“Teacher I will follow you wherever You go.”
“Lord, let me first go and bury my father.”
I am a disciple of Jesus Christ.
That’s who I am.
I have many other identities and roles, but this is my most fundamental one: I am a disciple of Jesus Christ.
It amazes me that Jesus makes this so clear – that we are His disciples – and yet many, if not most Christians, don’t really see themselves that way. Instead, they see themselves as Christians. Well, I consider myself a Christian, too, but unfortunately that word can mean just about anything these days. It should mean Christ-ian, a little Christ, a disciple of Jesus Christ. But it may also mean “Jesus was a good teacher except when he disagrees with me” or “Of course I’m a Christian – what else would I be?”
But what is a disciple? It’s one who has dedicated himself to follow a master. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we have pledged ourselves completely to the Master. That is who we are.
And so I like it when my Master plainly commands me, saying, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24).
But I also like it when He teaches me about being a disciple in less plain ways that make me have to think about what it means to be a disciple. And so here in Matthew 8 we get what appears to be a less direct teaching from the Master about being a disciple. Maybe Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 16 is more direct and forceful because Peter has confessed Him as Christ and He has begun to openly teach that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer.
But here in Matthew 8, Jesus’ teaching on discipleship is more subdued. And sometimes this is exactly what we need in order to hear better.
The first disciple that comes to Jesus boldly proclaims: “Teacher, I will follow you wherever You go.”
To which we expect (as I expect this disciple expected) Jesus to say something like, “Bravo! Well done, old chap. Now let’s do get on with this business of redeeming the world together.”
O.K. Well maybe none of you quite expect Jesus. O.K., maybe I don’t really either. But I do expect Him to applaud such a bold and forthright expression of a willingness to follow Him.
But He doesn’t. Instead, the Master, the Teacher, tests His disciples, so He says, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.”
That’s nice, Jesus. But what’s that got to do with the price of tea in China? This answer catches us off guard, as so many of Jesus’ answers do. He catches us off guard, first, as I just mentioned, because we expect Him to openly applaud such a faith-filled answer. Of course, He doesn’t. But we’re also upset because of what His answer implies. His answer points to where it is that He, the Master, exists and how He lives. Since the disciple has just made a proclamation that he’ll follow Jesus anywhere, Jesus returns the favor and shows just a little of what the life of the Master is like. The truth is that in His life of service and even, especially, suffering, the Son of Man does not find rest in this life. There’s something about redeeming the world of sin and suffering from sin and suffering that necessitates suffering on the part of the Master.
The problem for us disciples is that since we aren’t above the Master, what He experiences is what we experience (which is only fair, since what we experiences is what He experiences: all in all it’s a spectacular trade!) We don’t hear the response of this particular disciple, but there’s a good chance it’s not what he wanted to hear.
Often, it’s not what we want to hear, either. We want to hear that once I sign on the dotted Jesus line then everything will be groovy. We want to have no more wind and no more waves in our lives. We want to be carried to the skies on flowery beds of ease (where did that come from? I just figured it out: from “Am I a Soldier of the Cross?”)
Maybe this discipleship business is trickier than I thought!
What about the other disciple in this story? He’s got a pretty good excuse, don’t you think? “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.”
Now what could be wrong with this? That’s an important thing to do. In fact, I’ve heard that one of the most sacred obligations of a Jew was to begin each day with the prayer (the Shema), “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” This was regarded as the most important thing a Jew did each day. And yet (I’ve heard) that when a man’s father died he was so obligated to bury him that this duty came even before the recitation of the Shema.
Oops! Wrong sound clip! What Jesus actually says is: “Follow Me, and let the dead bury their own dead.”
Ouch! Really, Jesus, don’t you think you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar? So much for the subtle approach. Jesus only appeared to me to be speaking less directly about the cost of discipleship here, as compared to Matthew 16. Oh no! Jesus has sucker punched me! He’s not really playing nice after all: He means business.
Oh well, I might as well reveal my weirdness in all its glory to you now. If you’ve read this far, you know that sometimes I can see things in, uh, different ways. I have this mental image of Jesus that recurs to me every now and then. I call it “Steamrollin’ Jesus.” In this image, I see Jesus riding on a yellow Caterpillar steamroller. He’s about 20 to 30 feet away to begin with, and I notice that He’s got the traditional long hair, but in place of the traditional toga and sandals He’s wearing a red plaid shirt, jeans, and some cowboy boots. Just as I begin to wonder at all this, SPLAT! He comes over to me, running me over with His steamroller! I look up, a crumpled mess on the floor, becoming one with the earth, and muster just enough energy to see Jesus looking back at me, only He’s smiling. And as He smiles, He raises his forefinger to His temple and salutes me with it. And then He goes on His merry way, and the film ends.
There – I feel better for having shared this.
I receive this image sometimes when I feel that Jesus has “steamrolled” me in life. Matthew 8 is one of those times. I thought He might go easy on me, but He doesn’t.
If you, like me, were looking for an easy road to discipleship, then you’ll have been disappointed. You might feel like Jesus has steamrolled you. Or maybe you think that Father Charles is the one who’s steamrolled you. “He always seems so hardcore and so intense!” (And this, from the man who just brought you the image of “Steamrollin’ Jesus.)
Like me, maybe you’ve figured out that Jesus leaves you with no place to hide. Look: do you want to be His disciple or not? If the disciple in Matthew 8 wasn’t even allowed to bury his father before He chose to follow Jesus, then you aren’t allowed to first “get your act together” or “find a place of peace” or “just get out of this mess” or allow yourself to get out of the habit of following Him.
There are no excuses. None. Follow Him today. Now. I mean it!
But just in case there are a few who are weak (I know there’s at least one – and he’s the one writing this!) – see what Jesus says to you next. When you feel like Jesus’ call to be a disciple has steamrolled you, you’re like the disciples in the boat in a storm (which is the very next story in Matthew 8 after His discussion of the cost of discipleship).
You cry out to the Lord, “Lord, save me! I’m perishing! If I follow you and give up everything, then I’ll have nothing left. It’s too hard!
To which Jesus says, “Why are you fearful, O you of little faith!” And then He calms the wind and waves in your life. And then He reminds you that His calling you to be His disciple isn’t to harm or limit you but to free and heal you.
And then you say “__________.” Well, what do you say?
Prayer: Father, I abandon myself into your hands;
do with me what you will.
Whatever you may do, I thank you:
I am ready for all, I accept all.
Let only your will be done in me,
and in all Your creatures –
I wish no more than this, O Lord.
Into your hands I commend my soul;
I offer it to you with all the love of my heart,
for I love you Lord,
and so need to give myself,
to surrender myself into your hands,
and with boundless confidence,
For you are my Father. Amen. (Charles de Foucauld)
Points for Meditation:
- What keeps you back from fully dedicating your life to the Lord? What fears do you have? What temptations do you have?
- What are the blessings that you have experienced by being a disciple of Jesus Christ?
- Meditate on how Jesus has brought much of His blessing in your life through the things that have been most difficult. How does this change your perception of trusting His difficult call to give up yourself to Him?
Resolution: I resolve to listen to the Lord and follow Him in the one way He is asking me to follow Him today.
© 2014 Fr. Charles Erlandson