Who could look the Son of God in the eyes and say, “Lord, You are not first”?
I’d never do that.
Don’t I? Every day. I come up with 101 justifications for a 1001 exceptions to every rule of faith. Yes, I love Jesus. But sometimes it’s just too easy to say, “Lord, hold on… wait your turn… I’ll be right back.”
It’s not that I don’t take my commitment to Christ seriously; I feel like I’ve given up much to be a pastor. I genuinely want to serve Jesus. I want to carry my cross and glorify His name. But… I also want a nice house, nice clothes, nice things for my family, a decent wage, a new car, some money for hobbies, vacations, recreation and fun. I don’t just want to live in the world but I want to have the things of the world …and serve Jesus, too!
Is it a bad thing to want it all?
Not always. But sometimes the combination of worldly living and Christian discipleship will conflict. IT WILL! And when it does, the struggle we feel is perfectly parallel to what Jesus said in Matthew 6:24 — No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You can’t serve both God and mammon.”
Today, Jesus is approached by two men who want to follow Him. They seem sincere. One says to our Lord, “I will go wherever you go.” He obviously wants to put Jesus first. However, it is also obvious that he doesn’t understand just exactly where is Christ is headed. Who can follow Christ all the way to the cross?
The way Jesus responds to him reminds me of something else Jesus once said: “A servant must be like his master.” But what if your master has no home, no wealth, no property, no earthly kingdom? Even foxes have holes. Even birds have nests. And what if your master’s crown is made of thorns? Will you wear one, too? What if your master’s work is to carry a cross? Will you carry one, too?
The second man who approaches Jesus also wants to follow Him…
but not right away.
While his intentions are good, you wonder if he will he ever actually get around to doing it? Or will there always be something else that comes up? Now, of course, he seems to have a good excuse in the moment: “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But what is the implication?
So… um… Jesus, just hang on… I’ll be along after a while.
What kind of disciple says that to the Lord?
I get the impression that the second man isn’t implying that his father was lying in a casket dead and a funeral was already scheduled. Rather, it sounds to me like this would-be-follower-of-Christ knows that his dad is getting up in age and will be needing a lot more help and care, so this man doesn’t want to commit to following Jesus, just yet, because he knows he’s going to have a lot on his plate soon, coordinating all the doctor’s visits, treatments, home-health, therapy, hospice, funeral arrangements, and settling of the estate after his father’s death. These are the things that any loving and dutiful child would do for an aging father, and it could take months or years to play out.
So, I guess Jesus will just have to wait.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not dogging this guy. A big part of me feels like his excuse is legit. And the conundrum is not lost on me. In my own personaly experience, I’ve often found the most difficult thing about being a pastor is the fact that my service to Jesus typically takes me far away from my parents. I’m not available to help and be of service to them as they grow older. I also try to be very mindful (and thankful) of the fact that my two younger brothers live close to my parents and are there to help–help our father take care of cattle and fix fence and help my mom with any issues she has as her health declines. I will forever be grateful for the faithful service of my brothers.
However, the fact that I’m a pastor doesn’t excuse me from my duty to my parents. It’s not like my job is a “holier” job than anyone else’s. Indeed, every vocation is one that God has given, and as we seek to honor our God-given vocations, there will be some seasons in life where everything else has to take a back seat because family needs caring for. God forbid we ever let our work or our desire for mammon rob us of the opportunities to love and care for those whom God has given us to serve. This includes pastors!
The pastor who spends more time prepping his sermon than he does parenting his children is the pastor who has his priorities mixed up. The husband who spends more energy earning a pay check than he spends time with his wife, has his priorities mixed up. In the same way, the man who puts his mother or father in a nursing home so that he doesn’t have to deal with the inconvenience of their old age—and then seldom visits them—is a man who’s priorities are mixed up.
But, now I start to digress…
I’m not sure Matthew really intended us to think so deeply about these few verses. That’s probably the reason why He doesn’t give us any of the backstory for these two men. He doesn’t want us to get distracted by the details. After all, they say the devil is in the details, and this saying brings a grain of reality to this text. For surely it is the details of everyday life that easily distract us from much of what it means to be a disciple, rejoicing in each day that the Lord makes and being glad in it. I think Matthew’s terse record of the conversation Jesus has with these two is simply meant to make us ponder and consider for our own lives: What is more important to me than following Jesus?
Asking this question doesn’t mean we need to feel guilty if we happen be in a season of life were we can’t be as active in the church because we’ve got family to care for or some major responsibility to see through. Such is life. Nor is Jesus implying in an absolute sense that earthly wealth and possessions are bad and incompatible with being a disciple. Rather, our Lord is simply reminding us that in all things–regardless of what we have going on–we must never take lightly what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added unto you.” (Matthew 6:33)
No matter our earthly priorities—some of which are pressing, time-sensitive, and can take a lot out of us—there can never be a season of life where we are willing to look Jesus in the eye and say, “Sorry, Lord… but You’re not first, right now.”
It doesn’t matter if your parents are sick, or if your child plays on a traveling sports team, or if you’ve got a lot invested in a 4-H project, or if it’s deer season, or if you’ve got a busy work schedule and Sunday is your only day off. If any of these things should cause us to put Jesus second, you know what Jesus would say in response, don’t you?
Only those who are willing to lose their life will gain it.
Now after writing all of this, let me backtrack a little:
Everything I’ve been saying so far makes discipleship sound like it’s all dependent on how faithful we are to Jesus. In asking the question, “am I faithful enough?” how easily we can begin to gauge and evaluate the degree of our faith and compare it to others. Indeed, how much we’d enjoy it if discipleship boiled down to who’s the most faithful. If it did, then we could have the relief of knowing that even if we only rank 76th out of 100, we could look Jesus in the eye, point behind us, and say, “Look, Lord! I may not be perfect, but see… I’ve given up more than they have.”
Yet, consider how in the very next episode, Matthew 8:23-27, we see the very men who you’d think would qualify as the MOST faithful—the top of the list–completely freak out when a storm hits their boat while they’re out in the middle of a lake. Afterwards Jesus says to them, “O you of little faith…”
Surely these men had more faith than most. When Jesus called them they dropped their nets, didn’t they? And yet, we will see how each one of them in their own way proves insufficient. Even Peter, the leader, will at the very end of the gospel, deny the Lord three times all because he was afraid of what others might think. He places the opinion of others before Jesus.
I love how the the Gospel of Luke records that while the rooster was still crowing, and the words of denial were still on Peter’s lips, from all the way across the courtyard, Jesus turns and looks at Peter and catches his eye (Luke 22:61).
Earlier I asked,
“Who can look the Son of God in the eyes and say, ‘You are not first’?”
We all do it.
More often than we admit.
Lord have mercy.