This week, as I was reading through Matthew 8-15 in The Complete Jewish Study Bible for our Bible book club of Matthew (sign up HERE, if you haven’t already!), I stumbled across a passage and corresponding note that really surprised me and changed my view of these verses. The verses were Matthew 8:21-22, when a man pleads with Jesus, “Sir, first let me go and bury my father.” Jesus replies, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.”
Preconceptions and Misconceptions
It’s amazing how one small detail can really change the meaning of a passage of the Bible. Whenever I read Matthew 8:21 in the past, I was always shocked but humbled by Jesus’ instruction to not bury his father before leaving home. The man’s request seems so simple, so deserved, to merely dig a hole and bury his father in it. I was struck by Jesus’ firm perspective. I found it convicting because it showed how Jesus was supposed to be our first priority, that we should put everything aside to follow Christ.
But when I read this verse in The Complete Jewish Study Bible, I was introduced to a slightly new way of looking at it. There’s a footnote under the text that explains, “This does not mean that this would-be talmid [disciple] is traveling with Yeshua while his father’s corpse is waiting at home, stinking in the sun. The father is not dead yet. The son wishes to go home and live comfortably until his father dies in the future.” At first it seemed that the man was trying to respect his father by burying him before following Christ, but, as the note on the verse explained, the man’s situation was actually a testament to how inclined most of us are to comfort.
The larger article on Matthew 8:21-22 goes into more detail on the traditional Jewish customs for burial, explaining that there are many traditions which require both days of preparation as well as weeks, and even months, of specific stages of burial. Because of how long this process takes “Yeshua knew that this talmid would be out of ministry for quite some time,” especially considering that the father hadn’t even died yet! “This seemingly piercing rebuke of Yeshua was not aimed at this disciple’s desire to care for his father, but toward the delay that would be caused,” taking the disciple away from the more important task of proclaiming the gospel and following the Son of God.
The Unrelenting Jaws of Comfort
To be honest, I’m terrified of Jesus revealing the aspects of my life that need to change, calling me to alter or leave behind parts of myself that I have grown accustomed to and feel like define me. In the same way that the man didn’t want to give up the religious traditions of burial that had been engrained in his life, so the thought of giving up parts of my life that have become rituals in their own way makes me hesitant. The idea that God could call out what makes up my “normal” and ask me to change or leave it behind scares me. What if I go through so much trouble and pain to change a part of myself only to feel emptier or more alone and misunderstood?
It seems selfish, but really I’m just protective of myself. When something is taken away from me and disturbs my carefully constructed personhood and life, it is very jarring and sometimes life-altering. How can I give up all that seemingly makes me me (which is naturally comfortable in its familiarity), for a mysterious path that I have no map for?
To clarify, this call out of comfort isn’t always necessarily literal. More often than not, God calls us to change the orientation of our hearts and minds, rather than our physical location. Jesus doesn’t ask us to simply give things up with no rhyme or reason, in order to embark on a mysterious path with no map. Yes, he calls us to drop our nets and follow him, but often it’s right where we are! We don’t have to go somewhere else and become someone new to follow Jesus. We live out the gospel by following him right where we are, in our everyday lives. While he certainly surprises some of us with callings as missionaries or leaders, for many of us Jesus’ nudging looks more like a brightening of the darkened spots of our hearts or a call to open up a part of ourselves that we had closed from Christ.
This new insight into the passage that brings light to Jewish customs really strikes me deep and makes me wonder: Do I, too, seek to put off following Christ in my daily life, pursuing my needs above others and His?
Christ’s Deep Understanding
Even though my answer is likely affirmative, I have to remind myself that Jesus understands. He felt the comfort of living in heaven. He felt the sting of a worldly life full of rejection, isolation, and betrayal. I think Jesus understood that it costs us a lot to follow the footsteps of this perfect human and perfect God. But we can try. And God will make up the difference. In fact, God already made up the difference with Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.
Along with that, I believe, when it comes down to it, that while it is inevitable for me to feel the burns of a life turned toward Christ, God will soothe my pain as best he can. When I go through the process to eliminate what was once comfortable and normal, but was also potentially harmful to myself, God won’t ever leave me feeling lonely or emptier than I was before. The Lord will always, always lay down the roots for a hopeful future. After all, what lies before us is an eternal reunion with God, empty of all pain and sin. He is a faithful God, and will rush into the newly cleaned and empty spaces of my life and fill them with his light, love, and comfort. While what was there before was comfortable merely because of its familiarity, now I am filled with a real and holy comfort, placed there by God himself.
How I Reconciled with My Humanity and Began to Follow
Most days I don’t want to step out of my comfort zone to do something unknown or that seems unpleasant for God’s sake. Yet that is what Jesus is calling me and you to. He wants us to give up our familiar patterns of life to follow him. For us to be faithful servants, we need to sacrifice our whole lives.
In my well-meaning heart, I genuinely believe that even the smallest bits of change I can implement will truly affect us and help me on the journey to complete trust and obedience of the Lord’s call. Be it giving up a visit to Dunkin Donuts so I can give that money to charity, going the extra mile at work by putting in more effort and a positive attitude than usual, sending a little extra love to a friend who may be in need with a handwritten note, forgiving someone who really hurt us, or, best of all, releasing control on an area of our lives that we struggle to let God take hold of, those little circumstances where we follow Christ a little more closely are helping us turn down the path away from comfort and toward God.
If you’d like to get in on our little Bible study and receive the book of Matthew from The Complete Jewish Study Bible for free, click this link and sign up! Feel free to read our previous thoughts on Mattityahu as well at this link!