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Matthew 8:18-22 “Defining Discipleship”

So, when Jesus saw a crowd around Him, He commanded to depart to the other side. And one scribe approaching said to Him, ‘Teacher, I will follow You any place You might go.’ And Jesus says to him, ‘The foxes have holes and the birds of the air nests, yet the Son of Man does not have a place He might lay His head.’ So a different one from the disciples said to Him, ‘Lord, allow me first to depart and bury my father.’ Yet, Jesus says to him, ‘ Follow Me! And permit the dead to bury their own dead.’


The first block of miracles (8:1-17) has drawn to a close and the second will not begin until v. 23 (8:23-9:8). These verses that stand in between consist of the first of two discipleship narratives. Matthew’s purpose in the first block of miracles was to demonstrate and define Jesus’ authority as the Suffering Servant who has come to vicariously atone for the sins of His people. That nuance of suffering will spill over to Jesus’ followers or disciples. In this first discipleship narrative, Matthew defines discipleship in Jesus’ terms. As a good and trustworthy author, Matthew first sets the context (v. 18) before recording two scenes of contention (vv. 19-22) between Jesus and a couple of would-be disciples.


Context (v. 18)

So, when Jesus saw a crowd around Him, He commanded to depart to the other side.

The transitional δὲ (so/and) links this narrative into Matthew’s wider scope, but not so closely as to make the reader think that this scene takes place on the same day as the events of vv. 1-17. The sequence of events from 8:18-9:8 are tightly connected and should be understood as such. Yet, while logically connected to the previous verses, this is likely a reference to a different day.[1] Yet, Matthew’s intention is not to present a strict chronology of our Lord’s movements but to demonstrate and define what a righteous response to the Lord’s declared authority looks like.

Given what is read in vv. 16-17, there is little surprise at the fact that a crowd surrounds Jesus. Anytime Jesus remains long in a place, He soon becomes the center of attraction. In many ways, this verse is reminiscent of Jesus’ ascent to the mountain (5:1). When He withdrew from the crowds, His primary purpose was to teach His disciples. It seems that this withdrawal to the east side (τὸ πέραν)[2] of the Sea of Galilee is for some personal discipleship. After seeing the crowds, Jesus issues the order for His disciples to depart. Those who have decided to follow Jesus are about to take their first steps in tangible obedience.


Contention (vv. 19-22)

Regarding these two men, it should be noted that Matthew does not say whether they heeded Jesus’ warnings or that they departed. Their ultimate decision is as irrelevant as their identities. The point is not whether they decided to follow Jesus or not, but to define what genuine discipleship is. In brief, genuine discipleship consists of (1) being ready to suffer as Jesus suffered and (2) a determination to forsake everything that stands in the way of following Jesus alone.


Sobriety for the Superficial (vv. 19-20)

There are so many little nuances in this exchange that reveal both Jesus’ precision and Matthew’s genius. As we’ve seen in the past, Jesus mirrors the terms as well as the grammar of His interviewer to make His point. As for Matthew, the manner in which he recounts this scene betrays his knack for drawing the audience in.


The Superficial Scribe (v. 19)

“And one scribe approaching said to Him, ‘Teacher, I will follow You any place You might go.’”

Matthew has the reader’s attention from the jump by mentioning a scribe (γραμματεύς). Matthew often refers to the scribes and Pharisees in unison (5:20; 12:38; 23:13, 15, 23, 25, 27, 29), though it would be a mistake to consider scribes as part of the Pharisees. The scribes were the resident experts in the Law (Torah) as well as the oral traditions of rabbinic explanation and application (Mishnah). Because the Pharisees gave equal weight to Scripture (Torah, Prophets, Writings) and the Mishnah, they would have relied heavily upon the expertise and knowledge of the scribes.[3] The scribes are almost always introduced as opponents of Jesus but here is one who thought highly of Him.

Matthew does not say “a scribe came and said…” (προσελθὼν γραμματεὺς εἶπεν) but “one scribe came and said” (προσελθὼν εἷς γραμματεὺς εἶπεν). The adjective εἷς is the cardinal number “one” and is stronger than a simple indefinite article (a, an).[4] Of the 66 uses of εἷς in Matthew, there are only 5 occurrences that are not rendered as “one” in English translations (8:19; 9:18; 12:11; 19:16; 26:69), yet each of these clearly have a specific and singular person/object in view. Matthew knows that the scribes have not been represented as those who are friendly or obliging toward Jesus and His message. But here is one who certainly seems to be. But all is not as it may seem on the surface.

Even the way in which Matthew presents this scribe’s approach is significant. Matthew frequently uses a form of προσέρχομαι (to come/approach) for those who approach Jesus for various purposes and this verb is regularly a conduit (as here) to get to the main action. For example, the angels came ministering (ἄγγελοι προσῆλθον καὶ διηκόνουν αὐτῷ  – 4:11), the leper came worshiping (προσελθὼν προσεκύνει – 8:2), and the centurion came exhorting (προσῆλθεν αὐτῷ ἑκατόναρχος παρακαλῶν αὐτὸν – 8:5). This man comes with nothing other than his words, and even these leave us with a mixed opinion of him.

On the surface, this exclamation seems to be a positive note. This scribe boldly offers to follow Jesus any place that He may go. Given the context of Jesus’ command to depart across the Sea of Galilee, the scribe is offering to accompany Him as one of His disciples. Yet, the superficial tone comes out as soon as the scribe opens his mouth. The leper and the centurion call Jesus “Lord” (κύριε), while this scribe addresses Him as “teacher” (διδάσκαλε). While technically true of Jesus, Matthew never put these words in the mouths of genuine disciples (12:38; 17:24; 22:16, 24, 36).[5] It is as if this scribe, a teacher in his own right, seeks out Jesus as a tutor or one who clearly has something that he does not (7:29).

The exclamation is certainly eager, definitely genuine. The scribe’s use of the subjunctive (ὅπου ἐὰν ἀπέρχῃ) indicates an eagerness to follow Jesus into the unknown: Any place you might go. Yet perhaps his claim is lacking in substance. It smacks of a desire to learn from Jesus only to teach as He taught. Nevertheless, Jesus responds in such a way that takes the man’s words at face value. In so doing, Jesus brings some much-needed sobriety to the scribe’s superficial offer.


The Sobering Savior (v. 20)

“And Jesus says to him, ‘The foxes have holes and the birds of the air nests, yet the Son of Man does not have a place He might lay His head.’”


Matthew’s Greek uses the present tense (λέγει) to record Jesus’ response, a change from the normal aorist (εἶπεν) used for the scribe. This historical use of the present tense draws attention and vividness to Jesus’ words,[6] much the same way we would set up the punchline of a joke or anecdote (for example: …then I says to him, “This ain’t Dodge City, and you ain’t Bill Hickok”). Jesus’ response takes on the scribe’s superficial enthusiasm and corrects his miscalculation of Jesus’ identity.

The obvious correction is the extent to which this scribe is willing to follow Jesus. By mentioning foxes and birds, Jesus addresses some of the “lesser” creatures of the earth.[7] Of all predators, foxes are hardly known for their ferocity, relying on cunning and stealth to achieve their goals. The birds of the air have already been used by Jesus as examples of helpless, hapless creatures who depend upon God for their survival (6:26). Yet, neither one of these creatures are lacking a place to rest and raise their young. In contrast to even these foxes and birds, Jesus has no place to rest His head at night. Jesus mirrors the scribes use of the subjunctive as well as his use of “place”: You want to follow me any place I might go (ὅπου ἐὰν ἀπέρχῃ)? Do you not understand that I have no place I might lay my head (οὐκ ἔχει ποῦ τὴν κεφαλὴν κλίνῃ)? Jesus is a master of using people’s own words to drive home His point.

This does not mean that Jesus is homeless or destitute, but that the work He is engaged in is long, tiring, and leaves little room for respite. If the scribe is relying on emotional enthusiasm to stoke his fire, his flame will soon grow cold. But Jesus adds more to this caution than a sobering reality of the work the scribe is attempting to sign up for. He corrects the scribe’s understanding of who he’s signing up for.

Of the eighty odd reference to “The Son of Man” in the New Testament, thirty of them (34%) are used in Matthew’s gospel (8:20; 9:6; 10:23; 11:19; 12:8,32, 40; 13:37, 41; 16:13, 27, 28; 17:9, 12, 22; 19:28; 20:18, 28; 24:27, 30, 37, 39; 24:44; 25:31; 26:2, 24, 45, 64). Each one of these references are spoken by Jesus as He refers to Himself. Here we read the first. The original reference is without a doubt an allusion to Dan. 7:13-14, where one like a Son of Man is given dominion, glory, and a kingdom by the Ancient of Days. Clearly Jesus’ favorite moniker, “Son of Man” is a messianic title that (1) is free of political and nationalistic baggage, (2) contains clear overtones of His divinity, (3) is linked through Dan. 7 with the redemption of His people, and (4) obviously refers to His humanity.[8] In many ways, the title “Son of Man” more clearly articulates Jesus’ mission and identity than even the title of “Messiah”.

This is a remarkable claim on Jesus’ part, one that goes far to correct any misunderstanding the scribe may have. Jesus is more than a wandering rabbi, profound teacher, or itinerate preacher who can be learned from. This is the Son of Man who will literally inherit the earth as His kingdom. Yet, because Jesus links this title with a life of restless toil He also corrects any notion that attachment to Him will secure a life of ease and plenty. In the future He will inherit the kingdom. But the present is a life of suffering. Therefore, His disciples in the present will share in suffering, isolation, and loneliness. To follow the Son of Man is to become an outcast, isolated from the comforts of the world.[9]

Matthew does not say what the scribe’s response was. This information is not relevant to his objective. The point is to define discipleship as (a) a difficult calling and (b) correctly identifying the One being followed.


Command for the Uncommitted (vv. 21-22)

Matthew moves from the scribe to a different one of the disciples (ἕτερος δὲ τῶν μαθητῶν). This is a new speaker who is one among those who are following Jesus. We do not learn his identity, only that he has made some sort of decision to follow Jesus. If the scribe spoke too quickly and promised too much, this one promises too little.[10]


The Uncommitted Disciple (v. 21)

“So a different one from the disciples said to Him, ‘Lord, allow me first to depart and bury my father.’”

To his credit, the disciple addresses Jesus more accurately as “Lord” (κύριε). He’s operating on a better presupposition than the scribe. The request to first depart and bury his father is in reference to the context of v. 18. Jesus has given the command to depart (ἀπελθεῖν) to the other side. This man wants to first depart (ἀπελθεῖν) and bury his father. This seems like a fair request, one that even has some biblical precedent (1 Kings 19:19-21). Some (as Morris, p. 203) suppose that the man’s father is not actually dead and that this is a request to linger at home until such a time that his father dies. As such, this would be a lawful request for one who is obeying the command to honor father and mother (Ex. 20:12; Deut. 5:16). Such a thought is not only foreign to the context but would make Jesus’ uncompromising response utterly unintelligible.


The Uncompromising King (v. 22)

“Yet, Jesus says to him, ‘ Follow Me! And permit the dead to bury their own dead.’”

The same historical present (λέγει) is used by Matthew to draw vivid attention to Jesus’ words. Jesus gave the order to depart (v. 18). This “disciple” asked permission to depart from Jesus. Jesus’ response is the only one we would ever expect of Him: follow Me! The present imperative (ἀκολούθει) demands immediate and continued obedience: keep following Me! This man has already decided to follow Jesus and Jesus is calling on him not to reverse course. This is a call to persevere. When it gets down to brass tacks, this is a request to defect. There is no such thing as a “time out” for disciples. One is either following Jesus or not. There is no bench to sit on along the sidelines. In other words, Jesus is disinclined to acquiesce his request. He says “no”.

Jesus’ closing remarks cause many to take pause. What on earth could it mean for the dead to bury their own dead? It is popular to consider “the dead” (τοὺς νεκροὺς) as those who are spiritually dead and “their own dead” (τοὺς ἑαυτῶν νεκροὺς) as those who are physically dead. How one arrives at this conclusion given the context is a marvel indeed. Those being buried (their own dead - τοὺς ἑαυτῶν νεκροὺς) are clearly physically dead (thus the disciple is not requesting to wait around until his father passes but is requesting permission to go and place his dead corpse in the ground). But the grammar identifies these physically dead as a subgroup of the first. The physically dead belong to the dead who bury them. They are their own (ἑαυτῶν) dead. It’s better (and much less confusing) to understand both “dead” as those who are physically dead.

What then does this mean? It is essential to keep the larger point in view. Jesus has denied this disciples request to depart, literally to disobey Jesus’ command to depart to the other side of the lake, because nothing is more important than following Jesus alone. If this man’s father has already died, there is nothing to be done for him. The duties of a son have come to a close. Jesus does not mean that he should let his father’s body rot in the sun. Jesus is using a figure of speech to prove His point. The man’s father  is no longer in the realm of the living, but that of the dead. Let the dead care for him. This is an incredible statement from Jesus regarding His own self-importance, heighted by the urgency of the hour.[11] The disciple cannot defect. It is now time to follow Jesus.

[1] William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1973), p. 401.

[2] The adverb πέραν (peran) indicates an area or direction beyond or across some boundary. The predominantly Gentile region across the Sea of Galilee or beyond the Jordan River was commonly referred to as Perea or “The Place Beyond.”

[3] Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, Third (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), p. 516.

[4] Greek has no indefinite article. To say “a scribe” is achieved simply by omitting any modifier. The use of εἷς draws attention and specificity rather than ambiguity.

[5] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992), p. 200.

[6] Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar: Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996), p. 526-32.

[7] John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005), p. 366.

[8] Morris, p. 201-2.

[9] Nolland, p. 366-7.

[10] Grant Osborne, Matthew, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2010), p. 305-6.

[11] Nolland, p. 368.

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