Text: Matthew 8:18-22 (ESV)
Now when Jesus saw a great crowd around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. And a scribe came up and said to him, "Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go." And Jesus said to him, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." Another of the disciples said to him, "Lord, let me first go and bury my father." And Jesus said to him, "Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead."
In today’s text our Lord appears to have a problem we do not have today. A great crowd was gathered around him and two men step forward offering to become Christian disciples, learners and followers. In today’s world in The United States, on the other hand, people generally are not crowding our sanctuaries and few step forward with an offer of commitment. In addition, how different our Lord’s response from how we think we should handle similar situations! When he sees the great crowd he doesn’t maneuver himself to bask in his apparent popularity but leaves, distancing himself by going to the other side of the lake. And at the approach and offer of the two men who are of a mind to follow him Jesus appears to offer no encouragement. He doesn’t introduce them to his inner group of disciples or even invite them to the next pot-luck supper, but rather challenges them with curt comments that seem to imply the gentlemen don’t know what their asking. This text would certainly not find its way into today’s manuals or programs aimed at “church growth”!
In these dawning years of the twenty-first century all indications are that we are entering a time, a cycle if you will, when secularism, even a-theism seems to be the more popular ruling world-view, all major Christian denominational church bodies and individual parishes are losing membership, and we are even seeing and hearing criticism if not outright persecution of religion in general and the Christian faith in particular. We have entered a time when the Church is growing smaller and even going underground. Surprisingly, however, at the same time there seems to be a growing interest in spirituality in the public square; people searching for something deeper than can be purchased on ebay® or at Best BuyTM. It’s just that it is an interest in anything but Christianity. In recent years pastors have attended presentations aimed at understanding and describing what we’re calling “post-modernism,” usually with the implication that the church must somehow change our usual way of doing things and even her message to gain members.
What were the crowds, the scribe and the disciple attracted to that they felt drawn to follow Jesus? Between his miraculous healing ministry and especially the equally miraculous feedings of thousands in the wilderness we can understand the people’s responding to what appeared to be a new program of free health care and an at least occasional free lunch. But certainly Jesus did not heal people, feed them and teach and preach to them merely in order to gain a popular following in this world. There is a deeper problem. The root problem that is as old and universal as the creation itself and that is sin, death and the devil; the disobedience that is at the root of all separation, illness, hunger, suffering and evil.
Notice the subject of the sentence of the two would-be followers who present themselves. “Teacher, I will follow you.” “Lord, let me first” do this or that. As admirable as their offers may be they were still spoken as if they were doing Jesus some sort of favor to have men of such dedication and high family values in his company. Jesus best summed up what it means to be his follower when he said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” [Matthew 16:24 (ESV)]. The following of Jesus can happen rightly only under the burden of cross bearing which, in turn, comes to pass only for those who deny themselves—get their eyes off of themselves and fix them steadfastly on Jesus.
It’s all about Jesus, you see. As the Son of God he knows your deepest hurts, your most fundamental need better than you do. True faith is not put off because following him means nowhere to lay your head. The Book of Hebrews points us to the saints of old, saying, “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city” [Hebrews 11:13-16 (ESV)]. Similarly, true faith is not put off even when it cuts into family ties. Leaving the dead to bury their own dead, if it means anything, is to identify death as but the last enemy to be destroyed by the Lord of Life, who gives life, who himself died for the life of the world.
It is precisely the mystery of our living Lord who deigns to provide a teasing glimpse of heaven here in the Holy Mass that is what the crowds, the scribe, the would-be disciple and the post-modern is really looking for. Here, if nowhere else, do we leave the world behind and participate in our true citizenship of heaven, “with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.”