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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Follow the Leader


If you think someone can choose to follow Jesus, think again.



τὰ πρόβατα τὰ ἐμὰ τῆς φωνῆς μου ἀκούει, κἀγὼ γινώσκω αὐτά καὶ ἀκολουθοῦσίν μοι.
John 10:27



There are still a large number of people out there who think that following Jesus is just a matter of one's choosing to do so. The field of Christian Apologetics would cease to exist if those populating it weren’t certain that all a person has to do is decide that the arguments for following Jesus are more convincing than the arguments against, then act on their new-found conviction. Unfortunately for them, unless Jesus commands that person to follow him, he won’t be able to do it.

Yeah, he should apologize.

The New Testament Gospels are full of accounts of those who try to follow Jesus, but are dissuaded from doing so by the Lord Himself. This is usually due to the person or persons having the wrong reasons for following Him—reasons Jesus always perceives. Several of these incidents spring to mind: the crowd who came to get fed again (John 6:26); the crowd who wanted to crown Him king (Luke 6:15). Jesus was a miracle-worker and drew huge crowds, but by the end of His ministry, there were only a few followers left willing to associate with Him. What false followers He hadn’t chased away personally, were soon sent packing by His arrest, conviction and crucifixion.

In the last six verses at the end of the ninth chapter of the Gospel of Luke (vv. 57-62), where Jesus encounters three different men on His way to Jerusalem, there is a succinct example of both the Lord’s winnowing of would-be followers and His (seemingly) random choosing of disciples. Here’s the full pericope as it appears in the New King James Version:
57Now it happened as they journeyed on the road, [that] someone said to Him, "Lord, I will follow You wherever You go." 58And 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."

59Then He said to another, "Follow Me." But he said, "Lord, let me first go and bury my father." 60Jesus said to him, "Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and preach the kingdom of God."

61And another also said, "Lord, I will follow You, but let me first go [and] bid them farewell who are at my house.". 62But Jesus said to him, "No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God."
Notice that the first man took it upon himself to become a follower of Jesus; notice, too, the Lord’s somewhat quixotic retort. In the Scriptures, both foxes and birds represent wicked people. In Luke 13:31-32, the fox is Herod; in Matt 13:19, Mark 4:15 and Luke 8:12, the birds of the air are the Wicked One, Satan and the Devil respectively. By introducing this contradistinction between the visible households of the wicked and the homelessness of the righteous in this world, is Jesus revealing something about the first man’s character and his unrighteous reason for following Him?

The answer to that question, it seems to me, would depend upon whether this reply was calculated to dissuade the man or not. If it was, then it should successfully repel him from following Jesus, suggesting strongly that the man is a fox or bird at heart. In the parallel verses of Matthew’s Gospel, where this man is identified as a scribe, we see that the Lord's parabolic reply did indeed stop the fellow from following Him.1
8:18And when Jesus saw great multitudes about Him, He gave a command to depart to the other side. 8:19Then a certain scribe came and said to Him, “Teacher, I will follow You wherever You go.” 8:20And 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."

8:21Then another of His disciples said to Him, "Lord, let me first go and bury my father." 8:22But Jesus said to him, "Follow Me, and let the dead bury their own dead."

8:23Now when He got into a boat, His disciples followed Him.
Clearly, since only disciples followed Jesus into the boat, the scribe didn’t. Another false follower, with the wrong motivation, was sent packing!

The experience of the third man whom Jesus encounters in Luke’s Gospel is similar to the first man. Like him (the scribe), the third man also takes it upon himself to announce that he will follow Jesus. Here, too, the context of the encounter, introduced by the man’s request and the analogy in Jesus’ reply, revolves around the differences between the households of the wicked and the righteous. These similarities between the two encounters indicate that Jesus’ reply was also calculated to repel the man from following Him. And although it is not stated in the text, as with the first reply, this one would've been just as effective.

The effect of these parabolic replies brings to mind the remarks Jesus made after delivering the Parable of the Sower. Although He delivered the parable to a gigantic crowd, it was only His disciples who later followed Him into the house where He had retreated. Only they asked Him what the parable meant and why He spoke to the crowd in parables; the crowd had dispersed in ignorance (cf Matt 13:10; Mark 4:10; Luke 8:9). Here’s how Mark records what Jesus told them:
4:11And He said to them, "To you it has been given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God; but to those who are outside, all things come in parables, 12"so that 'Seeing they may see and not perceive, And hearing they may hear and not understand; Lest they should turn, And [their] sins be forgiven them.' "
The word translated “outside” here is ἔξω [ekso], meaning “out of the house”. It is used figuratively in the NT for those who are outside the Household of God, unbelievers belonging to another family.

Here Jesus is echoing the words of Isaiah 6:9-10. What He is saying is that, if He doesn’t want someone who has come to Him to continue following Him, to join His family, He will speak to that person in parables that He’s made sure they cannot understand.

Now let’s compare the experiences of the first and last man of Luke’s Gospel with the experience of the second man.
9:59Then He said to another, "Follow Me." But he said, "Lord, let me first go and bury my father." 60Jesus said to him, "Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and preach the kingdom of God."
The most obvious difference with this exchange is that the second man does not put himself forward like the others did. In fact, he seems rather disinclined to get involved, trying as he does to beg off following by citing his duty to his father at home (his earthly lord)2. This time, it is Jesus who initiates the encounter by commanding the man to follow Him.

In the Greek, the verb translated “follow” is in the active imperative mood and, as we learned here in another post, every time Jesus delivers a commandment in the active imperative mood, it is obeyed. Every. Single. Time. Hence Matthew identifies the second man as a disciple who follows Jesus into the boat.

By the way, Matthew’s calling the man a disciple before Jesus orders him to follow Him, does not mean that he was a disciple prior to the call. The Gospel writers are not relating events the way we would narrate them in a fictional story. They are not revealing information sequentially for dramatic effect. Matthew is simply stating the final condition of the man by way of introduction, just as Judas is introduced as the betrayer of Jesus in each of the Gospels before the occasion of his betrayal is related (cf Matt 10:4; Mark 3:19; Luke 6:16; John 6:71).1

Notice that even in the encounter with the second man, the wicked/righteous household subtext of the pericope is maintained. However, this time, we see that this man is being adopted into the righteous household. This time, Jesus calls the man out of his “dead” family (“follow me”), orders him to stop serving a “dead” lord (“let the dead bury their dead”), and puts him to work telling others about his new living family and new living Lord (“go preach the Kingdom of God”).

And of course the man does follow Him, just like Jesus tells us, in John 10:27, that all His sheep will do:
My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.
It's simple, sheep are the only ones who follow Jesus...and nobody gets to make himself a sheep!









Footnotes:
1. When cross-referencing events between the three Synoptic Gospels, it is important to remember that Luke alone states that his is laid out chronologically (v.1:3), therefore the order of events in the other two are not. This means that Matthew’s placement of the first man and his statement in another setting in no way suggests it is a different person.

2. The phrase “bury my father” is not intended literally. It was an idiom meaning to discharge ones duties as an eldest son; which was chiefly to serve the father until he died. The man is asking Jesus for permission to hold off serving Him until he has finished serving his father.



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