tried to give him the brush-off. “You’ll follow me anywhere?—not after I tell you what you’re in for.” You realize Jesus’s statement isn’t gonna deter anybody but the Prosperity Gospel folks, who are kinda figuring if they follow Jesus long enough they’d get a mansion and a yacht. Everybody else is gonna respond, “So it’s gonna be rough? I don’t like that… but you’ve got eternal life, so who else am I gonna follow?” Jn 6.68 And off we willingly—if a little more cautiously—go.

Discouragement isn’t Jesus’s character. He discourages evil, sin, and unbelief. But he doesn’t discourage people who wanna follow him, even when we don’t always have the best of intentions, even when we attempt to attach silly conditions. You wanna follow him? Come and follow him!

And if we’re gonna follow him, Jesus wants us to know what we’re in for. He doesn’t sugar-coat his kingdom. Evangelists might; they’ll claim, “Come to Jesus and he’ll cure all your problems!”—as if Jesus is some kind of essential oil. Jesus doesn’t fudge the truth; he is truth. Jn 14.6 He doesn’t trick people into his kingdom. It’s not gonna be easy. It is gonna be true.

Burying one’s father.

Potential follower number two. In Matthew the guy’s already identified as a student. (Clement of Alexandria even speculated it was Philip. Based on what, I dunno.) In Luke, Jesus straight-up tells the guy to follow him. He’s got big plans for the guy. So in both gospels, this isn’t somebody whom Jesus grows frustrated with and dismisses because of his lame-ass excuse. We would do that. Jesus would never.

This student has one little holdup. He wants to bury his father.

Matthew 8.21-22 KWL
21 Another of Jesus’s students told him, “Master, allow me to go away first, till I bury my father.”
22 Jesus told him, “Follow me. Let the dead bury their own dead.”
Luke 9.59-60 KWL
59 Jesus told another person, “Follow me.”
The person said, “Master, allow my going away first, till I bury my father.”
60 Jesus told him, “Let the dead bury their own dead. You go off and proclaim God’s kingdom.”

In my translation, I added the “till I” to both gospels. The text literally says “Allow me to go away first,” or “Allow my going away first”—depending on the gospel—“to bury my father.” If you translated it literally, and many bibles do, you’d get the idea this student’s father had recently died, and the student simply wanted to attend the funeral. And how heartless of Jesus to tell him, “Meh; he’s dead. Phooey on the dead. Follow me.”

If you know Jesus’s character, you should know better than to accept an interpretation which violates his character. But again, same as the teaching about foxes, birds, and the Son of Man, you’re gonna find Christians who insist Jesus is indeed kind of a jerk. That the kingdom is so important, we need to prioritize it above absolutely everything, including loved ones. Which is true. Lk 14.26 But does this mean we gotta do it unkindly? Absolutely not.

If Jesus ever appears to be unkind, it’s because he’s getting our attention in order to make a point. Sometimes he does that. Here, he doesn’t; it’s not one of those cases.

In reality the student wanted to “bury his father” in the sense of, “I’ll follow you once my father has died.”

Most commentators know this, and wanna give the student the benefit of the doubt: Maybe his father’s really old, or on his deathbed, and hasn’t much longer to live. Or at least the student thinks his father hasn’t much longer to live. Esau and Jacob once thought this of their father Isaac, which is why Jacob stole Isaac’s “deathbed” blessing from Esau. Ge 27 Of course it turns out the old fart managed to live another 80 years, Ge 35.27-29 ’cause you never do know how long you have. Especially since your typical first-century rabbinical student tended to be in his teens. Seriously, waiting to “bury my father” could easily take decades.

Now, wanting to wait till your father was dead meant one of two things: Either you never really did wanna follow Jesus, and this was a lame stalling tactic. Or it meant—particularly in that culture—you didn’t entirely have your father’s approval to follow Jesus. You’d follow Jesus in a heartbeat, much like teenage girls would follow Justin Bieber. But Dad wasn’t convinced Jesus is Messiah, and thought you a silly impetuous boy, and in order to please Dad you decided to give up on your dreams till Dad changed his mind. Or you helped him change his mind. Or he passed on.

I’m guessing Jesus figured out it was the second thing. Hence his line “Let the dead bury their own dead”: Your father is spiritually comatose, and you need to come away from all that. God’s kingdom awaits.

“Family first” is a handy political slogan, but it’s not at all how the kingdom functions. God first. Family’s gotta get in line. If they can’t, at least we are to get in line, and resist the temptation to turn ’em into idols that we’re willing to ditch the kingdom over. If they can’t approve of our Christianity, that’s on them. I’m not at all saying we should be unkind to them, nor stop loving and honoring them, nor especially resort to cult-like extremes of cutting them out of our lives altogether. How’re we gonna lead them to Jesus if they think Jesus authorizes any such awful behavior?

But again: God first. And if they can’t handle that, we kinda have to let the dead bury their own dead, and shake the dust off our feet as we go proclaim God’s kingdom.

Steering the plow properly.

Potential follower number three. Much like the student who wanted to stall his ministry till his father died, this one has a house he wanted to get in order first. However long that might take. How hard it is for the wealthy to get into God’s kingdom. Mt 19.23

Luke 9.61-62 KWL
61 Another person said, “I’ll follow you Master; first allow me to set those in my house in order.”
62 Jesus told him, “Nobody who steers a plow while looking backwards is ready for God’s kingdom.”

It’s the looking backwards bit which tends to hang up Christians. Looking back is a no-no. Just ask Lot’s wife. Ge 19.26 Forget what’s behind; strain for what’s ahead. Pp 3.13-14 ’Cause runners who look back slow down!

Okay. If you know any actual farmers, their plows tend to be attached to tractors, which are great ’cause you can plow more than a dozen furrows at once. But in the first century (and plenty of centuries since), farmers hooked a plow up to oxen, donkeys, horses—and if too poor to own an animal, the farmer himself, or his wife or kids, would drag it while another person steered. Animals dragged it one furrow at a time. If farmers didn’t steer properly, their furrows might not be deep enough, nor straight enough. If the farmers kept glancing back… actually, that was fine. Because if they only looked forwards, and didn’t compare where they were going with where they’d been, their first furrow might not be all that straight. Might curve a bit. Or a lot.

But Jesus isn’t talking about the occasional glance back to make sure things are going as planned. He’s talking about a continual looking backwards. A farmer who isn’t even steering; who trusts the animals to steer themselves. And largely they will. It’s just that things won’t necessarily turn out as the farmer wishes.

Back to the guy who wished to set his house in order. Many translations have him say farewell or goodbye to it (KJV, NIV, ESV), which is another valid way of translating apotáxasthai/“to arrange for oneself.” It can also mean “to withdraw,” or even “to renounce”—suggesting the guy isn’t merely saying farewell, but denouncing all these possessions. Thing is, if this potential follower were denouncing his possessions, Jesus wouldn’t have responded as he did.

“To arrange for oneself” is probably the best way to interpret it: To set up that household so it can run itself, or so it’s in good hands, while you’re away. Thing is, too often when people make these sorts of arrangements, it’s because they intend to come back to it eventually. And God’s kingdom isn’t just a lifetime commitment: It’s an eternal commitment. ’Cause eternal life.

In all three instances, we have would-be followers who have some misperceptions about what following Jesus is like. And Jesus corrects all three of ’em. Kindly, I remind you: He still wanted ’em to follow him. He wants everyone to follow him. 2Pe 3.10 These misconceptions don’t disqualify them; Jesus can correct ’em. The only real problem is if they don’t care to be corrected.