The Call to Follow: What We Give Up to Follow Jesus — And What We Gain
When Jesus saw large crowds around Him, He gave the order to go to the other side of the sea. A scribe approached Him and said, “Teacher, I will follow You wherever You go!” Jesus told him, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head.”
“Lord,” another of His disciples said, “first let me go bury my father.” But Jesus told him, “Follow Me, and let the dead bury their own dead.”
Back in Matthew 4, we saw Jesus call his first disciples — Peter, Andrew, James, and John — right out of their fishing boats where they were at work.
Most of us are familiar with Jesus’ 12 apostles, of whom these four were the first. But Jesus actually had many disciples — at times several hundred. Some actually, physically followed Jesus, including a group of women.
And they weren’t all called by Jesus in the way the 12 were. Many of them volunteered.
In Matthew 8:18–22, we read of two such volunteers and Jesus’ blunt — almost harsh — responses to them. But within his answers we also see:
- powerful echoes of the Old Testament that shed light on what it means to follow Jesus,
- Jesus’ ability to cut right to the chase and purify our motives, and
- a life-changing clarification of the call to relationship with Jesus.
A Tale of Two Men
Two men approach Jesus in this passage. The first is a scribe. Most often, when we encounter scribes in the gospels they are arguing with Jesus and challenging his messiahship, along with the Pharisees.
But in this case, this particular scribe wants to become a disciple. He honors Jesus with the title “Teacher,” showing that he considers Jesus to be someone who can move him along his chosen path of learning.
Literally, a “scribe” was a writer — not meaning a novelist or journalist, like we have today, but a literate person capable of writing, whose chosen profession was to copy the Old Testament Scriptures by hand and thus transmit them to another generation or to write out other documents, such as contracts or government decrees.
Because people who copy out the Scriptures word by word quickly become authorities on the content of those Scriptures, by Jesus’ day the scribes were also considered to be scholars and teachers. Usually drawn from the ranks of priests and Levites, they had an honored position in Jewish society.
Throughout the gospels, we can see that they were closely linked to the priests and Pharisees, two classes of relatively powerful and wealthy people.
In terms of social strata, then, this scribe who comes to Jesus is already humbling himself dramatically. He outclasses Jesus considerably and has already spent his whole life studying and transmitting the Scriptures.
Yet he recognizes that Jesus can teach him things he doesn’t already know, to the point that he declares, “I will follow you wherever you go!”
Jesus bluntly answers him: “Foxes have dens and the birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”
The second man in the story is identified as already being one of Jesus’ “disciples,” but he now wants to follow Jesus more closely. We’re not told much about him except that he was strongly aware of his own family obligations, because he says to Jesus, “First let go bury my father.”
Most commentators point out that it’s unlikely the man’s father was already dead. He wasn’t asking permission to go to a funeral. Rather, he was expressing that his father was old, and before committing fully to following Jesus, he wanted to do the expected thing and remain in his father’s household until his father’s death. Only then would he consider himself really free to follow Jesus completely.
Jesus’ answer to him is even more shocking: “Follow Me, and let the dead bury their own dead.”
Jesus’ answers to both men contain echoes of one of the Bible’s most important stories: the call of Abraham, father of faith and of the Jewish race, all the way back in Genesis 12.
Before giving his promise to bless Abraham, God calls him to leave everything behind:
Go out from your land, your relatives, and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.
Like the scribe, Abraham was asked to leave his secure life behind and go to a land that God had not even shown him yet. He had to leave behind his inheritance and stability and trade it for a nomadic lifestyle with very few guarantees or perks other than the promises of God.
Like the second man, Abraham was called to leave his father and his father’s house. This was while Terah, Abraham’s father, was elderly but still living and functioning as head of the household.
It was a shocking and unprecedented break, culturally unacceptable. It also meant that Abraham gave up his inheritance, which as the oldest son he had likely been expecting all his life. He abandoned his livelihood, he abandoned his reward for a lifetime of loyal sonship, and instead he went out to follow God on a journey with no map.
What We Leave Behind
Of course, there’s tremendous prophetic significance to these echoes. Jesus is calling on his followers to do the same thing Abraham did, which indicates that following him is a choice equal in weight to Abraham’s.
But his blunt responses also cut through our motives and make it clear that in order to gain the blessings of a disciple, there are things we have to leave behind. There’s a high cost to discipleship.
Are you willing to give up security? Are you willing to lay down a bright and promising career trajectory? Will you trade influence and wealth for unpopularity and a spot on the ground near Jesus?
Will you make decisions nobody will understand, and be willing to look like a deadbeat child, and maybe give up your inheritance in order to follow him?
Not everyone pays the same price to follow Jesus. Some literally leave their homes and families. Some literally give up careers. Some literally lay down their lives.
Others don’t. Nicodemus retained his wealth and position on the Sanhedrin, the most powerful Jewish council. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus stayed in their home. John the Beloved died of old age — unlike all the other apostles, who were killed for their faith.
But everybody pays some price. Everybody gives up something. That’s the way it is when it comes to following Jesus.
Ultimately the call is always Abrahamic. Leave behind life as you expected it to be, and go out to a country God will show you.
A Note about “The Son of Man”
In his response to the scribe, Jesus for the first time refers to himself as “the Son of Man.” This is an incredibly significant Old Testament reference — and I believe Jesus fully expected the scribe to pick up on it.
We’ll go into a lot more depth about “Son of Man” in a later post, but suffice it to say that in using the term, Jesus hinted to the scribe about the greatness of the reward he could expect if he did choose to follow Jesus and embrace the hardship, uncertainty, and career demotion that would entail. Eventually he would “shine like the stars” because of his decision.
Likewise, when he refers to the disciple’s family obligations as “letting the dead bury their dead,” Jesus strongly implies that following him means discovering a new kind of life and a new and a better inheritance — just as was true for Abraham.
It’s About Following Jesus — Not an Outcome
In our lives, we don’t tend to make big decisions without thinking through the outcomes first. In many ways, it’s the expected or hoped-for outcome that determines the decision.
No one spends eight years in medical school for the joys of internship. They do it for the expected outcome of becoming a doctor, with all the social, financial, and professional ramifications of that.
No one moves to a new city or country without expected outcomes. We go “because.” We don’t go without reason.
But Jesus calls us to a different kind of going. We’re to go, not because of an expected outcome in our professional, relationship, financial, or emotional lives. We’re to go just to follow Jesus. We’re to go because he’s going. We’re to go because we can be with him along the way.
Yes, Jesus gives promises to those who follow, like God did to Abraham, but the outcome and especially the path are usually fuzzy. What’s CLEAR is that Jesus is going. Like the scribe, we have a guarantee we’ll learn from the Teacher. Like the disciple, we can know we’re going to find life — new life, new family, new inheritance.
We all give up something to follow Jesus. But what we gain is much more. Not because we’re guaranteed a particular outcome in the natural world, but because we’re guaranteed the presence and love of Jesus.
Like what you’re reading? Visit rachelstarrthomson.com to get a free ebook on the Lord’s Prayer and keep up with the rest of the series on the gospel of Matthew.
This is Part 107 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.
Originally published at rachelstarrthomson.com on February 27, 2018.