As someone who was raised up in Sunday School during the 1950s and 1960s, these words are ingrained in my very soul. Prime directive: Follow Jesus. But part of this journey that I’m blogging about is to question everything. What is Jesus really saying to Matthew, the author of this Gospel, when he offers him this personal invitation? What does it mean to “Follow Jesus?”
Strong’s Concordance says that the original Greek word is parakoloutheó: to follow closely, to investigate. The expanded definition is “accompany, follow closely, characterize, both literal and metaphorical; investigate” (http://biblesuite.com/greek/3877.htm).
According to the Greek word, Jesus is asking Matthew to accompany, characterize, and investigate him.
What Jesus is asking of Matthew requires time, effort, discernment, reflection, discovery, evaluation, and practice. It is not something quick or easy. He is asking Matthew and all the rest of us to accompany him, and dedicate our lives to investigating and characterizing him.
People dedicate their lives to many different pursuits – family, property, work, sports, fashion, crafts, literature, education, hobbies, nature, movies, theater, music, charities, and many other things. They know a lot about these things that are foremost in their minds. They study them in depth. While we are certainly capable of seriously pursuing our passions, we often want to take an easier route when it comes to our pursuit of Jesus.
What comes to mind when I examine “follow me” and its definition are some of the things Jesus does NOT ask Matthew to do: “worship him”, “obey him”, “surrender to him”, or “love him”. This isn’t what Jesus is talking about when he says, “Follow me.” This is not the kind of relationship he wants to have with this disciples.
Does Jesus really want us to tag along behind him mindlessly singing his praises? Even pagans can worship Jesus – just one more god. The more the merrier. No, Jesus worships God and wants his disciples to do the same. Jesus doesn’t believe in legalism so blind obedience is kind of antithetical. He wants our reasoned, informed, emphatic assent and acceptance. Jesus doesn’t want to enslave anyone so surrender isn’t necessary. He doesn’t want a lot of mindless zombies trailing around behind him. He wants us to follow him with our eyes wide open and our brains fully engaged. As for love, he wants us to love everyone the same. He wants to be loved in all of his enigmatic, intense, luminous, brilliant, intuitive, and sometimes bewildering complexity. What he wants is our attention. And our time. And open minds. And maybe even a little respect and consideration for what he has to say.
Jesus says, “Follow me.” It’s not an appeal to our emotions; Jesus wants to teach us essential truths about ourselves, our God and our world. It’s easy and even fun to worship a celebrity, but it takes a lot of time and effort to actually know Jesus of Nazareth, to test him, to understand why he does what he does and says what he says. What does he say about God? How does he treat other people? How does he see religion? How does he look at justice? Idol worship is mindless, useless, and self-serving. Only if you seriously investigate Jesus can you decide whether or not you want to worship him as he really is, or whether you are worshiping an idol that has been created by the church or your own imaginings.
Jesus says, “Follow me.” Watch what I do, hear me out, test me, give my way a chance. Accompany me, investigate me, imitate me. Check out what I say and do and see if my way is the right way. See if it makes sense. See if it works. See if you believe that what I demonstrate and teach will bring about the Kingdom of God here on earth.
Jesus says, “Follow me.” It’s not a command; it’s a challenge, an invitation, an open door to God’s heart. That’s what he says, that’s what he wants us to do. Let him do his job. Let him show us the truth that God sent him to reveal, teach us what we need to learn, and instruct each of us about how we are supposed to live our lives. Jesus wants to reveal to each of us something about the heart of God, the hearts of others, and the deepest longings of our own hearts as well.
And ultimately in all that he says and does, he reveals something of his true identity to each of us in a highly personal and intimate way.
I am ending with one of John’s favorite quotes, by Albert Schweitzer:
“He comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake-side, he came to those men [and women] who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: ‘Follow me!’ and sets us to the tasks that He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And, to those who obey, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings that they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.”
What does this scripture say to you?