When Jesus saw the crowd around him, he gave orders to cross to the other side of the lake. Then a teacher of the law came to him and said, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”
When I was 22, I had gotten involved in the college ministry at my church, and the pastor invited me to go on an overnight trip across the border to Mexico to minister to the poor. This sounded kind of fun to me. I asked, where are we going to stay? He said, “I'm not sure. We're heading into the hills where the poorest people live, to build housing for them. Not sure what the set-up is. You should bring a sleeping bag.”
I'm thinking, wow—you don't know where we're going to sleep? A good night's sleep was a priority to me, at the time. So I became a little worried whether this trip was going to be as fun as I'd thought, but I still agreed to go.
We got there and had an amazing day of ministering to the poor. Families of eight people, all living under a tarp. We were building homes for them, which is to say, sheds about 8' x 12', a single room in which the entire family would live. It was meager, but it was dry. I found out that we were going to sleep at the local church, which was basically a bunch of these sheds connected to one another with a large open area. It had a hard dirt floor.
I don't sleep well on hard. The way I got through the night, I'm ashamed to say, was to stack my sleeping bag on a bunch of old blankets I'd found. When we walked into the church at the end of the evening, my sleeping bag stood out from the rest. The pastor's mouth dropped open. “What is this, the princess and the pea?”
I think back and laugh at my self-centeredness, so many years ago, because it was a transforming trip for me. It was the beginning of a new vision for my life, a new way of thinking about who I am. Not the life of a guy who gets good sleep, but a guy who goes to the kind of places that Jesus went when he was here on earth, to the places where people need help. As we were driving back home, I sat in the car and prayed, “Jesus, I know why I am here. It wasn't the thing I came for, it was to do something that really mattered.” It's so easy for me to do the thing that is comfortable and convenient, that fits into my schedule nicely. So much harder to sacrifice my time and comfort. But in the sacrifice, you gain something. You exchange your goals for his goals. Your life for his life.
In Matthew 8:19, the man's offer, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go,” seems sincere. We often find the scribes and Pharisees as enemies of Jesus, but this man calls him “teacher.” He's intrigued by Jesus, and offers to follow him wherever he is going. It sounds like a grand commitment. But what he means is that he will follow Jesus to the next stop, to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. He is saying, Teacher, wherever you are going to get away from these crowds, I will go there. And maybe he's thinking—I hope that's a nice place. Maybe there's good food there. Hope I have a good time. And I hope I make it back by the weekend, because I've got plans.
So when this man says, I will follow you wherever you're going, Jesus knows that he is not envisioning the true cost and meaning of following. So he lets him off the hook.
Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” (Matt 8:20)
If you're looking for a soft bed, Jesus is telling him, that's not where I'm heading. Don't come my way, because I need men and women who will set aside their comfort and convenience to follow me. I need you to follow no matter what lies ahead. And you won't make it back by the weekend, by the way. This commitment has no stop-date.
It's a hard commitment to make in our culture; maybe harder than in Jesus'. We're comfort-driven people. I happened to recently drive by a mattress store called Comfort Gallery, coincidentally. They offer, I expect, a comfortable place to lay your head every night. Jesus won't guarantee that, if you make his goals your priority. In addition to our pursuit of comfort, we're all busy people. We have even more distractions than the people of his time. So many things to occupy us, to divert us from giving up our time for his sake.
Have you ever had the nagging feeling that you are missing something? That you are not experiencing the life that you thought you would? Maybe there is an emptiness, inside yourself. I have spent years of my life with an emptiness inside. Not always understanding, but knowing that something was missing. And I have tried to put all manner of different things into that space, to fill it. And the things I put in there sometimes made me feel better for a while, but then the nagging feeling would come back. And I'd have to try something else.
Have you had the feeling? I know what it is. It is there not because I needed to put something in, but because I needed to give something up. I needed to open my hands and let go of my plans, my comfort, the distractions and priorities that I had submitted to, and follow the Lord Jesus on the path he walked before me. The path he called me to. And you also. Jesus still calls men and women who will follow him, convenient or not. Who will offer him their devotion when they are busy, who will forsake the things everyone else spends their whole lives chasing. On that path, that he set before us, lies a greater comfort than anything this world can offer.