As you recall, in the first lesson I took the position that this long passage in Matthew has three cycles of miracle stories interrupted by two discipleship stories. In this lesson we examine the first discipleship story.
Matthew 8:18-22 An Interlude on Discipleship
There are two potential disciples described in these verses. Each has an issue he wants to bring to Jesus to negotiate what it means to be a disciple. A mother was preparing breakfast for her two sons, Kevin, age 5, and Ryan, age 3. The boys began to argue over who would get the first pancake. Their mother saw the opportunity for a moral lesson. "If Jesus were sitting here, He would say, ‘Let my brother have the first pancake; I can wait.'" Kevin turned to his younger brother and said, "Ryan, you be Jesus."
Jesus' response to each potential disciple is quite shocking and even scandalous. He seems to be making it as hard as possible to become a disciple instead of trying to ease the way into discipleship; we would probably be much more comfortable with the latter pattern. Since we have no background on either man, we assume they are inserted in the text as a device for Matthew to make a point about discipleship.
The first man is described as a scribe or teacher of the law. It is strongly assumed that behind the scribe's offer to follow Jesus was his ambition--"Jesus is going places, and I want to go there with him." "Jesus' comeback, that the son of man has no place to lay his head, discloses that discipleship is not a road that leads to success, tranquility, or security. Eagerness that cloaks ambition is no virtue in disciples. Neither is hesitancy, as the next saying makes clear" (Garland 98).
The second man makes a reasonable request to take care of family business before he can become Jesus' disciple. This request was reasonable because law, piety, and custom in that culture dictated that one was to show all honor to his parents, and that to fail to honor a parent at his death would have expressed the greatest irreverence. Jesus uses shocking hyperbole to make His point that discipleship takes precedence over every other priority, including those that seemed perfectly legitimate and important! After all, even Elijah granted a similar request by Elisha (1 Kings 19:19-21)!
Note Garland's moving commentary on this passage: "Disciples learn from this that there are no excused absences from the kingdom of God whether they be business commitments, social obligations, or sacred family duties. Disciples cannot shuttle back and forth between the old life and the new. Jesus labels those who do not follow him the spiritually dead; and there will be plenty of them around to take care of the task of burying the physically dead. This incredible statement makes it quite clear that discipleship for Jesus ‘. . . is not merely another commitment which we add to the long list of our other commitments, but it is the commitment--demanding a reordering of our loves from the bottom up'[Tannehill, The Sword of His Mouth, 1959]. The kingdom of heaven is to come first in the lives of disciples, even before love of father and mother (cf.10:37; 19:29)" (99).
This is the part of the miracle stories that many people do not want to hear. Miracles point people to the life of faith as disciples, not to ambition or self-made priorities, as the examples above show us. Yet we all must face those very human problems--ambition and self-made priorities--as all too prevalent. We cannot negotiate the basic requirements of our discipleship with God, no matter how well intentioned we might be. "There is no thrill like the way of Christ, and there is no glory like the end of that way; but Jesus never said it was an easy way. The way to glory always involved a cross" (Barclay 313).