Matthew 8: 18-22
Parallel Luke 9: 57-62
18 Now when Jesus saw great crowds around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. 19 A scribe then approached and said, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” 20 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.” 21 Another of his disciples said to him, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 22 But Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.”
Matthew’s gospel uses rhythm to help reveal meaning. Previously in chapter eight we’ve seen Matthew use a pattern of three healing stories which climax in the scriptural citation that Jesus is the one who ‘took our infirmities and bore our diseases’ to disclose who Jesus is. Each healing narrative build upon the preceding narrative to help illuminate who Jesus is through what Jesus does. Structures of three are common in ancient literature and here Matthew will use two interconnected patterns of three to continue to help the hearer answer the interconnected questions of who is Jesus? and what does it mean to follow him?
Sometimes it is helpful to see the structure graphically
Miracle story 1 (Matthew 8: 1-4) Healing the person with a skin disease
Miracle story 2 (Matthew 8: 5-14) Healing the centurion’s son
Miracle story 3 (Matthew 8:14-17) Healing Peter’s mother-in-law…healing all
Explanation ‘He took our infirmities and bore our diseases’
Nature of Discipleship: (Matthew 8: 18-22)A scribe and a disciple
Miracle story 1 (Matthew 8: 23-27) Jesus stills a storm
Miracle story 2 (Matthew 8: 28-9:1) Jesus casts out demons from two men
Miracle story 3 (Matthew 9:2-9:8) Jesus heals a paralytic
Explanation ‘God…had given such authority to human beings’
Nature of Discipleship: (Matthew 9:9-17) Call of Matthew and question on
Miracle story 1 (Matthew 9: 18-26) Woman and girl healed/raised
Miracle story 2 (Matthew 9: 27-31) Jesus heals two blind men
Miracle story 3 (Matthew 9: 32-34) Healing mute demoniac
Explanation ‘Never has anything been seen like this’ vs. ‘By demons he casts out
Nature of Discipleship: (Matthew 9:35-11:1) Jesus prepares disciples for
Matthew’s gospel is focused on helping form a community that will continue to follow Jesus amid the challenges of the world around them. From the placement of the sermon on the mount early in the ministry of Jesus to the regular interweaving of teaching and narrative we see Matthew exploring who Jesus is and what it means to follow him. Being a disciple of Jesus will involve embodying a different set of values and practices that will be visible to the surrounding world. As Matthew invites us back to considering the nature of discipleship, we are given several clues within this dialogue with the scribe and the disciple to suggest what the follower is needs to hear about the nature of discipleship even at this early stage in the gospel.
Titles matter in Matthew and the help the reader to gain insight about how each person approaches Jesus. While there are multiple titles used in Matthew’s gospel to help illuminate who Jesus is, Matthew deploys these titles carefully in the mouths of different petitioners. The scribe who comes to Jesus uses the title ‘teacher’ and although Jesus can use this term when referring to himself (Matthew 10: 24,25; 23:8 and 26:18) when it is spoken by someone else it is normally is used when people are challenging Jesus’ identity (Matthew 9:11; 12: 38; 17: 24; 19:16; 22:16; 22:24; 22:36). This scribe who approaches Jesus seems to have positive intentions in the narrative but the initial title and the way he is titled (as a scribe) hints that this scribe probably does not follow Jesus ‘wherever he goes.’ Jesus’ response to the scribe is a challenge, but as we saw in the healing of the centurion’s son when Jesus’ challenges someone there is the opportunity to respond with trust. The other hint we are given is that the scribe is the initiator of the offer of following Jesus rather than Jesus (as in the disciple’s case).
The second in dialogue with Jesus is labeled as a disciple and they come to Jesus asking for permission to do what is expected in a family relationship. We don’t know the condition of the father, whether he has already died, is very sick or whether the disciple is stating, “Once my father dies, then I can follow you” but we do know that Jesus provides resistance to this qualification. Jesus initiates the call using the same words he used with Peter and Andrew (and presumably James and John) in Matthew 4: 19 and will later use for Matthew in Matthew 9:9. We are given two verbal clues that this disciple does follow Jesus, even after the challenge to ‘let the dead bury their own dead.’
The nature of discipleship in Matthew seems to be called rather than chosen. Others outside the disciples may demonstrate great faith, often more than the disciples themselves demonstrate. Outsiders may see what the disciples struggle to see and yet, those who are disciples in Matthew are invited into this group by Jesus. It is critical for Matthew to link Jesus’ identity to the witness of scriptures, but here an interpreter of those scriptures, a scribe, is challenged and presumably does not get into the boat with his disciples, while his disciples, even one who leaves behind a father who will need to be buried, get into the boat to go away from home. Even though Jesus does seem to operate out of Capernaum as a base of operations for portions of Matthew, he will also continue to travel and send his disciples to travel to towns and villages where they are unknown. The disciples will be separated from the support of home and family as they become a part of the proclamation of the kingdom of heaven. In Jesus they will discover one who is more important than the other commitments and callings of life. In entering the journey with Jesus, they will leave behind other things, but those who get into the boat with him have been called to be there and wonder ‘What sort of man he is.’