Imagine a young man who steps into an army recruiter’s office and tells the recruiter that he wants to enlist. The recruiter explains all the details of life in the army to him, but he doesn’t really listen—he’s just eager to become a soldier. When the recruit arrives at boot camp he informs his drill sergeant that the reason he enlisted was because he always thought the army uniform looked cool and wanted to be able to wear the uniform himself. He looked forward to the day when he would have medals to pin on his uniform so that others would respect him. He asked the drill sergeant about days off and about being able to miss work if he had something he needed to do. On the gun range as the instructor taught them about how to properly fire and care for their weapon he asked, “Will this be on the test?”
What do you think the drill sergeant’s response to that recruit would be? He would inform this recruit that there’s more to being in the army than just wearing a uniform and pinning medals to your chest. He’d tell him that everything they were teaching him would be on the test—and if you fail the test you don’t come home! He’d tell him that being in the army isn’t just about looking good in uniform, it’s about working hard, going to battle, and risking your life to save the lives of others. The pay isn’t great, and the job is sometimes dirty. I suspect that drill sergeant would say that if you aren’t ready to commit to working hard and risking your life for your country, you aren’t army material. A person who simply wants to be able to say they’re in the army without doing the work it entails doesn’t deserve to call themselves a soldier.
This morning we see Jesus have a similar conversation with two potential followers. Both of them come to Jesus declaring that they are ready to follow Him, but his responses in both cases seem harsh. The reason his responses are harsh is because these people were kind of like the army recruit—they weren’t ready to make the kind of commitment following Him required. Jesus was trying to teach these people (and us) about what it really means to be a follower. Being a follower of Jesus is more than just calling yourself a Christian. It’s hard work, and anyone who isn’t willing to make the necessary commitment isn’t a real follower. Jesus’ response should challenge and encourage us as we try to follow Him as well.
The first interaction we see is between Jesus and a scribe (or teacher of the law). A scribe was someone who was well-respected in Jewish society. Not many people had the ability to read and write, but scribes were trained to do both. Because they spent so much time around the written scriptures, they became well-respected teachers of the law. They were the Bible scholars of the day. As such, it is interesting that a man like this approaches Jesus about becoming his follower. Listen to the account from Matthew,
18 When Jesus saw the crowd around him, he instructed his disciples to cross to the other side of the lake. 19 Then one of the teachers of religious law said to him, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” 20 But Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens to live in, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place even to lay his head.” (Matthew 8:18-20, NLT)
Jesus’ reply seems awfully harsh to this man, as it seems like the man was professing his unqualified allegiance to Jesus. Why would Jesus give such a pointed reply? Listen to one commentator’s explanation,
This noticeably stern reply checks this enthusiastic recruit, because Jesus’ form of discipleship is a different sort from what the scribe has experienced in his prior training. Rabbis enjoyed a relatively high status within Judaism, but Jesus has no school or synagogue or prestigious place of honor among the religious establishment. He stays at the home of friends, relatives, and disciples through most of his ministry. So the expression “no place to lay his head” does not indicate a homeless, Cynic-type philosopher but rather that his ministry will not result in an institutional establishment with comfortable benefits, and this will also be the lot of those who follow him. 
In other words, Jesus was trying to make sure this man knew what he was agreeing to. This man was a well-respected religious leader. He had likely trained under other rabbis before, and as a result of his time following those teachers, he had gained greater respect and position. Jesus was telling him that following him would not have such temporal benefits. Though there are absolutely benefits to following Jesus, the road is also often very hard. And it would have been especially so at that time.
Remember, Jesus had just gotten done performing some grand miracles. People were enamored by Jesus’ power. I suspect that Jesus’ answer was not merely for the benefit of this man, but also for the crowd that was gathered around him. There were surely many who had seen his miracles and said, I want to be around this guy. They may have hoped that if they spent time around Jesus he would give them whatever they wanted. They may have enjoyed spending time around Jesus simply because he was fun to watch—with Jesus you got to see amazing things happen. And still others might have wanted to follow him in hopes that they would learn how to do some of the same kinds of miracles. Jesus’ response seeks to check such attitudes.
His reminder is clear—following Him comes at a great cost. It means forsaking the things of this world and instead focusing on the things that are of even greater importance. He was telling this scribe (and the crowd who was listening) that he needed to check his motives before agreeing to follow Him. If his goal in following Jesus was to have a life of ease, he would be sorely disappointed. But if his reason for following Jesus was because he believed Jesus was God incarnate, and he would follow regardless of the cost, then he could be a true follower.
The same is true of us. We must ask ourselves why do we follow Jesus? Do you follow Him because you believe He will give you what you want? Do you think that by going to church or trying to be moral that God will somehow bless you with material wealth, with a life of ease, or protect you from tragedy? If so, you have your eyes set on the wrong things. A true follower of Jesus follows because they believe He is God. Because He is God, we believe that He knows what’s best. We believe that He has a plan that is far greater than our own. We trust Him implicitly. Our following Him is not based on our circumstances, it is based on who He is. It’s easy to follow Jesus when life is going well—it’s harder when times are tough. Ask yourself this—if life became difficult, if your faith in Christ started to cost you something, would you still follow Him? Or would you slowly drift away? Jesus reminds us that a true follower sticks with Him no matter what.
But there is a second statement in this account that we cannot overlook. Jesus refers to himself as “the Son of Man”. This is the first time Jesus refers to himself by this title, but it became his favorite way to refer to himself. As a matter of fact, he uses it to refer to himself more than 80 times in the gospels. It seems an odd choice, however, because son of man would seem to describe any human being. Each of us is a son or daughter of a man and also of a woman. So what was the significance of Jesus’ use of this term?
If you notice in your Bible, the title Son of Man is capitalized. This means it’s not just describing a human being. Son of Man was a prophetic title. It described the One whom God had promised. Listen to what Daniel wrote about the Son of Man.
13 As my vision continued that night, I saw someone like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient One and was led into his presence. 14 He was given authority, honor, and sovereignty over all the nations of the world, so that people of every race and nation and language would obey him. His rule is eternal—it will never end. His kingdom will never be destroyed. (Daniel 7:13-14, NLT)
Daniel described someone who looked like a human being, but was truly God himself. He is the One who would rule the world. This is the term Jesus used to describe himself. Every time he used the phrase the Son of Man, he was reminding people that He was the One promised in Daniel. Many people probably didn’t really understand the significance of this title, but the scribe surely did. He was an expert in the Old Testament, so when Jesus called himself the Son of Man, he knew what he was claiming. We aren’t told how the scribe responded. Maybe he understood the cost and continued to follow Jesus. More likely, he wasn’t really interested in such a life. He was interested in what Jesus could give him, how Jesus could help his career, not in following the Son of Man who had been promised. This account reminds us that we need to make sure we are following for the right reasons as well. It reminds us that we need to be seeking Jesus not just for what we think He can give to us, but for who He is.
The Family Man
The second interaction seems even harsher than the first one. Listen to what Jesus says to the second would-be follower.
21 Another of his disciples said, “Lord, first let me return home and bury my father.” 22 But Jesus told him, “Follow me now. Let the spiritually dead bury their own dead.” (Matthew 8:21-22, NLT)
Again, Jesus’ response seems unnecessarily mean. On first reading, it seems as though Jesus is telling a man grieving his father’s death that he shouldn’t go to the funeral, and should instead drop everything to follow him. But there’s more going on here than meets the eye.
Something is lost in translation here. The phrase “let me bury my father” was a Middle Eastern idiom. An idiom is a phrase that means something different than what it says at face value. An example would be when we say that it’s raining cats and dogs. On its face, it sounds like we are saying that furry animals are falling from the sky, but any native English speaker understands that’s not what that phrase means. It simply means that it is raining (water) really hard! This phrase was an idiom as well. It wasn’t necessarily a phrase that described someone whose father had recently died, rather it was a phrase that meant that the person needed to fulfill all their family duties until their father died. It referred to working in the family business and earning your share of the inheritance. It could be used of someone whose father was old and near death, or of someone whose father was still young and healthy.
Here’s how one commentator imagined what the man might have said today,
I’ll follow you soon. However, I first have an obligation as a son to help my father in the family business, and if I don’t, when he dies (whenever that is) I might not get the inheritance. So, Jesus, I can’t afford to follow you right now. But I will in time. Once dear old dad is dead and gone and once the money has come in, then I’m all yours. You see, Jesus, financial security is the issue. You understand, right?”
Jesus did understand. And his response cuts to the heart of the matter. He tells the man to let the spiritually dead bury their own dead. In other words, he is saying let those who are spiritually dead (who are focused only on this world) spend their lives worrying about the things of this world. Those who are truly alive will fix their eyes on things that are much more important. Jesus is telling the man that he needs to get his priorities straight. Jesus needs to be more important to us than anything else in our lives—more important than our jobs, our families, our friendships, our desires, our comfort, or anything else. Jesus should be first priority.
There are many people who bristle at such an idea. They argue that God demanding that we put Him first seems selfish. We don’t like people who don’t seem to be looking out for the needs of others. We get annoyed with people who think their desires are more important than everyone else’s. So it seems wrong to think that God would have such an attitude.
But there is a fundamental misunderstanding in this thinking. The problem is that we think of God as being like us. We think that the principles that apply to us should also apply to God. But they don’t. The reason that it is wrong for us to act like the world revolves around us is because the world doesn’t revolve around us! If you really are the center of the universe (as God is), then it isn’t wrong at all for Him to expect us to recognize Him as such!
Here is the question we must each ask ourselves: what is our first priority? What is the one thing that we will always make time for or have money for? Look at your schedule. Look at your checkbook. Does God ever get pushed to the side? If so, those things are more important than He is in your life. Those things have become idols, and you are making excuses for why you are not following. Let me give you some examples of ways in which you might be falling into the same trap as this man.
- If your church attendance is spotty, only matching up with the times when you don’t have anything “better” to do, then following Jesus might not be your first priority. What things are you deeming more important than meeting with God? When something else is scheduled at the same time as worship, which one wins? The one that wins is more important to you. Maybe you miss worship because you were out late the night before and you say it’s pointless to come because you won’t be alert enough to get anything out of church. Again, you have made your choice. You deemed whatever you were doing the night before as more important than meeting with the Lord. Our church attendance can tell us a lot about our priorities.
- If you struggle to have a regular devotional time, you need to ask why. Maybe it’s because you value those extra few minutes of sleep or TV or Facebook time more than you do time with God. Or maybe it’s because you feel like you don’t understand the Bible. That’s a legitimate concern, but the question is what are you doing to remedy that? Are you attending a class that can help you to understand better or reading books that might help you learn to read the Bible? If you’re not trying to learn how to understand the Bible, it really isn’t a priority to you, it’s just an excuse for why not to follow.
- If you struggle to give regularly to the Lord (with money, time, or energy), ask yourself what you are giving those resources to instead. Those things may be things that are more important to you than the Lord.
- If you never talk to others about what you believe, if you never try to point your friends and family to Jesus, then it’s possible that you value your reputation more than you do your relationship with God. If you find yourself compromising your actions in order to fit in with the crowd, it is likely because how your friends view you is more important to you than how God does.
The list could go on and on. The point is this: a true disciple is devoted completely to the One they follow. Jesus tells us that a divided heart is not acceptable to Him. If we are holding on to the things of this world too tightly, then they are more important to us than He is. We must learn to view things through the proper lens—understanding that the things of this world do not last, but the things of God are forever.
Jesus’ responses to these two men seem harsh, but they really aren’t. He was trying to make sure they understood what they were agreeing to. The Christian faith isn’t about having a cosmic genie who grants your wishes. When we commit to following Jesus we are enlisting in God’s army. There will be times when there are great benefits to following Jesus. There will be times when we get to see Jesus working through us to change us and those around us. There will be times when we get to see Him do some amazing things. But there will also be times when people will ridicule us, marginalize us, or even persecute us. There will be times when we have to swim against the current of society to follow Him. There will be times when we have to give up something that is good for something that is better. We will have to make hard choices in order to follow Him. A true follower of Jesus recognizes these truths, and commits to following Him even though they know it won’t be easy.
The challenge for us today is to look at our own lives and ask if we are following Jesus wholeheartedly or not. Imagine standing before Jesus eager to enlist in His service. What do you think He would say to you? Would Jesus say you understood what you were agreeing to; would He believe you would make the commitment following Him requires?
What does Jesus see in your heart? Does He see a person who really is trying to follow Him above all else? Or does He see a heart with a divided loyalty? Does He see a person who wants to follow Him when it’s easy, but also wants to hang on to the things of this world? Or does He see someone who will follow Him no matter what comes?
Here is the challenge today. Ask God to show you where your loyalties are divided. Ask Him to show you the areas where you are not fully committed to Him. And then commit to changing those areas. It might mean that you have to reorder your priorities. You may have to change how you spend your time, how you spend your money, the kinds of people you hang out with, or the kinds of activities you engage in. This is what a true follower of Jesus does; they change their priorities to match their Master’s. Our lives should be a constant challenge of evaluating our commitment to the Lord and ensuring we are devoted to Him above all else. It’s not an easy path to walk, but it is the only path that leads to where you and I want to be.
 Wilkins, Michael J. Matthew. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 2004.
 O’Donnell, Douglas Sean. Matthew: All Authority in Heaven and on Earth. Edited by R. Kent Hughes. Preaching the Word. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013.