Message: When Good and Bad Aren’t Radical Enough | Scripture: Matthew 8:18-22 | Speaker: Pastor Stephen Choy
If able, please stand as I read to you from Matthew 8:18-22. TWoL: Now, when Jesus saw a crowd around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. 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.” Another of the disciples said to him, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.”
In my sophomore year of high school, I had just decided to switch from a small, private, Christian school to a very large public school, and although I felt completely out of sorts for the first couple of months, one of the things I treasured from my previous school was playing for the basketball team. So, I tried out for it.
And I remember the tryouts without truly remembering them. What I mean by that is I remember walking into the gym. I remember playing basketball and running drills. I remember making the first and second cuts, but I also remember being so nervous and so desirous to impress the coach that I couldn’t enjoy any of the process. It felt like a blur to me. To this day, it was one of the most stressful things I’ve ever done because I didn’t know these guys, I didn’t know what they thought of me—what the coach thought of me, I had come from a small system where everyone knew everyone, and I had a place in that system, but here—I didn’t know who or what I was supposed to be.
I ended up getting cut after the final round, but I remember the day it happened, I got a note from the coach asking me to meet him in his office. So, I went after class, and I walked in, he sat me down, and he said to me, “Stephen, I’m so sorry. I wanted really badly to give you a spot on this team, but as I was putting it together, I had to leave you off the list as the only person who I wanted to include because it doesn’t seem like you like playing. It doesn’t seem like you like the people who you were trying to play with. It just didn’t seem like your heart was in it. You’re a good player, and you were almost there, but in the end, I think you held yourself back.”
And to this day, that word “almost” sits in the pit of my stomach not because I think he was wrong, but because he was absolutely spot on. I had the ability, but because I wasn’t willing to put myself out there, get to know my teammates, think less about myself and my anxieties, I missed out on what could have been. And this is similar to what we find in our passage today—the idea of the almost disciple. The one who wanted to follow Jesus but couldn’t because he wanted something else more, and Matthew wants to show us the two types of people that almost make the cut. They’re divided in their hearts—stubbornly and predictably so.
Yet, those who ultimately follow Jesus are those who walk outside of their own obstinacy and do that which is uniquely unpredictable. They are of one mind, one heart—undivided in their willingness to follow because the kingdom and its King are their highest prize. This is what Matthew challenges us with today—that we be uniquely, undivided disciples of Christ, and that we might be this by challenging and correcting the stubborn, predictable, worldly impulses that tempt us to be content with the idea that we almost made it.
Let’s not be satisfied with ‘almost’. Rather, let’s fight to make it a sure thing, and in order to do that, we have to measure our hearts against the first kind of person that Matthew warns us about, beginning with our first point: be a uniquely undivided disciple of Christ …
1) By Challenging Wrong Hearts Masked by Right Words
Our passage this week really picks up where we left off last week in Matthew 8:1-17. There, we unpacked that, though there are three different events, those three different events really make up one story—one story that is meant to tell us climatically that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament as the great high priest who can cleanse us of our filth, our righteous King who brings in unrighteous outsiders to the covenant community, and our prophet who shows us the full breadth of God’s redeeming love for useless, pitiful creatures like us.
His coming is not merely another piece of history that does not solve humanity’s issues. He is the story. He provides the answers for everything that was left unanswered in Adam, Noah, Abraham, Israel, and David. He is the hope of every unknown future. He is what all history is about, and he is the cornerstone upon which everything shall depend. He’s the one who gives every person throughout all time meaning, and in this, we’re meant to esteem him more than everything else.
We’re meant to see that faith in him can never and will never be misplaced because he became what we should have been. He is the priest who pours out his own, perfect blood to atone for us. He is the King who places the crown upon our heads so that he might suffer the cross of our rebellion. And he is the prophet who is rejected and cast out into darkness so that we might become the righteousness and light of God.
And in that climactic revelation of our story—that Jesus is the Saviour of lepers, gentile oppressors, and useless women—that he is the Saviour of sinners who have no business being in the kingdom of God, we come to our falling action where we’re brought into two different conversations with two different men—conversations that function like the “therefore” or the answer to the question “so what?” after the story’s been told. Christ fills in all the offices of the Old Testament and is whom we’ve been waiting for—so what?
And the first possible answer that Matthew presents us with is that, perhaps, we think he’s the priest, prophet, and King that comes to answer all of our problems now—the one who comes to solve all of life’s greatest struggles. He comes to give us the victory—to liberate and establish us who are enslaved to all the problems that plague our world.
Perhaps, Matthew tells us, we are like this scribe who comes up to Jesus saying, “Teacher, I’ll follow you wherever you go.” But we have to notice a few things about what’s happening here. First, notice that this scribe calls Jesus, “teacher,” which is meant to be contrasted with the leper who is outside the covenant community and not privy to the immediate teachings and actions of Christ. What does that leper call Jesus? He calls him, “Lord.” And, again, the gentile centurion who has no business knowing anything about the Hebrew scriptures, who does he say Jesus is? He calls him Lord—someone who is too incredible and awesome to step foot in his house—he, himself, being the most powerful man in that city.
Yet, this scribe who knows the traditions—who is venerated in Israel as having direct access to Scripture—someone who can read the words on the page himself, remembering that most of Israel, including Christ, at this time is illiterate, the best he can say about Jesus is that he’s a teacher. This scribe is a learned, literate man, maybe, but he is not a man of faith.
He knows all of Scripture, and yet cannot even acknowledge that this Jesus, standing before him, is whom it’s all about. And this becomes a dead giveaway because of how Matthew describes this man—he is called a scribe. Anyone in this book of Matthew referred to as a scribe is never cast in a favourable light. No, he is one who has misled the people of Israel and discipled them in ways that are contrary to the will of God.
Yet, he sees something in Jesus that’s special. He’s not Lord, but there’s something there. So, he says all the right words, “I will follow you wherever you go,” but in his saying them, he doesn’t mean in his heart to submit to Jesus’ authority. He says them because he expects that by following Christ, he will, himself, become known as one of his followers—his disciples—and in being known, he will be able to grow in his popularity, acceptance, and fame. In his mind, he shall become one of the most well-received scribes in Israel. There’s a quid-pro-quo taking place here: “Jesus, let me serve and follow you, so that in my service, you might benefit and venerate me. Let me earn my place of glory with you.”
But then what is Christ’s response? He says God will provide for creatures who have no hope of eternity. God will provide for those unimportant to the grand scheme of his plans. But the Son of Man—a reference commonly linked to the victorious figure in Daniel 7:13-14 who shall be enthroned in the heavens as the ruler over all—this Son of Man who you know so well, and who you expect to come, perhaps, even thinking that you might be that man—he is not who you think he is, and he will not receive, in this life, what you think he will.
No, in this instance, the Son of Man must first be truly a man—a human—the human of all humans, in that, he must bear the most human of lives for the sake of everyone else. His life will be more like the prophet Ezekiel’s who was also called the son of man. That son of man was forced to speak God’s words, while Israel ignored him. That son of man was forced to eat a scroll, lock himself in his own house, be bound with ropes, made mute, lie on his side for 390 days in the cold, and forced to eat soup cooked with dung.
In other words, while Christ comes to take up his mantle as the glorious King over all, he comes, first, to be the sufficient, priestly sacrifice for humanity and the prophesied reject of his own people. And the implicit question that this scribe must answer is, “are you willing to take up that mantle of sacrifice and rejection in order to get to the glory?”
Notice, Jesus doesn’t say that he is the Son of Man. That’s implied. He’s correcting the scribe, telling him that he’s no mere teacher, but if he was a mere teacher, and someone else were to be the Son of Man—if this scribe were to be him, is he willing to take on all that the Son of Man must be? Or, more accurately interpreted, if it turns out that Jesus is the Son of Man, and this scribe wants to partake in the glory that awaits, is he truly willing to follow Christ wherever he goes?
You see, you can say all the right words—for those of us raised in the church, we know this all too well—but what, I hope, we also know is that those words cannot mask the true intentions of our hearts. No sinners’ prayer uttered simply with your mouth can truly save. There must be more. There must be an unswerving commitment to following the Christ who went outside the covenant camp to bring you in.
It’s not enough to understand the trajectory—that Christ is the fulfillment of all Scripture. There must be an appropriate response. And the appropriate response is not pandering to Jesus while secretly harbouring your own ambitions for a life that is suitable in your eyes, but actually, uniquely, and undividedly valuing Jesus—loving him—as your absolute sufficiency, even if, in this life, you receive nowhere to lay your head. There must be a willingness to sacrifice oneself for the sake of him who loved you.
Scribes are seen as bad people in Matthew not because they don’t have good answers to difficult questions but because their hearts and their true intentions betray everything that they say. There is no sacrificial love in their posturing. The true disciple of Christ, on the other hand, is one who cares less about what he says and more about who he is, where he finds his satisfaction, and in whom he grounds his righteousness. The scribe is righteous in his own eyes, but the disciple is righteous because his security and joy is in his Saviour.
We must make sure, then, that we are truly his disciples—that you are one who may not have all the right words to say, but who knows for certain that as you treasure Jesus, he has made your heart right. This is what Jesus requires of his disciples—that they lay aside their ambitions and worldly distractions to see the Christ who stands before you—who beckons you to come and die, and in so doing, to find everlasting, glorious life with him.
2) By Correcting Wrong Approaches Grounded in Right Intentions
The second possible answer that Matthew gives to our “so what?” question is that Christ might be the prophet, priest, and King who, in our eyes, is benevolent and hands-off, meaning, he allows us to live our lives however we want—as if we get to choose when to submit ourselves to him—when we need him. After all, this is how the world defines love isn’t it? That those who love us ought to allow us to decide what is best for ourselves? The scribe was willing to follow immediately in hopes of finding riches and fame. But in this second example, there’s this disciple—assumedly not one of the twelve who follow Jesus to the other side—who understands instinctively that what Christ requires is our allegiance—a whole-hearted allegiance.
He knows the cost that will be demanded of those who desire to be a part of the kingdom, counted as citizens—a cost that will demand everything of him. Yet, even though he knows this—even though he is a discerning man, how does he respond to who Jesus is, and what Jesus calls him to do? He says, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.”
Now, to our ears this sounds quite good. Not only does he approach Jesus with the correct moniker: Lord—properly ascribing to him the covenant name of God, which the scribe was unable or unwilling to admit—but he also says words that every Asian mother and father desires to hear: “my father just died, let me carry out my duties of burying him—tending to my family’s needs before I follow you.”
These sound like deeply pious and selfless words. They’re meant to be a direct contrast to the attitude and ambitions of scribes and Pharisees not only in this story, but later in Matthew, as well, where we find out these Pharisees and scribes are ignoring the needs of their parents because, in their minds, what they have to offer, they give to God. And Jesus rightly condemns them for their hypocrisy—that they’re more intent on serving human traditions and receiving the praise of man for their “holiness” than actually following God’s commandments to honour father and mother.
So, in one sense, this disciple’s intentions are right and good because not only does he want to honour his parents, but he does, based upon the words he uses, actually intend to follow Jesus after the fact—when his duties are completed. Look, here, is someone who sounds good—having the right intentions: honourer of parents and intended follower of Jesus.
The problem with this, of course, is something that I see in my own life all the time. My wife will say something like, “can you take out the trash,” and I’ll respond, “yes, of course. Just after I finish writing this part of the sermon.” But, perhaps, you can guess what happens. I’ll finish that part of the sermon, and I’ll get into another part of the sermon, and another part, and another part, until it’s time for bed. And when I’m done, my mind is wandering off on all the thoughts swirling in my head.
Then, the next morning, at around 7:30 am, I’ll hear outside our door, a monstrous banging—a signal that the garbage truck’s mechanic arm is emptying our cans outside, and I’ll blitz myself out of bed, run downstairs only to look at my wife standing there in our kitchen with that all too gracious look upon her face, and the next words that she speaks will be a like a dagger to my heart, “you’re too late.”
And what’s even more striking in our passage is the greater context of this disciple’s words, in that, if his father had just died, the son wouldn’t be out and about. He would be grieving and mourning the tragedy, and yet there he is, listening to Jesus. So, I looked it up, and I found one commentator who fills in the gap by telling us that to “‘bury one’s father’ is a standard saying for fulfilling one’s family responsibilities for the remainder of the father’s lifetime, with no prospect of his imminent death.” In other words, the dad is not dead yet, and the son is helping him out indefinitely with the implication that after the father dies, he will continue on carrying out the duties of his father until his own son takes up the mantle.
Thus, what his request to Jesus essentially amounts to is a way out—an excuse to not have to do what he knows he has to do. He doesn’t actually want to follow Christ. He doesn’t actually want to be a disciple, but he wants Jesus to think that he does. For all we know, he really does care for his family, and he really does intend to honour his parents, rightly so, but, in this case, he isn’t saying what he’s saying to honour his parents. He’s saying what he’s saying because, for him, the cost is too great—at least at this point in his life. Maybe down the road, he’ll circle back and follow, but for now, he’ll settle for Jesus’s acknowledgment of his piety coupled with the option to do what he needs to do later when he feels ready for it.
Now, church, I’m going to say something that, maybe, some of you do not want to hear, but this text describes some of us. We know we can be holy. We know what we ought to do, but we make excuses in our heads and our hearts to do those things later, or to say we’ll do it next time, when we know all too well that next time we probably won’t. In fact, this passage is the very reason why I am often skeptical of deathbed confessions—people who say, “I believe” right before they die, especially if they are people who have heard the gospel call throughout their life. See, on the one hand, the scribe is willing to do the hard work for fame and fortune, but on the other hand, this disciple desires his convenience—living life on his own terms—not having to sacrifice anything while getting to think of himself as holy.
Very often what I hear about those who confess to believe on their deathbeds is that they have shown throughout their life an outright dismissal of the truth—that it is not something that they needed in their youth, but perhaps it is something that they can receive later—when time permits or when the requirement for sacrifice and selflessness is no longer necessary. Perhaps some of us in this very room are like this, thinking that I’ll give my most sincere confession and believe when I’m ready or when the end draws near.
And what I’m afraid of for people who are like this—people who want to keep the convenience of their life and neglect the urgency of the gospel’s call until the requirement for hard work is over—is that in your death, as you meet Christ face-to-face, as you stand there, as he shows you his nail pierced hands and feet, and asks, “why should I let you into heaven?” Some of us will say, “well, I gave my life to you—right before I died, isn’t that all you need?” And he will respond, “almost, but where were you when I was hungry in need of food? Where were you when I was thirsty, needing a drink? Where were you when I was a stranger needing a home, or when I was naked in need of clothes? Where were you when I was sick and in prison and in need of a friend to minister to me?”
Then he will turn to those people and say, “Depart from me, for I never knew you. You simply were too late, too busy, too holy and pious in your own eyes for me.” What a terrible thing it is to almost make it yet fall into the hands of an angry God.
3) By Commending Wrong People to the Right Way
And here, as we look at our third point, is where Jesus gets adamantly serious because all of us fall into one of these two camps—all of us are either too vainglorious or too lazy to do what is required of us, and yet the beauty and majesty of the gospel is that Jesus was not too vainglorious, and he definitely was not lazy or obsessed with his own convenience. No, his life and the cross shatters both of those things. Where men are obsessed with their own fame and fortune, Christ condescends to be the lowest of men—the Son of Man—the human of humans—to do in his life what none of us could in complete obedience to God, counting none of it as anything spectacular except to do, in joy, what pleased his Father.
And not only was he diligent in the work, but even when he had been whipped, bruised, beaten, scarred, thorns pressed into the marrow of his skull, skin hanging off the exposed nerves and muscles of his body—even then, he bore the cross up Golgotha until he could bear it no more. And when they reached the top, they nailed his hands and his feet to those pieces of wood, mocked him, scorned him, robbed him of his only earthly possessions. AND, when it seemed like he had suffered the worst of it all, God placed the fullness of his wrath upon his shoulders so that this God-Man—this Jesus of Nazareth—this Second Person of the Trinity—divine and immutable from eternity—might be crushed on our behalf.
So that he might bring vainglorious, lazy outsiders—the wrong kind of people—like us in, and not just to bring us in, but with his own blood, to make us right.
This, dear brothers and sisters, is why it is not too much when Jesus says to us, despite the fact that you may have nowhere to place your head, and despite the fact that you may have to give up your conveniences and your excuses to live life on your own terms—it is not too hard of a thing when he says, “Come now, delay no longer, repent of your sin, and follow me.” Why? “Because where I am going has nothing to do with the dead. Rather, it has everything to do with life. Leave the dead to bury their own dead, come be my disciples, raise the dead to life, and dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
Church, don’t strive to be the almost disciple—lay aside your right words and worldly ambitions. Stop making excuses to avoid doing the hard work of becoming holy and pointing others to holiness. Rather, be a uniquely, undivided follower of Jesus. See who he is. See what he’s done for you. And live your life in honour and proclamation of his name knowing that he’s worthy of it—worthy of all that you are—as you find your greatest treasure and hope in him.