Matthew 8:18-22

THE SUMMONS TO COUNT THE COST

Matt. 8:18-22

When Jesus saw the great crowds surrounding him, he gave orders to go away, across to the other side. A scribe came to him. “Teacher,” he said, “I will follow you wherever you may be going.” Jesus said to him: “The foxes have lairs, and the birds of the sky have places where they may lodge, but the Son of Man has nowhere where he may lay his head.” Another of his disciples said: “Lord, let me first go away and bury my father.” Jesus said to him: “Follow me, and let the dead bury their dead.”

At first sight this section seems out of place in this chapter. The chapter is a chapter of miracles, and at first sight these verses do not seem to fit into a chapter which tells of a series of miraculous events. Why then does Matthew put it here?

It has been suggested that Matthew inserted this passage here because his thoughts were running on Jesus as the Suffering Servant. He has just quoted Isa.53:4: “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases” (Matt. 8:17), and very naturally, it is said, that picture led on in Matthew’s thoughts to the picture of the one who had nowhere to lay his head. As Plummer has it, “Jesus’ life began in a borrowed stable and ended in a borrowed tomb.” So it is suggested that Matthew inserted this passage here because both it and the immediately preceding verses show Jesus as the Suffering Servant of God.

It may be so, but it is even more likely that Matthew inserted this passage in this chapter of miracles because he saw a miracle in it. It was a scribe who wished to follow Jesus. He gave Jesus the highest title of honour that he knew. “Teacher” he called him; the Greek is didaskalos (GSN1320), which is the normal translation of the Hebrew word Rabbi (HSN7227). To him Jesus was the greatest teacher to whom he had ever listened and whom he had ever seen.

It was indeed a miracle that any scribe should give to Jesus that title, and should wish to follow him. Jesus stood for the destruction and the end of all that narrow legalism on which scribal religion was built; and it was indeed a miracle that a scribe should come to see anything lovely or anything desirable in Jesus. This is the miracle of the impact of the personality of Jesus Christ on men.

The impact of one personality on another can indeed produce the most wonderful effects. Very often a man has been launched on a career of scholarship by the impact of the personality of a great teacher upon him; many a man has been moved to the Christian way and to a life of Christian service by the impact of a great Christian personality on his life. Preaching itself has been described and defined as “truth through personality.”

  1. H. Elliott in his autobiography, Undiscovered Ends, tells a thing about Edith Evans, the great actress: “When her husband died, she came to us, full of grief. . . . In our drawing room at Chester Square she poured out her feelings about it for an hour or so, and they were feelings that came from springs that were very deep. Her personality filled the room. The room was not big enough! … For days that room of ours was `electric,’ as I expressed it then. The strong vibrations had not gone.”

This story is the story of the impact of the personality of Jesus on the life of a Jewish scribe. It remains true that to this day what is needed most of all is not so much to talk to men about Jesus as to confront them with Jesus, and to allow the personality of Jesus to do the rest.

But there is more than that. No sooner had the scribe undergone this reaction than Jesus told him that the foxes have their lairs and the birds of the sky have a place in the trees to rest, but the Son of Man has no place on earth to lay his head. It is as if Jesus said to this man: “Before you follow me–think what you are doing. Before you follow me–count the cost.”

Jesus did not want followers who, were swept away by a moment of emotion, which quickly blazed and just as quickly died. He did not want men who were carried away by a tide of mere feeling, which quickly flowed and just as quickly ebbed. He wanted men who knew what they were doing. He talked about taking up a cross (Matt. 10:38). He talked about setting himself above the dearest relationships in life (Lk.14:26); he talked about giving away everything to the poor (Matt. 19:21). He was always saying to men: “Yes, I know that your heart is running out to me, but–do you love me enough for that?”

In any sphere of life men must be confronted with the facts. If a young man expresses a desire for scholarship, we must say to him: “Good, but are you prepared to scorn delights and live laborious days? “When an explorer is building up his team, he will be inundated with people offering their services, but he must weed out the romantics and the realists by saying, “Good, but are you prepared for the snow and the ice, for the swamps and the heat, for the exhaustion and the weariness of it all? “When a young person wishes to become an athlete, the trainer must say, “Good, but are you prepared for the self-denial and self-discipline that alone will win you the eminence of which you dream? “This is not to discourage enthusiasm, but it is to say that enthusiasm which has not faced the facts will soon be dead ashes instead of a flame.

No man could ever say that he followed Jesus on false pretences. Jesus was uncompromisingly honest. We do Jesus a grave disservice, if ever we lead people to believe that the Christian way is an easy way. 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.

THE TRAGEDY OF THE UNSEIZED MOMENT

Matt. 8:18-22 (continued)

But there was another man who wished to follow Jesus. He said he would follow Jesus, if he was first allowed to go and bury his father. Jesus’ answer was: “Follow me and leave the dead to bury their own dead.” At first sight that seems a hard saying. To the Jew it was a sacred duty to ensure decent burial for a dead parent. When Jacob died, Joseph asked permission from Pharaoh to go and bury his father: “My father made me swear, saying, `I am about to die; in my tomb which I hewed out for myself in the land of Canaan, there shall you bury me.’ Now therefore let me go up, I pray you, and bury my father; then I will return” (Gen.50:5). Because of the apparently stern and unsympathetic character of this saying different explanations have been given of it.

It has been suggested that in the translation into Greek of the Aramaic which Jesus used there has been a mistake; and Chat Jesus is saying that the man can well leave the burying of his father to the official buriers. There is a strange verse in Eze.39:15: “And when these pass through the land and any one sees a man’s bone, then he shall set up a sign by it, till the buriers have buried it in the valley of Hamon-gog.” That seems to imply a kind of official called a burier; and it has been suggested that Jesus is saying that the man can leave the burial to these officials. That does not seem a very likely explanation.

It has been suggested that this is indeed a hard saying, and that Jesus is saying bluntly that the society in which this man is living is dead in sin, and he must get out of it as quickly as possible, even if it means leaving his father still unburied, that nothing, not even the most sacred duty, must delay his embarkation on the Christian way.

But the true explanation undoubtedly lies in the way in which the Jews used this phrase — `I must bury my father’! — and in the way in which it is still used in the east.

Wendt quotes an incident related by a Syrian missionary, M. Waidmeier. This missionary was friendly with an intelligent and rich young Turk. He advised him to make a tour of Europe at the close of his education, so that his education would be completed and his mind broadened. The Turk answered, “I must first of all bury my father.” The missionary expressed his sympathy and sorrow that the young man’s father had died. But the young Turk explained that his father was still very much alive, and that what he meant was that he must fulfil all his duties to his parents and to his relatives, before he could leave them to go on the suggested tour, that, in fact, he could not leave home until after his father’s death, which might not happen for many years.

That is undoubtedly what the man in this gospel incident meant. He meant, “I will follow you some day, when my father is dead, and when I am free to go.” He was in fact putting off his following of Jesus for many years to come.

Jesus was wise: Jesus knew the human heart; and Jesus knew well that, if the man did not follow him on the moment, he never would. Again and again there come to us moments of impulse when we are moved to the higher things; and again and again we let them pass without acting upon them.

The tragedy of life is so often the tragedy of the unseized moment. We are moved to some fine action, we are moved to the abandoning of some weakness or habit, we are moved to say something to someone, some word of sympathy, or warning, or encouragement; but the moment passes, and the thing is never done, the evil thing is never conquered, the word is never spoken. In the best of us there is a certain lethargy and inertia; there is a certain habit of procrastination; there is a certain fear and indecision; and often the moment of fine impulse is never turned into action and into fact.

Jesus was saying to this man: “You are feeling at the moment that you must get out of that dead society in which you move; you say you will get out when the years have passed and your father has died; get out now — or you will never get out at all.”

In his autobiography H. G. Wells told of a crucial moment in his life. He was apprenticed to a draper, and there seemed to be little or no future for him. There came to him one day what he called “an inward and prophetic voice: `Get out of this trade before it is too late; at any cost get out of it.'” He did not wait; he got out; and that is why he became H. G. Wells.

May God give to us that strength of decision which will save us from the tragedy of the unseized moment.

Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW

Back to: Barclay’s Commentary

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