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Leadership means saying it as it is

June 29, 2015

Matthew 8:18-22                                 Monday 29th June 2015

[In England we celebrated the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul yesterday]

Today’s gospel paints a picture of Jesus surrounded by a crowd. He has been by the Sea of Galilee all day, performing healing miracles – first the Centurion’s servant (although no-one would have heard about that miraculous healing at that stage); then He had cured St Peter’s mother-in-law; then we are told that many people who are suffering from sickness and disease are brought to Him and He cures them. The plan is to sail off, leaving the crowd behind. And note that these events are taking place in Capernaum, where Jesus has set up base. But He is once again leaving the relative comfort of home in Capernaum and is about to set sail for His first foray into an area where the Jews are in a minority – the gentile land of the Gadarenes, off to the East.

Imagine the clamour of people trying to get Jesus’ attention. Perhaps many of them want to get a miraculous healing themselves, before Jesus sails away. One who manages to reach Jesus despite the desperate melee is an unlikely candidate – a scribe. He’s full of enthusiasm – ‘Master, I will follow you wherever you go.’ In other words, ‘Tell me where you’re going, I’ll meet up with you again’, or even ‘Let me join your band of disciples in the boat, and I’ll come with you.’ This man is literally making a plea to God – he is praying to God – ‘pray, let me become a disciple.’

And the reply he gets from Jesus seems very disappointing. ‘… the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ We know Jesus was brought up in Nazareth, but left what would have been a well-paid job and a comfortable home to pursue His ministry. He had set up His headquarters in Capernaum on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, from where He is about to leave, but most of the time He was ‘on the road’, travelling from town to town.

Why would Jesus put off someone who wanted to join His disciples? We know that Jesus had a remarkable ability to be able to understand people and their personal circumstances; He was clearly able to discern an individual’s motives. It’s speculation on my part, but it seems to me not entirely beyond the realms of possibility that the scribe wanted Jesus to perform a healing miracle; Jesus was able to discern these sort of things, and He could see what was good for people. Despite the scribe’s enthusiasm, Jesus discerns that becoming a disciple was not what this particular man needed. Perhaps Jesus could see that for this scribe, the challenge of living on the road would be too much for Him, and he would end up leaving.

And what of the second man we hear speaking to Jesus today? Matthew carefully tells us that he is ‘one of his disciples’. That man is the opposite of the scribe – the disciple seems to trying to find excuses not to leave with Jesus: ‘Sir, let me go and bury my father first.’

In startling contrast to His reply to the scribe, Jesus says rather curtly ‘Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their dead.’ This sounds dreadfully harsh. But let’s just consider the background to this expression. It is very unlikely that the man’s father has just died and he needs to go to the funeral. Burials in The Middle East at that time – even today – were very rapid, even on the same day. That man would not have been spending the day listening to Jesus if his father had died – he would have been off immediately. It is more likely that the man could be referring to the Jewish practice of waiting 12 months and then re-burying a father’s body: on the first anniversary of a man’s death, his eldest son would be expected to place his father’s bones in a container and for them to be re-interred in a special walled vault. ‘Let me go and bury my father first’ could mean ‘Let me take a break from following you for a year’.

But is the disciple’s motive something else? Is he actually just looking for excuses not to follow Jesus? As I said, Jesus is about to leave Jewish territory for the first time in His ministry, for the land of Gadara.

If we know the background to this disciple, we may have a clue why Jesus gives His disciple a sharp reply; no, not even a reply, but a very clear order: Jesus is in command of this man and gives Him an order: ‘Follow me’. We have heard Jesus use that same expression in Matthew’s gospel before…. it was when Jesus met Peter and Andrew, maybe in the same place at Capernaum where he saw them fishing. And Capernaum was where the brothers lived. He said, “Follow me, and I shall make you fishers of men.”[1]

And in today’s gospel we find Jesus about to do just that – setting out on a boat to go fishing – not for fish but for men – fishers of men.

Who could that reluctant disciple have been? Is this man trying to avoid being a fisher of men in gentile territory? I’ll tell you what I think: I think it was St Peter! We certainly know from the Book of Acts and Paul’s Letter to the Galations[2] that Peter was outside his comfort zone when with gentiles. Was he trying to wriggle out of the trip? What a cheek! His mother-in-law has just been healed by Jesus and that’s how Peter thanks Jesus! That may explain why would Jesus would be a bit exasperated with His reluctant disciple.

Jesus does not accept that the man should stop being a disciple. ‘Let the dead bury the dead.’

What can that possibly mean? Again, a bit of further explanation helps. The Jews believed that as the flesh of a body decomposed to leave just the bones, the decomposition was itself atoning for the sins of that person. In discouraging the second burial of the bones a year after the person died, Jesus is making it clear that atonement for sins is not in any way connected with secondary burial – Jesus is dissociating Himself from a false theology taught by Jewish tradition.

In this short but powerful gospel story, Jesus is showing us is that as Christians we do not have to do what is very common in our culture – agreeing with everything people say to us so as to appear very tolerant and reasonable and understanding. Agreeing to let people make their own life choices, as if all choices are of equal value (what is known as relativism) is false wisdom. What we Christians should be doing is using our gifts of discernment given by the Holy Spirit to help us when making or advising on major decisions. And it may be that sometimes, when someone asks us, full of enthusiasm, for us to agree with their plans, we have to disappoint them. In the long run it may be much better and much kinder to simply say ‘I don’t think that would be good thing for you to do. In our everyday lives we are faced with making decisions, giving people advice, and people making decisions that affect us. Or maybe God will tell us to do things we don’t want to do. Like He told Saint Peter, later on, “When you were young you put on your own belt and walked where you liked, but when you grow old you will stretch out your hands and somebody else will put a belt round you, and take you where you would rather not go.”[3] We should recognise that God is there guiding us and the people who influence us, and big, life-changing decisions have to be made prayerfully. And they are not always comfortable answers that we get from God.

Not all the pleas we make to God get answered in the way we want. Sometimes people say that they are waiting for an answer to their prayers. But often the reality is that they have been given an answer, but because it’s not the answer they were expecting or wanting, they don’t listen. They keep asking, like a child, bleating for sweets. We know that too many sweets are not good for us – apart from making you fat and rotting your teeth, a child also has to learn about respecting their elders and obeying. Giving a child absolutely everything he or she wants is not good for the child and likely to turn them into a spoilt child. Sometimes a child has to be ordered, told, what to do, for their own good.

In His plans for each of His children, God does not want us to be spoilt, doesn’t want us to go off in the wrong direction. So sometimes we’re disappointed by the answer to our prayers. We must learn to trust completely in God – it’s for our own good.

[1] Matthew 4: 19

[2] c.f. Acts 10:9-22; Gal. 2:11-12

[3] John 21: 18

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