The same Jesus who has authority over nature (Mt 8:23-27), demons (8:28-34) and paralysis (9:2-8) is the One whose authority we should acknowledge over our own lives. David Bryant tells of a people movement in India in which twenty thousand poor Christians have divested themselves of virtually all their meager resources, mobilized to send forth as many of their number as possible to reach unreached peoples of India with the gospel (Bryant 1984:52). By contrast, it is difficult to engage many Western church members in such small gestures of self-discipline as fasting a meal or giving up an evening of television for door-to-door witnessing. In view of the way Jesus defines what it means to be his follower, one might well wonder how many of these church members are genuinely following the Jesus who speaks to us in the Gospels.
Following Jesus May Cost Us the Most Basic Security (8:18-20)
The scribe no doubt supposes that he is paying a high price in volunteering to follow Jesus; such a decision will cost popularity in some circles, and going through the process of discipleship after already being a scribe would be a humbling experience (like having to repeat high school after finding out that one's school was unaccredited).
Jesus, however, warns his prospective disciple that even such a sacrifice may be inadequate. Jesus is, after all, the Son of Man who must suffer before his exaltation (compare Dan 7:13-22). As the Arab Christian commentator Ibn Sa'id remarked on this passage, the disciple "does not understand that `follow' means Gethsemane, and Golgotha, and the tomb" (Bailey 1980:24). Although Jesus still had a home base in Capernaum (Mt 4:13), his traveling ministry left him and his disciples at the mercy of others' hospitality. In practice, then, Jesus was essentially homeless. Matthew records Jesus' words not merely as a matter of historical interest but as a call to his own generation, and by implication to ours: are we ready to follow Jesus even at the cost of all securities (10:5-14; compare Heb 11:38)?
Following Jesus Takes Precedence over All Social Obligations (8:21-22)
Jesus' priority over social obligations includes even those family obligations one's society and religion declare to be ultimate. Let the dead bury their own dead may refer to the "spiritually dead" (compare Lk 15:24, 32); others suggest, "Let the other physically dead in your father's tomb see to your physically dead father," a manifest impossibility characteristic of Jesus' typically shocking and graphic style (compare McCane 1990:41).
Jesus' demand may prove less harsh in some respects than it sounds to us at first. The disciple (by calling him this Matthew makes the narrative explicitly relevant for Christians' commitment) is probably not asking permission to attend his father's funeral later that day; his father likely either was not yet dead or had been buried once already.
When a father died, mourners would gather immediately and a funeral procession would take his body to the tomb (see Mt 27:59-60; Mk 5:35, 38; Lk 7:12), leaving no time for a bereaved son to be talking with rabbis. For a week afterward the family would remain mourning at home and not go out in public (Sirach 22:12; Judith 16:24). But current Semitic idioms show that "I must first bury my father" can function as a request to wait until one's father dies-perhaps for years-so that one may fulfill the ultimate filial obligation before leaving home (Bailey 1980:26).
A custom practiced only in the period immediately surrounding the time of Jesus may illumine this passage more directly, however. In Jesus' day the eldest son would return to the tomb a year after the father's death to "rebury" his father by neatly arranging his now bare bones in a container and sliding it into a slot in the wall. If the father of the man in Matthew's account has died, this young man cannot be referring to his father's initial burial and so must be asking for as much as a year's delay for a secondary burial (see McCane 1990).
At the same time, Jesus' demand also proves harsher than it sounds to us at first. The offense lies not in the immediacy of the demand but in the priority the demand takes over family obligations (Mt 10:21, 35-37). Many Jewish people considered honoring parents the supreme commandment (Ep. Arist. 228; Jos. Apion 2.206) and burial of one's parents one of the most important implications of that commandment, regardless of the circumstances (Tobit 4:3-4; 6:14; 1 Macc 2:70). In most current interpretations of biblical law, only the honor due to God took precedence over the honor shown to parents (Deut 13:6; 4 Macc 2:10-12; Jos. Apion 2.206). Jesus does insist on honoring parents (Mt 15:4-6), yet he demands a greater affection toward himself. Jesus scandalously claims the supreme position of attention in his followers' lives. If we devote ourselves to anyone or anything more than to him, our claim to be his followers becomes hollow, no matter how many "disciples" around us live the same way. And lest we think that Jesus could never demand the immediate abandonment of family obligations we would have otherwise read into the demand, Luke adds a third account that requires just that (Lk 9:61-62; see Keener 1993:215).
Jesus' words in Matthew 8:18-22 were probably intended mainly to weed out would-be disciples who would prove weak in commitment. Jesus wanted people to follow him and welcomed the masses; he did not actually want prospective disciples to abandon him. Mark tells us that Jesus loved a prospective disciple-just before he effectively discouraged the man from following him (Mk 10:21-22). But those who would genuinely be disciples of the King must count the cost before they begin following him (Lk 14:26-35). (Parallels from some other radical ancient teachers demonstrate that commitment rather than harshness was Jesus' intent; see comments on Mt 19:16-22.)