Word Magazine April 1986 Page 23
REFLECTIONS ON THE WORD OF GOD
“BEING A FOLLOWER OF CHRIST”
—A Reflection on Matthew 8:18-22—
by The Rev. Dr. Stanley S. Harakas
Christians, by their name, are identified as followers of Christ. It was in Antioch, the Bible tells us, that the disciples of Christ were given that name (Acts 11:26). Jesus frequently spoke of what it meant to follow Him: it would take many articles, or even a book to explore all these references to discipleship in the New Testament.
In the passages we are going to look at in this month’s “Reflection” and in next month’s issue of The Word, Jesus confronts two would-be disciples. How he deals with them teaches you and me a great deal about what it means to be a follower of Christ. We will discover that discipleship is both costly and demanding.
The Lord Who Commands
“Now when Jesus saw great crowds around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side” (Matthew 8:18).
Jesus was one to give orders. He spoke, and the sick were healed. He ordered, and nature obeyed. He commanded, and His disciples followed. But before Jesus entered the boat with His disciples to cross the Sea of Galilee, two who would be His followers came up to him testing what it would mean for people to follow Him. The candidates were totally different from each other and each of them, it seems, failed to make the grade. In a few verses we meet the first of them, a scribe who claimed to want to be a follower of the Lord. Let us look at this encounter to learn something about what it means to be a follower of Christ.
On The Lord’s Terms Only
“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” (Matthew 8:19-20).
The scribes were among the most learned persons in the Jewish society of the time. The scribes (Greek “grammateus”) were persons who were scholars of the Hebrew Scriptures, The Torah. They were Rabbis, and could be compared to ordained theologians of today. They had great prestige and respect among the people. Jesus, of course, was not counted as being among them. They thought of Jesus as being “unlearned in the Law.” Most of the scribes criticized Jesus and condemned His teaching (Matthew 9:3, 15:2, 21:15).
But here was one who claimed to believe in Christ and said that he wanted to follow Him. St. John Chrysostom points out that Jesus didn’t look only to the words that the man said, but understood his inner disposition, his intentions. It would be as if a man with a Ph.D. were to offer to become the follower of a storefront preacher. Can you imagine what his attitude would be?
The Inner Disposition
Hidden in the words were condescension and pride. “Seest thou how great his arrogance?” asks Chrysostom, “For as not deigning to be numbered with the multitude, and indicating that he is above the common sort, so he comes near.” His motives did not appear on the surface. But with his high scholarly standing Jesus suspects that Scribe wants to be a disciple, but only on his terms. The scholar needs his books, his library, his desk, his study, his scholarly resources, his quiet and leisure. The Scribe wants to follow, but only in a way that suits him. That’s not what it means to be a disciple.
So, Jesus puts him to the test. Is the desire to be a disciple complete? Is it sincere? “Sure,” Jesus says in effect, “you can become my disciple, but you will not be able to do it on your terms. You will not be able to continue being an authority, a teacher of the people and a scholar. You will not be able to stay put in your comfortable study, making authoritative statements about the Law. For if you are going to be a follower of mine, you must abandon your style of life and assume mine.”
“Foxes have their holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” “Who you are, where you are, what you do, no longer defines you: your discipleship to me is what must become the most important thing about your life,” is what Jesus was saying to this proud man.
And like the rich young ruler who turned away from Jesus, when it was wealth which stood in the way of discipleship (Matthew 22:26 and Luke 20:25), the scribe fails to rise to the occasion: Chrysostom sadly notes “he did not say, ‘I am ready to follow Thee.’” His pride of position and intellectual arrogance kept him out of the number of the disciples. He wanted discipleship on his own terms — and the lesson which we learn is that there is no such thing.
To be a Christian is to be a follower of Christ. To be a follower of Christ means many things. If we are Christians in heart, mind and spirit, and not in name only, these lines of Scripture challenge us. We follow Christ not on conditions which we set, but on His terms. That means that we are ready to see His will in the circumstances which surround us. We need to acknowledge that He is Lord (Philippians 2:11), that He is properly entitled to our full loyalty, devotion, commitment and obedience.
A Christian in heart, mind and spirit —and not in name only — doesn’t serve the Lord on his or her conditions, but on the Lord’s conditions. This is the first of two true marks of discipleship which are highlighted in Matthew 8:18-22. Next month we will look at the other.