Jesus did not give people the option of being half-hearted about Him. We cannot escape the fact that receiving the grace we find in Jesus is inextricably connected, by Jesus Himself, to following and obeying Him, even when it means we have to give up many significant things in this life.
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Matthew #27 . Matthew 8:14-22
When Jesus went into Peter’s house, He saw his mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever. So He touched her hand, and the fever left her. Then she got up and began to serve Him. When evening came, they brought to Him many who were demon-possessed. He drove out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick, so that what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: He Himself took our weaknesses and carried our diseases.
Starting at the beginning of chapter eight, Matthew has been telling us of several healing incidents. Some commentators like to point out that the first two healings were done to people who were outcasts in the eyes of normal Jewish society at the time, so they say that Peter’s mother-in-law was also a kind of outcast – in that she was a woman. However, you can’t get this idea from either the text itself, or from actual historical evidence. In point of fact, given that Peter’s mother-in-law serves Jesus as soon as she is well (presumably meaning she cooked and served his dinner) and the fact that she lives with Peter, it’s pretty ridiculous to view her as some kind of outcast. I bring this up merely to caution us against trying to make the bible fit neatly with our pre-conceived patterns or biases. It’s unfortunate, but true, that sometimes people misinterpret, or even make up, historical and cultural details in order to get the bible to support their own agenda.
The point here is that Jesus didn’t just heal two outcasts – he healed a whole bunch of people, including good Jewish people like Peter’s mother-in-law. Even more than that, Matthew points out that this is a fulfillment of another prophecy about the Messiah, this time from Isaiah 53:4
Yet He Himself bore our sicknesses, and He carried our pains
In other words, Jesus’ healing miracles provided yet another confirmation of who He truly was, and backed up his claims to have the authority of God Himself.
It also says that people brought many to Him who were demon-possessed, and Jesus drove out the spirits with a word. There has been some confusion for many Christians about the condition of being “demon-possessed.” The Greek word here is daimonidzomenous, which could be literally translated “being oppressed by demons.” A good shorthand translation of the root word would be “demonized.” The point I want to make is this. The New Testament does not usually paint a picture of someone being completely “taken over” or “inhabited” by demons (though there are a few exceptions). In most cases, when we see “demon possessed” in English, we should probably read it as meaning, “harassed by demons.” The ESV does a good job with this word, often translating it “oppressed by demons.”
I have some friends who have a son. Several years ago, the boy was exhibiting huge behavioral problems, and he was diagnosed by psychiatrists as having a condition called “reactive detachment disorder.” The parents didn’t know what to do, and had very little hope – they had tried everything that psychiatry and medicine had to offer. I talked to them about the possibility that their son was harassed by demons. They said, “We don’t think so. If we know anything, we do know that he truly trusts in Jesus.” They believed, as many Christians do, that a Jesus-follower cannot be possessed by a demon. I believe that too, but I do think that Jesus-followers can be harassed by demons, or, “demonized,” and the language of the New Testament suggests that is true; in fact, that is most often what daimonidzomai means. Anyway, we got together with the parents, their son, and some other friends, and confronted the demonic harassment in the name of Jesus, and their son’s life was transformed. We witnessed a genuine, New Testament miracle brought about by Jesus Christ.
I share all this for two reasons. First, so that if you are struggling with something that seems very difficult to get handle on, and nothing else seems to work, you may consider the possibility of demonic harassment. I certainly don’t think that all mental illnesses or behavioral issues are demon-induced. However, even among Christians, there is that possibility. The second thing is, Jesus is here present with us just as fully as he was in Peter’s house that evening, and through us He can and will still remove demonic oppression and set people free.
When Jesus saw large crowds around Him, He gave the order to go to the other side of the sea. A scribe approached Him and said, “Teacher, I will follow You wherever You go! ” Jesus told him, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head.”
“Lord,” another of His disciples said, “first let me go bury my father.” But Jesus told him, “Follow Me, and let the dead bury their own dead.”
It appears that Jesus was not entirely happy about having crowds of people following him. These days, we think that the bigger a ministry or church is, the better and more effective it must be. Jesus didn’t seem to think so. He wanted to get away from them, and (it seems, from what follows) even thin out their ranks a little bit.
A man in the crowd comes to him. This individual was a scribe, which makes him one of the educated elite, and probably even wealthy. He calls Jesus “Rabbi,” or, “teacher.” He seems enthusiastic as he declares his commitment to Jesus and you would think Jesus would want to encourage him. These days, if an educated elite person came to a modern Christian pastor and enthusiastically said he wanted to join the church, most of us would say, “Oh Absolutely! I know you are going to love being part of our community. Please just let us know how we can minister to you.” Initially, we would talk about the benefits of following Jesus and of joining our church. We would probably feel nervous about suggesting ways that such a person might contribute until he had been with us for a while, and it would probably be even longer than that, if ever, before we pointed out how it might negatively affect his standing in the community and his financial security.
But Jesus’ response to this man amounts to basically this: “Whatever. You aren’t going to be able to keep your home if you follow me.”
If you have never noticed this side of Jesus before, I want you to pay attention now. He is shocking, almost rude. It almost seems like He doesn’t care if the man follows Him or not. I could quickly name a hundred or more church-goers and even church leaders who would chastise any pastor who acted like Jesus did in this situation; but actually, I’m not sure I know any pastor who would risk it.
But the truth is, all four gospels record Jesus behaving like this. Rather than trying to make discipleship appealing, he often seems to say things to discourage people from “joining the movement.” He consistently avoided and distrusted large crowds of people who appeared to be excited about him, at least, at a superficial level. In America, for a whole generation, Christian leaders have been trying to gather large, superficial crowds, hoping that they will move from shallow, non-committal church goers into true disciples. We challenge them only reluctantly and even then we do it very, very gently. However, Jesus immediately confronts people with the cost and commitment level required to follow him.
A second person was with Jesus. Matthew calls him a “disciple” and records that he calls Jesus “Lord.” The ancient church leader, Clement of Alexandria, writing about this passage one-hundred and fifty years later, records a tradition that says this was actually Philip, one of Jesus’ first two disciples, and one of the “twelve,” but we can’t know for sure.
This disciple says that he needs to bury his father before he can come with Jesus. Some commentators have speculated that the man’s father was not actually dead yet, but was elderly, and expected to die soon. In this case, the disciple was saying, “I’ll follow you, but not until I after I have finished dealing with my dad’s illness and eventual death.” The other possibility is that this disciple’s father had just died, and the burial was about to happen, and so he was saying to Jesus that he couldn’t go across the lake with him just now, because he had to go to the funeral.
Either way, Jesus’ response is once again shocking and rude: “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.” This is another one of those places that is not great moral teaching, or wise philosophy, or a kind outlook. In these two incidents Jesus plainly puts it to people that what he wants from them is to obey Him, and put Him above everything else. It is not good teaching or wise philosophy unless Jesus is in fact, the Messiah, God-in-the-flesh.
Could I put it this way? Jesus is not trying sell people on the benefits of being his disciple. He is up front about how hard it is. The reason to follow him is not because it will benefit you. The reason to follow him is because he is the Messiah, the Savior of the World, God the Son come in flesh.
The Word of God is always relevant. Just this week as I was preparing this sermon, one of the leaders of the largest church in the United States made a statement that the real reason to follow God and worship Him is for what we get out it, because it benefits us, and makes us happy, and that’s what makes God happy. All you have to do is read these verses to know how distorted that message is.
There’s more. This passage is not a specific command for every Christian to sell her house, or let her parents die unattended. But Matthew uses these as examples of the fact that Jesus intends us to put Him in front of absolutely everything and everyone else, and that there are times when doing that results in radical obedience that involves very difficult choices, and giving up things that are very dear to us.
At some point, following Jesus will cost us. Nothing should be more important to us than Jesus, and if it comes to it, yes, we should leave our family in His hands and follow Him, or be willing to give up our home and our financial security to follow him. It may cost us family members or friends, or a career, or the kind of life we think we want.
Let me be a little bold. I know many people who call themselves Christians who have a very difficult time taking even just a couple hours a week to worship Jesus with other believers, let alone dedicating any other time to serving Him. Something like giving up financial security to follow Jesus is not even on the horizons of their minds. Sports get in the way, especially sports for children. Families will think nothing of running their nine-year-old children to practices and games that chew up six to twenty hours in a week, and then say they are too tired to spend an hour or two learning more about Jesus and worshipping him with other believers, or even just hanging out with other Christians who need emotional or spiritual support. Jobs and careers interfere. People get busy with all sort of things: hobbies, home-improvement, social events, entertainment, even television.
Here we read that Jesus confronted one man about having a home, and a second about going to his father’s funeral. What do you think he has to say to you about your excuses for not following him, and not being more involved with others who do?
Following Jesus means he comes first, before everything and everyone. He comes before your home. Before your family, your friends or career. He comes before getting a sports scholarship for your child. He comes before your comfort, your security, your preferences, your plans.
We want to give half-hearted Christians an option. In part, we pastors allow half-hearted Christians in our churches because it feels safer, financially. Honestly, if I had whole bunch of half-hearted Christians in my church who would at least just give some money, I would feel better off financially than I am with these few whole-hearted Jesus-followers. If just don’t offend them, everything will be stable for me We also do it in the name of compassion. We don’t want people to feel bad about the choices they are making, especially if they are not choices to sin overtly. I mean, what’s so bad about sports?
But do we really think we are more compassionate than Jesus? Isn’t it compassion to tell someone the truth? Would you want a doctor to tell you that you were absolutely fine, when in reality you were suffering from cancer, and needed treatment immediately if you were to be cured? Compassion would speak the hard truth: “You need treatment, and you need it now.”
Jesus did not give people an option to be half-hearted about Him. “You want to follow me, you will have no house.” Or, “You want to follow me, you won’t be able to take care of your elderly father, or even go to his funeral.” This is not an obscure teaching of Jesus. We will revisit it again in the book of Matthew, and it appears all throughout the New Testament. Still to come (in just Matthew) are: “You want to follow me, you have to put me above father, mother, husband, wife, children, sister and brother,” and “You want to follow me, be willing to die – to give up everything for me – every single day.” The compassion of Jesus tells us this: If He is not first, if he does not come before everything, we are in danger, and we need treatment.
Now, there is grace to us when we fail to put Jesus first. Let’s suppose for moment that the second man here, the disciple, was in fact Philip. He had been putting his father first. Jesus confronted him about it. We know that Philip humbly received that correction, and he went on to become an important leader in the early church, responsible for sending Christianity to Africa for the very first time. I fail to put Jesus first sometimes. I imagine we all do. He has compassion on us, and forgives us, but he does also call us to correct the mistake.
It often seems like we have made the faith into a set of intellectual beliefs which to which we subscribe. And that’s comfortable, because we can say believe those things, no matter what our behavior. But what the bible calls faith is really just following Jesus. We cannot escape the fact that receiving the grace we find in Jesus is inextricably connected by Jesus Himself to following and obeying Him, even when it means we have to give up many significant things in this life.
“Happy are they who, knowing that grace, can live in the world without being of it, who, by following Jesus Christ are so assured of their heavenly citizenship that they are truly free to live their lives in this world. Happy are those who know that discipleship simply means the life that springs from grace, and that grace simply means discipleship. Happy are they who have become Christians in this sense of the word. For them the word of grace has proved a fount of mercy.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship
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