Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

119. Three Would-be Disciples (Luke 9:57-62; Matt. 8:19-22)*

It is not inappropriate that Luke should bring together and insert at the beginning of his account of the Lord's great tour of appeal, the record of three disciples who reacted very differently to his call.

Following Luke's arrangement (what did he mean by "in order"?; 1 :3) it has been deemed desirable to consider this section of the gospels here rather than earlier, where inserted by Matthew. And the fitness of the passage for inclusion at this place in Luke none can question. Yet there are hints that Matthew's arrangement is chronologically more likely:
  1. "The Son of man hath not where to lay his head" follows on appropriately enough from verses 17,18: "Took our infirmities . . . bear our sicknesses," and the command to leave the crowd; and in turn the words are followed by the picture of Jesus in the storm-tossed boat "asleep on a pillow."
  2. "Follow me" (v.22); then "his disciples followed him" (v.23)
  3. In Matthew it is shortly after these encounters that the Twelve are definitely chosen.
Apparently, Luke, impressed by the appropriateness of this section in Matthew to a later period, deliberately transplanted it, and added something not unlike Matthew's personal response to the Lord's "Follow me."

Eager disciple

The first of the three was a scribe-Saul among the prophets! It would not require Matthew's distinctive Hebraism to pick him out as a very unusual scribe: "Teacher, I will follow thee whithersoever thou goest." What sort of a man was this, openly to acknowledge Jesus as his rabbi?

It might be thought that Jesus would be greatly delighted to have so influential and eager a follower. But the protestation of devotion was a trifle too effusive, and Jesus mistrusted it, as he did all that class of men. There were other occasions when he quietly discouraged emotional impulsiveness of this kind — when the woman cried out in the crowd: 'Why didn't God give me a son like you? (Lk.ll :27); and the time when Peter rashly asserted that his devotion to Christ was without limit (22 :33;cp. also 14:28).

On this occasion the Lord bade the man consider what sort of life it meant for him if he, reared in the comfort and ease which a scribe could count on in those days, fulfilled his promise: "The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have their roosting places, but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head." It is one of the few glimpses which the gospels afford of the Lord's life of austerity and discomfort. It is even possible that at this time in the ministry, there was a rabbinic ban on the offering of hospitality to Jesus (note Lk.10 :38,39). As will be seen later, the invitation described in Luke 14 :ltt was a hostile act, not a friendly one. He began the days of his flesh in a borrowed manger, and ended them in a borrowed tomb. And throughout them he was no stranger to the hardships of David the outlaw or of his other great ancestor who set a stone for his pillow. "In the day the drought consumed him, and the frost by night; and his sleep departed from his eyes" (Gen.28:11; 31:40).

The sparrow could find herself a house, and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young, but the heart and flesh of Jesus cried out for no creature comforts, but only for the living God and His altars of self-consecration, prayer and expiation of sin (Ps.84 :2,3). Another , psalm (8 :6-8) held out a promise to the Son of man of a crown of glory and honour, with dominion over the works of God's hands- sheep and oxen, the beasts of the field, the fowl of the air, and the fish of the sea; but at this present time he was "made lower than the angels" and in some material respects scarcely knew the blessings of the birds and foxes.

Religiously also the Lord's discouraging words were just as true. Jesus was at home with none of the variegated segments of Jewish religious life. How would a scribe like that?

It is not said whether the Lord's unemotional realism put this fervent disciple off. But if, after this, he persisted in his allegiance, it would be in a more sober spirit of clear-sighted resolution and tenacity than his earlier avowal gave promise of.


The next disciple was one of very different temperament. Far from needing to have the brake applied to his racing fervour, he-already a disciple-had to be helped with a blunt imperative delivered point blank. So Jesus gave it, twice. First, there was the peremptory: "Follow me." The reaction to this was a timid uncertain: 'Yes, Lord, but later on, when I am not hampered by other responsibilities. Suffer me first to go and bury my father.' There lie spoke for thousands of would-be followers of Jesus who have sought the kingdom of God and His righteousness, but have not sought it first.

It is not clear whether the man's father had just died, and there remained only to see him decently interred, or whether the excuse was: "I have a responsibility to look after my aged parent. When this is no longer necessary, then I will follow you." But it was seventeen years before Jacob died when the angel of the Lord assured him that "Joseph shall put his hand upon thine eyes" (Gen.46:4).

If indeed it was only the actual burial which detained him, it is difficult to believe that Jesus would have been so peremptory about the loss of one day's dedication to the work of the gospel. But whilst with the Jews interment took place very promptly (see Acts 5 :6), there are rabbinic indications of a long period (perhaps ten days) during which the mourners did not leave the house. Or it may be that the lord's i insight discerned ulterior motives-the man was j anxious about the will and what would become ( of his share of the inheritance if he were not present to thwart the scheming of greedy relatives. Human nature is always at its worst as it leaves the cemetery.

It would appear that this was the Lord's assessment of the situation. Otherwise it is difficult to account for the harsh flavour of his peremptory "Let the dead bury their dead," This was the spirit of the Law of Moses. The high priest and also the Nazirite, who sought to emulate the high priest's dedication to the service of God, were forbidden to defile themselves with the dead (Lev. 21:1-4; Num. 6:6,7). Ezekiel's experience was even more harrowing. He lost his wife at a stroke, and was forbidden any kind of open mourning (24:16-18). And the Bride of the Lamb is bidden: "Forget also thine own people, and thy father's house" (Ps.45:10).

"Let the spiritually dead bury their own dead," who when they were alive were like them-spiritually dead. There is no lack of other places in the New Testament where people still walking about are written off as already dead. Paul's trenchant phrase: "dead in trespasses and sins," comes to mind. "This do, and thou shalt live,” said Jesus to an enquiring lawyer who did not know himself to be a corpse. And die idiom is frequent in John's gospel: "He that heareth my word, and believeth . . . hath everlasting life ... he hath passed from death unto life . . . The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live" (Jn.5:24,25). "We know that we have passed from death unto life ..." (1 Jn. 3 :14; cp. also 1Tim.5:6;Mt. 18:8).

It is doubtless praiseworthy to bury the dead and to pay due respect to them whilst so doing; but it is better by far to give people resurrection from a living death. Mourning at the grave-side is right and proper, but proclaiming the glad message of the resurrection far surpasses this in positive value.

It is noteworthy that Jesus did not advise this disciple nor appeal'to him to seek the higher duty first. He unequivocally commanded him to do this. The fact has to be faced that there are some indecisive individuals who need saving from themselves. Well intentioned enough, they lack the resolution to commit themselves fully to loyal discipleship of Christ. With such it is an act of Christian charity to give them a good shove in the right direction. This is what Jesus did. "Go thou, and preach the kingdom of God" was a directive allowing of no quibble or argument. And within hours of obeying, this hesitating fearful fellow would know that he had done the right thing. Yet how easily he might have lost his opportunity.

In two worlds

Another disciple showed everv willingness to join in the big project, but wished to add his own conditions: "Let me first go bid them farewell, which are at home at my house." That ominous word "first" showed that here was another who had his priorities wrong. It is hardly likely that he would choose an expression like "them which are at home at my house" to describe wife or children or parents, so there must have been social connections which competed for his time and interest (2Tim.2:4).

However, the Lord's business brooked no squandering of good time on things, or people, of lesser importance. Abraham's steward, once be was convinced that he had been guided to the right wife for his master's son, would not stay for farewell feasting: "Hinder me not, I seeing the Lord hath prospered my way" (Gen. 24:56). This was God's work, and must not be cluttered up with mere social indulgence.

Many years later this forthright single-mindedness was matched by that of Paul: "Yea, doubtless (menounge, a very emphatic expression), and I do count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ" (Phil.3:8).

The figure of speech with which Jesus quietly reproved his disciple's attempt to live in two worlds can be interpreted in two differing ways, "No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God" (cp. Pr. 20:4). There is the familiar notion of the ploughman spoiling his work in the field by looking back instead of keeping his eye on the mark ahead so as to plough a dead straight furrow. The analogy needs no explaining.

But if Biblical allusion has any authority to guide students of Scripture in interpretation, the undoubted reference here to the call of Elisha must be given more weight than any personal judgement.

Elisha was ploughing with twelve yoke of oxen when Elijah cast his mantle on him. He promptly sought permission to bid farewell to those at home. Elijah's enigmatic reply should probably read: "Go, return (to my service). Wherefore did I do (this thing) to thee?" meaning: 'Don't forget what receiving my mantle must mean for you.' So Elisha slew two oxen as a peace offering, and putting his hand to the plough, he broke it up for fuel on the altar fire. This was his formal act of self-consecration (comparable to Levi's feast). Then he said his farewells, and followed after Elijah.

Clearly the disciple of Jesus did not use Elisha's words by accident. Nor was it chance which shaped the reply with reference to the same occasion. Thus it would seem to mean: 'No man having put his hand to the plough, as Elisha did, to offer sacrifice consecrating himself to follow the Prophet of the Lord, can thereafter look back as though he would pick up the old life once again. The plough (an obvious symbol of the former allegiance) has been burnt. There can be no going back.' For this disciple to be looking back longingly to the old life after he had already declared himself a disciple, was to insinuate doubts about his fitness for the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.

In this interpretation the essential meaning of Christ's words is not radically changed, but the symbolism of the plough is. Instead of it being a symbol of present service in Christ, it is a yet more suitable figure for the old way of life prior to the call of Christ.

In the three examples of discipleship considered here in some detail, it is specially impressive that in each instance Jesus bade the man suspect his own inclinations. Is he all eagerness and buoyant enthusiasm? Let him pause and consider what he is putting his hand to, whether he can face up to its hardships and win his way through all discouragements with unflagging resolution. Does he falter in his confidence to follow Christ, preferring to put off the day of decision? Then let him give himself a good shake, and make up his mind right away. Does he feel tempted to try living in two different worlds at the same time? Then let him forthwith shrug off the old life with all its allurements, remembering that without true dedication and sacrifice his discipleship is empty and worthless.

Here in these examples Jesus was enunciating for all time a valuable principle by which his brethren may know how to reach decisions in problems of personal conduct. In which direction would my own inclinations take me? Then I will resolutely travel the alternative road; this is almost bound to be the right one-such is the genius of human nature for inclining to the wrong direction.

It would be interesting to know what was the outcome of these three encounters, yet the gospels give no hint. But it is difficult to believe that the very direct admonition given by Jesus did not have its effect.

Three Apostles?

In his "Studies in the Gospels", Trench diffidently but persuasively makes the suggestion that these three disciples were three apostles being called to full time service, and that they may perhaps be identified with Judas Iscariot, Thomas, and Matthew.

In support of the first point he notes:

  1. Luke 10:1: "seventy other (different) also..." can be read as implying that the three mentioned at the end of Luke 9 were already enrolled, and with a different status,
  2. The repeated "follow me" matches the call of apostles in other narratives: Mt.9 :9; Lk.5:27;Jn.l :43.
As to the identification of the three-

The emphasis to the first on complete absent of worldly advantage in following such a Teacher would be appropriate enough to one of Judas's temperament. But this, it must be conceded, is somewhat meagre ground for such an identification.

It is certainly remarkable that the repeated mention of death and burial, regarding the second of the three, chimes in well enough with the fact that in other places (Jn.11:16; 20 :24,25) Thomas has similar personal associations. And his rather gloomy pessimist outlook matches the unsureness of this one I whom the Lord said, very abruptly: "Follow me"- 'Forget the world of death with which you are obsessed, and go preach life-the kingdom of God.'

The third in Luke's list was not explicitly told to eliminate his farewells; he was warned against the dangers involved.

In Matthew's case, the farewell feast was held, but only after a definite decision had been made to follow a life of discipleship. And Matthew made sure that his new Master was present at the feast to reinforce the public profession of faith and to save his new disciple from seduction by prosperous fellow-publicans or by casuistic Pharisees.

To the seventy (Lk.10 :1) Jesus gave a charge similar to that he had addressed to the twelve when they first went out preaching, except that now there may be just a hint of evangelization of the Samaritans also. These eighty-two messengers of the gospel he now sent out in twos "before his face into every city and place whither he himself would come."

The idea presented by these words is almost past believing. In a period of about two month, how many places would each of these forty-one teams cover? And to every one of these town: and villages Jesus intended to come in person, In terms of sheer physical effort, apart from any other consideration, what a gargantuan programme this was which Jesus had worked out for himself! The Great Appeal was under way.

Notes: Mt. 8:19-22

Of course Mt. has to add a third example to these two, for his mind rejoiced in triplets (There are many suit scattered through his gospel. Note the three triplets of miracles in ch.8,9). So in ch. 9:9,10 he inserts his own experience.

Whithersoever thou goest. Jesus had just commanded a crossing of Galilee to get away from, or to sort out the crowd; v.24,18. Cp. 2 Sam.15 :20,21.
The Son of man. This, it must be remembered, is a title of Messiah (Dan.7 :13). Then what a paradox that such should be so comfortless!

Where to lay his head. The same phrase comes in Jn. 19:30. Cp. Elijah: 1 Kgs. 17:1-6; 19;4-8.

Lk. 9:51-62

Preach. Not the usual euangetto, but diangello: s.w. Josh. 6: 10LXX "bid"; it is the downfall of the kingdom of' ignorance, and the beginning of the kingdom of God. It is also the proclamation of a Jubilee of freedom (s.w. Lev. 25:9).
Bid farewell. The form of the Greek verb here implies self-interest rather than concern for others.

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