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.”
Matthew 8:18-20 (NRSV)
I can’t read this passage anymore without thinking of the Left Behind series of books. In them, the Two Witnesses make a sort of prophetic statement about Ben Tsion, and they use this verse to do it. Later, Ben Tsion ends up in a bunker and discovers that it has no pillows or mattresses.
As it happens, this saying occurs in Matthew’s gospel probably to communicate more than Jesus grousing about sleeping conditions.
Jesus, seeing the great crowds, hops in a boat and crosses the Sea of Galilee. I can certainly appreciate this tendency. There are gospels where the crossing over from side to side of the Sea plays a role in organizing Jesus’ ministry. This seems less pronounced in Matthew.
But Matthew does call our attention to the fact that Jesus is approached by a scribe. Earlier in the chapter, Jesus was approached by a leper, a Roman centurion, and a faithful Israelite. Each of these incidents were selected by Matthew to make a point about Jesus’ mission. Here, we have a scribe – essentially a Torah lawyer.
Scribes generally serve as opposition to Jesus. They pal around with the Pharisees and serve as both the debate team and the prosecution. In a society where there is very little literacy, such people were invaluable in all kinds of legal matters and did relatively well for themselves as a result. In other words, a scribe pulls together a lot of the elements that typically characterize Jesus’ “enemies” – rich, socially prominent, leader and teacher of Israel, and obsessed with the letter of the Law and the tradition that has interpreted it.
This scribe, however, recognizes Jesus as a rabbi and wants to follow him.
We should not take this offer lightly. In the ancient world, this is what you did with great teachers. You literally followed them. You might have to leave your home and family, but you traveled around with your teacher and tended to their needs, and in return, you learned from them and were mentored by them. This scribe’s offer actually represents a big commitment.
We might expect, given some of the other scenarios in Matthew, that Jesus would be happy about this or at least make a point out of it. After all, the Roman centurion was praised for his faith, and Jesus contrasted Israel unfavorably with him. Here we have a scribe – a member of the group that nips at Jesus’ heels throughout his ministry – offering to follow Jesus.
Perhaps Jesus suspected a trap. Perhaps he’d just had enough of scribes. But what he does, instead, is he puts a warning and a test before the scribe. He tells the scribe that even wild animals have places to rest, but Jesus himself is a wanderer with nothing, solely at the mercy of whatever circumstances may come his way, and so it goes with all who have followed him.
Jesus has a habit of doing things like this. He does not enthusiastically take all comers. He has a knack for telling them how difficult the road is going to be, resulting in loss of possessions, social standing, family, and perhaps even one’s own life. Nobody reduces crowd sizes like Jesus. While the other Army recruiters are talking about seeing the world and learning new skills and the G.I. Bill, Jesus is the one talking about grueling training, inhospitable climates, and hours and hours of playing Spades while you wait for someone to take their turn guarding the empty truck that broke down in the middle of the desert.
But there is some teeth to this warning that may get lost on us, but would definitely not be lost on a scribe. Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man.
The Son of Man is an apocalyptic figure from the Old Testament who features most heavily in Daniel. In Daniel’s vision in chapter 7, he sees kingdoms (in the image of beasts) rising up and coming down, and a prominent person (in the image of a horn) boasting in his conquests and might.
In response to this, thrones are set up on the earth, and the Ancient of Days sits in judgement and destroys the last beast and takes away the kingdom from the others. After this, we read:
As I watched in the night visions,
I saw one like a [Son of Man]
coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One
and was presented before him.
To him was given dominion
and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that shall not pass away,
and his kingship is one
that shall never be destroyed.
Daniel 7:13-14 (NRSV, brackets mine)
Daniel then goes on to interpret the vision, with the one like a Son of Man being “the holy ones of the Most High.”
In Daniel’s vision, the mighty kings of the earth are swept away by God, and their dominion is given to faithful Israel. The Son of Man is a corporate figure under the image of a single person, which is a fairly common Old Testament technique for imaging Israel.
Here (and elsewhere), Jesus is taking this image for himself. He is the holy one of the Most High who will receive an everlasting kingdom from God who will overthrow the current, arrogant kingdom that is in power. He is faithful Israel in a single figure, and he will usher in the promises granted to them. The call to follow Jesus, here, is a call to join this group. It is a call to be united to Jesus in the same way Israel was united with her kings.
But yet, despite being this apocalyptic figure, he has nowhere to lay his head. Though he is the recipient of the kingdom, his current circumstances are humble ones of poverty and uncertainty. To look at him, you wouldn’t think he was going to inherit anything, much less an everlasting kingship from God Himself.
Do you see Israel in this man?
The scribe knows what Jesus is saying. The road to receiving the promises is a road of hardship, setbacks, and sacrifice. Moreso than simply deciding to follow after a rabbi and learn from him, Jesus will demand everything from this scribe – the entire trajectory of his life – in exchange for what Jesus has to offer at the end of a very difficult road.
We are not told if the scribe stayed or went on his way. We do not know if, like the rich young ruler, he “went away sorrowful” or if he joined the loose group of nameless Jesus followers and we just never hear from him, again. This is not important to Matthew, and we are certainly free to speculate.
But what is important to Matthew is this: Jesus will receive his kingdom and usher in the promises to Israel, but the road to achieving this will be full of uncertainty, sacrifice, and deprivation. The only thing keeping Jesus going is trust – trust that at the end of all this, God will make good on His promises.
We cannot follow Jesus in this sense. We can’t leave behind our possessions and follow him around, learning from him and tending to his needs. Nor can we join a rag tag band of Israelites united only in our trust that God is about to put down the kingdom we live in to hand over an everlasting reign to His faithful, and the way to be on right side of this is to know what Jesus knows, believe what he believes, and do what he does.
At the same time, we know what it is like to have promises about what God will do in the world and have external circumstances not match up with those promises. Are our empires less oppressive and more just than ancient Rome? Perhaps some are in some ways, although the mechanisms of oppression can operate in ways a lot more subtle than armored soldiers. Is the grip of death lessened? Perhaps in some parts of the world, though starvation, disease, and violence are still widespread, and only a fool would believe that they could not die at any second.
Do we look around the world and see widespread justice? Compassion? Mercy? Self-sacrifice? Mutual care? Forgiveness and restoration? Good moral choices? Perhaps the news we see tends to skew us, but it is hard to think of the world at large and not think of inequity, vengeance, and the “every man for himself” mentality that is all but institutionalized even in the “civilized” West.
Yes, we know what it is like to have promises from God and look around ourselves and see a very different picture. Can you imagine what it was like for Joe Israelite hearing the words of Jesus? Can you imagine what it was like for them to be called to have a new faith? Can you see how easy it would be just to put your head back down and try to get through life as comfortably as you could?
You can see it, can’t you? Because we also have that struggle. You can empathize with their struggles and doubts because you have a resonant echo in your own chest.
And there is nothing wrong with that.
But just as courage can only exist in the presence of fear, trust can only exist in the presence of doubt. Perseverance can only exist in the presence of discouragement. If you are reading this, and you believe as I do, then we follow a God who has demonstrated that He will deliver on His promises in the midst of ludicrously unlikely circumstances, and often after ridiculously long periods of time where “bad” has long since been the status quo.
It is in the midst of genocides and weird presidents and wars and threats of wars and poverty and heroin addictions and dying relatives and pornography empires and banks you owe money to and global warming and insane dictators with nuclear weapons that Yahweh leans across the table, brushes away the noise for a moment, looks you in the eye and says, “Do you trust Me?”
- If you are a believer, what got you into all this? What were you told about what life would be like or what the future would hold? Did things turn out that way? What keeps you going?
- If we believe that God will make good on His promises, what influence should that have on our lives? How about our life as a church in the world?