Reluctant Followers

18 Now when Jesus saw a crowd around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. 19 And a scribe came up and said to him, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” 20 And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 21 Another of the disciples said to him, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” 22 And Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.” – Matthew 8:18-22 ESV

Jesus delivered His sermon on the mount before a large crowd. And Matthew records that when “he came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him” (Matthew 8:1 ESV). Everywhere Jesus went, He tended to draw large crowds because of His words and miracles. They were amazed by the wisdom of His words and the obvious supernatural power behind the healings He performed. He had laid His hands on a man suffering from leprosy and left him thoroughly cleansed and whole. He had performed a long-distance healing, restoring a Centurion’s servant to perfect health. And with the touch of His hand, He had removed the fever from Peter’s mother-in-law.

Whether they fully understood who Jesus was, the crowds who followed Him were enamored by Him. And they found themselves wanting to spend more time with Him. So, Matthew provides a few cases involving those who felt the urge to hitch their wagon to Jesus’ train.

As His reputation spread, Jesus was occasionally forced to seek refuge from the constant press of the growing crowds. In this case, Jesus ordered His disciples to make preparations to sail to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. But before they could get the boat ready, “a scribe came up and said to him, Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go‘“ (Matthew 8:19 ESV).

This man, an expert in the religious laws of Israel, was expressing his intent to go with Jesus to the other side of the sea. He was enthusiastic and energetic in his response, indicating that he was ready and willing to follow Jesus anywhere. His reference to Jesus as a “teacher” was simply an acknowledgment that he viewed Jesus as a rabbi worthy of respect and honor.  He thought he could learn a lot from this very gifted man who had shared so many enlightening and insightful truths in His sermon the hillside.

But Jesus, having sensed what was in the man’s heart, responded, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20 ESV). In a sense, Jesus was warning this man that he had no idea what he was getting himself into. Following Jesus was not going to be a walk in the park. It most certainly would not be a series of sermon-on-the-mount moments where everyone sat at the feet of Jesus filling their heads with divine insights or enjoyed watching a steady diet of mind-boggling miracles.

Jesus was not saying that following Him would require a life of abject poverty, but that it would involve cost and a degree of commitment this man was unwilling to make. It would not be easy. This man had obviously missed the point that Jesus had made in His sermon.

“You can enter God’s Kingdom only through the narrow gate. The highway to hell is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way. But the gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it. – Matthew 7:13-14 NLT

Matthew does not provide us with the man’s response. But it seems safe to assume that the scribe did not end up a passenger in the boat that sailed to the other side of the sea. He most likely decided to walk away. And as Jesus’ ministry continued, that would become the normative pattern among the vast majority of those who followed Jesus. They would prove to be fair-weather followers. In fact, John records the following words of Jesus to His disciples, spoken as He watched the size of the crowds diminish.

At this point many of his disciples turned away and deserted him. Then Jesus turned to the Twelve and asked, “Are you also going to leave?” – John 6:66-67 NLT

Jesus wanted His disciples to know that following Him was not going to be without cost. At another point in His ministry, He delivered a blunt message to the masses who had become His “groupies,” following Him everywhere He went.

A large crowd was following Jesus. He turned around and said to them, “If you want to be my disciple, you must, by comparison, hate everyone else—your father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even your own life. Otherwise, you cannot be my disciple.  And if you do not carry your own cross and follow me, you cannot be my disciple. But don’t begin until you count the cost.” – Luke 14:25-28 NLT

And it’s interesting to note that a second “disciple,” who had heard what Jesus had said to the scribe, responded with a request for a delay. He was ready and willing to follow Jesus but just not able. He had some unfinished family affairs to take care of and, therefore, a legitimate excuse.

“Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” – Matthew 8:21 ESV

But Jesus wasn’t buying what this man was selling. There is a lot of debate among biblical commentators whether this man’s father was already dead or if the man was simply using the future death of his father as an excuse to delay his full commitment to discipleship. Matthew provides us with no insight into the matter. But Jesus responded, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead” (Matthew 8:22 ESV).

This response by Jesus may come across as flippant or callous to us, but it seems that Jesus is trying to establish a hierarchy of priorities for this man’s life. This disciple expressed a desire to follow Jesus, but there were other things that took precedence in his life. Jesus would later describe these kinds of things as “the worries of life.”

“The seed that fell among the thorns represents those who hear God’s word, but all too quickly the message is crowded out by the worries of this life and the lure of wealth, so no fruit is produced.” – Matthew 13:22 NLT

To the first man, Jesus described true discipleship as costly and requiring a commitment. In this man’s case, it was a matter of priorities. He was letting temporal, earthly concerns get in the way of eternal pursuits.  Once again, we have a case of a disciple failing to have heard or comprehended what Jesus had taught in His recent sermon.

“That is why I tell you not to worry about everyday life—whether you have enough food and drink, or enough clothes to wear. Isn’t life more than food, and your body more than clothing?” – Matthew 6:25 NLT

“So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’ These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.” – Matthew 6:31-33 NLT

Jesus was in no way diminishing the care that one should have for their father or mother. But in the grand scheme of things, burying the dead was to take a backseat to the good news of life in Christ. The commitment to following Jesus would prove costly. And normal family relationships should pale when compared to the eternal bond between a disciple and his Savior.

Committing to being a disciple of Jesus was going to require far more than a willingness to be taught and a desire to witness the miraculous. It would demand sacrifice and a level of selflessness that would prove to be uncomfortable and inconvenient. But the list of the rewards that come to those who faithfully follow Christ will be long and long-lasting.

“And everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or property, for my sake, will receive a hundred times as much in return and will inherit eternal life.” – Matthew 19:29 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson
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