Now when Jesus saw great crowds around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. A scribe then approached and said, ‘Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.’ And 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.’ Another of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead. — Matt 8:18-22 (NRSV)
Jesus needed to get away to recharge his batteries, but even when he tried to make a polite but firm retreat, there are always a couple of hangers-on who needed to have their questions answered right now, sorry, can’t wait until tomorrow. The answers they got, though, were probably nowhere near what answers they expected, but then, Jesus was kind of an unexpected guy with an unexpected message and way of looking at things.
Jesus was an itinerant – a person who roamed about, migrating from place to place. No little brick house with a white picket fence in Galilee or pied-à-terre in a nice neighborhood in Jerusalem for the season, no place to settle, put down roots and become part of the community. Following him meant accepting that kind of lifestyle, definitely an alternative lifestyle, that might not be all that scandalous in those days, given the travels of traders and prophets and the shepherds, but which would definitely raise eyebrows today.
Most of the itinerants we see today are people not very well-thought of: homeless people, undocumented immigrants, migrant workers. It’s not that they like being homeless, rootless, overlooked, spoken of slightingly but otherwise ignored. They aren’t rock stars; they don’t require a lavish lifestyle with occasional retreats to rehab centers or private islands. They simply want what all of us want — a place to call home, running water, electricity, food in the fridge and safety for themselves and their families. For the homeless, those dreams and hopes are often too far out of reach. Home is often a cardboard box under a bridge, running water is a water fountain six blocks away, food is found in soup kitchens and food banks, and safety is a pure illusion. They truly have no place to lay their heads. It isn’t even that they don’t want to follow Jesus. Maybe they do, maybe they don’t, but before they can accept the kingdom they have to feel able to leave hell.
Perhaps this wasn’t hell to the disciples who did choose to follow Jesus. Running water, electricity, supermarkets, soup kitchens — none of those existed. Jesus didn’t spend nights in Motel 6, eat at the Four Seasons or even McDonald’s, or anything resembling a constant state of comfort and ease. Following Jesus was certainly uncertain, but there were those who did choose to walk that road.
“Let the dead bury the dead”? Oh, now I get it. Those who look to their own comfort and safety but who ignore those who are poor, sick, homeless, widowed, orphaned or imprisoned for little or no cause, are still breathing but have a dead place inside them. They’re interested in their own welfare but are far from actively concerned with the welfare of others. This goes fundamentally opposite to the message Jesus brought and emphasized, a message that the prophets brought long before Jesus’ incarnation. Let those who are dead inside take care of those who are physically dead because those whose body has ceased to pulse with life have no need for compassion or assistance, except enough reverence to place the body in a place where it could rest undisturbed.
I wonder what happened to that scribe and that follower. The story stops just at the moment of greatest impact and the reader is left to wonder what became of those two questioners. Did they follow or did they return to their homes? Did duty to family take precedence over duty to fulfill God’s expectations? Did they choose the kingdom or the little house in Galilee?
Which one would I choose?