Another would-be disciple in Matthew 8 was a man who said he wanted to follow Jesus, but only after he had first met his family obligations. He wanted to bury his father. Jesus’ answer was, “Follow me, and leave the dead bury their own dead.”
At first glance this seems to be a terribly insensitive reply, as if the man’s father had just died and Jesus would not even let him arrange for or attend the funeral. But that is probably not what was involved. For one thing, in Israel the dead were required to be buried on the same day they died. If the man’s father had died, he wouldn’t even have been in the crowd surrounding Jesus. He would have been at home. However, since he is asking permission to bury his father before following Jesus, what he probably means is that he wants to remain at home during his father’s last years and follow Jesus only after that phase of his life is over. When Jesus told him to forget about waiting for his father to die, He was saying that the time to believe on Him and become His disciple is right now. Discipleship is always a present obligation. We can never put it off. We do not know whether an opportunity to follow Jesus tomorrow or another day will come.
This is not just a pragmatic or practical matter either, as if Jesus were merely crying, “Carpe diem” (“Seize the day” of opportunity). When Jesus talks about the dead burying their dead, He is speaking in spiritual terms since it is obvious that physically dead people cannot do anything to anyone, including bury other dead people. The dead who are to bury the dead are spiritually dead people, those who are awake to the issues of this world but who are dead to spiritual realities. They will attend to this world’s obligations, Jesus says. It is different for those who have been awakened to spiritual matters. They perceive realities the spiritually dead cannot fathom and will drop everything to follow Jesus.
Similar warnings teach that we must choose between Christ and other persons (even members of our families) and declare that we cannot be Christ’s followers without rejecting anyone who is opposing Him or who would exercise a higher position of affection in our lives.
This teaching challenges us with some shocking truths, the first of which are the radical demands of Christ’s Kingdom. Over the years I have been asked to serve on various boards of organizations, and to the extent that I have had the time, I have been happy to do so. I have done everything I have been able to do for these organizations, but I have not left my parents or family to assume these responsibilities. In fact, I have not surrendered any legitimate responsibility to serve on boards. Christ’s statements about the demands of His kingdom are not like that. We think of most jobs as something that can be taken on and then later dropped. But when Jesus presented the demands of His kingdom, He explained them as callings that demanded the most radical commitment from His followers. Following Jesus was never to be a part-time occupation.
A second shocking truth is the unique authority of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ statements also challenge us by His unique authority. Who would dare say such things unless He possessed unique authority? Who but God could make such demands?
This is the great question in these chapters, and it confronted everyone who came in contact with the Lord. When Jesus began to teach, they marveled “because he taught as one who had authority and not as their teachers of the law.” When He quieted the storm on the Sea of Galilee, those who were with Him were amazed, asking, “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!” When He forgave the sins of the paralytic, the teachers of the law said, “This fellow is blaspheming!” because no one is able to forgive sins but God. It became evident to everyone who met Him that Jesus was speaking and acting with more than human authority.
Was He the Son of God? That was the question they were asking. Some rejected that answer and eventually crucified Him as a deceiver, but those who recognized His authority (validated by His numerous miracles) drew the inevitable conclusions and worshiped Him as God.
If Jesus is God, then the demands of His kingdom become even more radical than we have imagined. When we hear Jesus saying that we must hate our fathers and mothers, wives and children, in order to be His disciples, it seems shockingly extreme. But if He is God, it is not extreme at all. If He is God, nothing He could possibly demand is outrageous. If He is God, we owe Him total obedience and total self-surrender.
On the other hand, the fact that Jesus is God makes our total surrender all right. He is not an arbitrary god who has no concern for us and, so we might imagine, has a passion only for His own self-aggrandizement and glory. God made us. He has given us life and families and homes and a reasonable portion of this world’s goods to enjoy. These things are good precisely because they are made by God and are God’s gifts. It follows that if God requires us to give up one or more of these things in a specific situation – as a pioneer missionary might have to do to take the Gospel to some remote area of the world – it is because the demand, difficult as it may appear, is nevertheless good in that particular situation.
Are you a follower of Jesus Christ? Are you trying to follow Him part-time?