Matthew 8:18-22 – The Conditions of Following Jesus


Matthew 8:18-22


Jesus answers two would-be followers with cryptic quotations that illustrate the challenge of being his disciple.


Throughout his ministry, Jesus warned his followers that being his disciple would be difficult. Later in the Gospel of Matthew, he summarizes this difficulty by calling them to deny themselves and take up their crosses (16:24-26). 

The two cryptic quotations in this pericope are prompted by Jesus’ desire to go across the Sea of Galilee on account of the crowds around him. Out of this crowd, a scribe appears. We are not told what kind of scribe he is. His occupation could mean that he is a teacher of the Jewish law, but the word is also used in Greek to refer to holders of public office. Either way, Jesus’ response hints at his social standing. On the one hand, the reference to foxes and birds is simply a way of saying that the scribe will have to become itinerant and leave his home to follow Jesus. On a deeper level, the comparison to animals hearkens back to Jesus’ comments on the birds of the air in the Sermon on the Mount (6:25-34). In contrast to the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus here maintains that the Son of Man (and by extension his followers) are worse off than the animals. Matthew is silent on whether or not the scribe became his disciple, but elsewhere, Matthew is quick to point out obedience to Jesus’ commands to follow.

The second quotation is prompted by someone who is already one of Jesus’ disciples. In this case, Jesus issues a radical challenge to prevailing custom. He tells the disciple to ignore his obligation to bury his father, and goes so far as to say that the rest of the man’s family who refuse to follow Jesus are as good as dead.