When things are going well, life gives you crowds.
Early in Jesus’ public ministry, crowds often accompanied him – out of curiosity, out of boredom, out of intrigue, out of a real thirst for knowledge or spirituality or change (e.g. Mt 5:1; 7:28; 8:1, 18).
But as they discovered what it meant to follow Jesus, to identify with him, and associate with him day by day, and embody his teaching, they generally lost interest (see 8:34). His message was exciting because it was new, and radical, and he spoke with authority. But it was challenging and expansive.
As Matthew records it, in the famous Sermon on the Mount, (Mt 4:23-7:29), Jesus speaks about healing the sick, practicing courageous virtues, the promise of real social transformation, high standards for interpersonal relationships and marriage, simplicity with words, extravagant generosity, love for my enemies, giving to those in need, radical counter-cultural prayer, private fasting for spiritual breakthrough, strategic spiritual investments, farewell to worry about material possessions, cultivating a non-judgmental attitude, the Golden Rule (7:12), a focus on making wise decisions, and whole-hearted sacrificial obedience to God’s word.
There was a lot packed into the Sermon on the Mount. But Jesus also felt compassion for the crowds. He taught them, and he fed them. He listened to their requests and aspirations. And he had a particular concern for individuals among the milling crowds (e.g. 8:1-3, 5, 14, 19f, 21f; 9:2, 9).
After the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew records three different kinds of healing: a Jewish leprosy sufferer (8:1-4), the paralysed servant of a Gentile centurion (8:5-13), and Peter’s mother-in-law (8:14-17). Jesus has outlined his essential teaching and, in chapters 8-9, he establishes his credentials, thereby fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah 53:4.
Then there are three more stories where Jesus establishes his power over the forces of nature (8:23-27), over the demonic world (8:28-34), and over sin (9:1-8). Then Matthew tells how he first encountered Jesus, and what happened next (9:9-13).
But between these two sets of three stories are two cameos of individuals who express a desire to follow Jesus (8:18-22). We don’t know their names, or what they know about Jesus. We aren’t told what happens next, or what ultimately happens to them.
But this is what Jesus looks for in a disciple: wholehearted loyalty, and readiness to suffer for being identified as one who follows him.
Jesus is on the lakeshore, about to climb into a boat to cross the lake.
“Stop the boat!” cries a voice, and Jesus turns to see a man running toward him (8:21).
He reaches the boat, catches his breath, and says, “Lord, I want to go with you to the other side. But first let me look after my dad until he dies. You know the rules: honour your father and mother” (Ex 20:12).
But Jesus denies him such liberty.
“Don’t delay! Don’t be distracted! Follow me!” he says (8:22).
There’s a real danger of missing the boat.
The simple, urgent call to follow Jesus supersedes and overrides all other demands and responsibilities. And the longer the delay, the more reasonable Jesus’ negative response becomes.
There are others who can deal with funeral preparations, and gravediggers will attend to the burial. Yes, the excuses mount up, but they amount to nothing more than fatal procrastination. And, ironically, there is no need for this man to climb into the boat in order to follow Jesus. He could well have pursued authentic discipleship at home, and at work, and in his local community.
In the words of martyred El Salvadorian Archbishop Oscar Romero:
Let each of you in your own job, in your own vocation – nun, married person, bishop, priest, high school or university student, workman, labourer, market woman – each of you in your own place live the faith intensely and feel that in your surroundings you are a true microphone of God our Lord.
* * *
But look! Here comes another man, dressed in academic attire, running along the shoreline toward the boat, arms flailing. He too is out of breath, and even more excited than the first man to find himself face to face with Jesus as he prepares to board.
“Teacher,” he says, “I will follow you wherever you go” (8:19).
Jesus lets go of the gunwale. The disciples in the boat roll their eyes. Peter holds his head in his hands. Judas lets out an exasperated sigh.
This man is a scribe, well versed in the law of the Old Testament, and the message of the Prophets. He listened carefully to Jesus as he preached to the crowds, and he’s an enthusiast. He wants whatever it is that Jesus has. He wants to be just like Jesus. He wants to bask in the intellectual glory of this superior teacher.
“Stop the boat!” he says, “and see and hear and feel my passion! My mind is a bucket into which you pour truth. I’ll follow you through thick and thin! And when you’ve gone, I’ll be there carrying on the tradition, commissioning scrolls about us, establishing a school in your honour, creating my own wake. Just give me a chance to show you what I’m capable of!”
What he sadly fails to realise is that following Jesus involves not only frothy enthusiasm and good intention, but sacrifice and self-denial. And it certainly won’t guarantee security.
Animals and birds have secure places to rest and raise a family, but their incarnate Creator does not (8:20). He doesn’t own his own home, he doesn’t have a secure job, he owns very little.
Jesus may appeal to middle-class people, and he certainly calls them, along with individuals from every social class, but as Albert Schweizer put it, he “is devoid of all middle-class security.”
Jesus holds material goods loosely. There is more to Christian discipleship than enthusiasm and aspiration and confession of faith. It’s a relationship and a lifestyle and a worldview that touches and transforms everything.
We don’t know what this man’s response was. Perhaps he got into the boat. Perhaps he went away surprised, or inspired, or deflated. Perhaps this was not his moment, and he became a disciple later. But Jesus makes clear that, while the rush and the ride of discipleship may be exciting and memorable, it is likely to be far from comfortable, far from predictable, far from ordinary.
And if it grows comfortable, and safe, and sensibly middle-class, perhaps we are doing it wrong. Or our words don’t match our actions. Even the Apostles experienced homelessness (1 Cor 4:11).
In the 1970s, a hard-nosed Chicago TV interviewer asked John Stott a personal question which went something like this:
“You’ve had a brilliant academic career; firsts at Cambridge, Rector at twenty-nine, Chaplain to the Queen; what is your ambition now?”
Stott replied, “To be more like Jesus.”
* * *
These two brief personal encounters with Jesus teach us important lessons about the nature and demands of discipleship. Like the seed that fell on rocky places in the parable of the sower (Mt 13:20f), the teacher of the law seems over-confident, over-enthusiastic, under-prepared, and potentially lacking stamina.
And, like the seed that fell among thorns (Mt 13:22), the other man captures the undecided, the wavering, those unwilling to make the total commitment that Jesus demands of those who follow him.
In the parallel passage in Luke’s Gospel, Luke adds a third cameo in which a man informs Jesus of his intention to follow him. But first he asks to be allowed to farewell his family, which elicits the famous saying from Jesus, “No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God” (9:57-60).
If you met Jesus on the lakeshore that afternoon, and said to him, “Stop the boat!” . . .
What reason would you give?
What stops you from following Jesus?
Who stands between you and faithful obedience to God?
What needs to change so you can get in the boat, and cross to the other shore with Jesus and the other passengers?
The challenge that day from beside the beached boat is the same challenge Jesus presents to us today:
“Follow me. Follow me. Follow me.”
 Quoted in Gordon Preece, “Everyday spirituality: Connecting Sunday and Monday,” Zadok Paper S76, July 1995, p. 14.
 Quoted in Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1992), p. 201.
 Quoted in Timothy Dudley-Smith, John Stott: A Global Ministry (Leicester: IVP, 2001), p. 452.
Sermon 623 copyright © 2015 Rod Benson. Preached at Springwood Baptist Church, Sydney, Australia, on Sunday 22 Feb 2015. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).