Now when Jesus saw a crowd around him, he gave orders to depart to the other side of the sea. Then a scribe came and said to him, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you will go.” Jesus said to him, “The foxes have holes and the 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, permit me first to go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.” – Matthew 8:18-22 NASB
When I was in college I was involved with a campus ministry that would set up a small booth every Thursday with a question written on a white board and a cooler full of soda. If you got the question right you got a free soda. This simple idea resulted in a myriad of conversations and even in some conversions. The ministry was international at heart and on more than one occasion I heard the leaders speaking with international students about the dangers of following Jesus. Intrigued, I asked them why they did this. No one ever told me about the dangers of following Jesus. I was only ever promised a light and fluffy life of “cosmic love and peace my friend.” They told me that would be unfair to lead someone to Jesus without letting them know that it could result in persecution, dismemberment, banishment or even death!
This vocabulary is absent from the American church’s list of words to describe what it means to follow Jesus. There is, and always has been, a cost to following Jesus. The scribe who approached Jesus with the bold offer to follow him did not count the cost. Jesus’ response suggests that in order for this scribe to follow he would have to become a homeless wanderer. Now Jesus doesn’t call of his followers to become homeless wanderers. The man freed from a legion of demons was commanded to return home and tell everyone what God had done for home. The call to follow Jesus, however, always comes with one stipulation – to move when God moves.
Our God is a God who is always on the move. Jesus, who is all we will get to see of God this side of the kingdom come, almost never stood still. To be sure he had his times of silence and solitude, but after that he was on the move. He even moved on when there was more ministry to do, “His disciples found him and said to him, ‘Everyone is looking for you!’ And Jesus replied, ‘Let us go somewhere else to the towns nearby, so that I may preach there also; for that is what I came for.” (Mark 1:37-38) The danger, it seems, is that it is all too easy to settle down and get comfortable, even in ministry. Yes, we must learn to count the cost and always be ready to move forward.
In our own followership of Jesus do we count the cost? Do we even know how to count the cost? Do we know how to teach others to count the cost? Are we aware of when Jesus gets up and moves on to some nearby town? Do we follow?
Perhaps we understand the first would-be disciple’s situation more than the second’s. This would-be disciple simply makes a request, “First let me go and bury my father.” Jesus’ response has produced a myriad of interpretations.
- Christians should not participate in funerals.
- The man’s father wasn’t really dead yet, but he was going to die within the year or so and the man wanted to care for him.
- The man was being obedient to the law and Jesus’ answer suggests that one cannot postpone following him even for the sake of the law.
Whichever interpretation you choose to live with they all share a common thread: there are things that have to do with the kingdom of God and there are things that don’t. Followers of Jesus are called to leave those things which have no place in the kingdom of God behind, as well as those who participate in them. Wow! That’s huge. Not only does Jesus threaten to take away our home (which is, by the way, our greatest symbol of security) now he wants to take away our habits and relationships that are not rooted in the kingdom! “Seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness.” Letting the dead bury the dead means …
- we no longer participate in the acts of the dead – gossip, hoarding, rumors, lashing out in anger, drunkenness, fornication, stealing, lying, hating, manipulating, triangulating, passive-aggressive behavior, etc.
- we no longer invest our resources in fruitless endeavors – failed or dying ministries, people who refuse to follow Jesus, fixing weaknesses, dwelling on complaints, placing blame rather than addressing the issue, etc.
We cannot follow Jesus on our own terms. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes in The Cost of Discipleship,
If we would follow Jesus we must take certain definite steps. The first step, which follows the call, cuts the disciple off from his previous existence. The call to follow at once produces a new situation. To stay in the old situation makes discipleship impossible. … The only right and proper way is quite literally to go with Jesus. The call to follow implies that there is only one way of believing on Jesus Christ, and that is by leaving all and going with the incarnate Son of God. (62)
Though the cost of discipleship may be great, Dallas Willard reminds us that the cost of non-discipleship is even greater.
Non-discipleship costs abiding peace, a life penetrated throughout by love, faith that sees everything in the light of God’s overriding governance for good, hopefulness that stands firm in the most discouraging of circumstances, power to do what is right and to withstand the forces of evil. In short, non-discipleship costs you exactly that abundance of life Jesus said he came to bring (John 10:10). The cross-shaped yoke of Christ is after all an instrument of liberation and power to those who live in it with him and learn the meekness and lowliness of heart that brings rest to the soul. (The Great Omission, 9)
Count the cost. Pay the cost. Let the dead bury the dead. It’s worth it. As John Wesley said, “When God calls, leave the business of the world to them who are dead.” (Wesley’s Explanatory Notes)