Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 31: Matthew, Mark and Luke, Part I, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
MATTHEW 8:19-22; LUKE 9:57-62
19. And a scribe approaching said to him, Master, I will follow thee whithersoever thou shalt go. 20. And Jesus saith to him, Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests: but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head. 21. And another of his disciples said to him, Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father. 22. And Jesus said to him, Follow me, and allow the dead to bury their dead.
57. And it happened, while they were walking in the way, one said to him, I will follow thee withersoever thou shalt go. 58. Jesus said to him, Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests: but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head. 59. And he said to another, Follow me. And he said, Lord, permit me to go first and bury my father. 60. And Jesus said to him, Allow the dead to bury their dead: but go thou and proclaim the kingdom of God. 61. And another said to him, I will follow thee, Lord, but permit me first to bid farewell to those who are in my house. 62. Jesus said to him, No man who, having put his hand to the plough, shall look back, is fit for the kingdom of God.
Matthew 8:19. And a scribe approaching. Two men are here presented to us by Matthew, and three by Luke, all of whom were prepared to become disciples of Christ, but who, having been prevented by a diversity of vices from following the right course, receive a corresponding variety of replies. It might at first sight appear strange, that Christ sends back, and does not admit into his family, one who offers to follow him immediately and without delay: while he detains another along with him who, by asking leave for a time, showed himself to be slower and less willing. But there are the best reasons for both. Whence arose the great readiness of the scribe to prepare himself immediately to accompany Christ, but from his not having at all considered the hard and wretched condition of his followers? We must bear in mind that he was a scribe, who had been accustomed to a quiet and easy life, had enjoyed honor, and was ill-fitted to endure reproaches, poverty, persecutions, and the cross. He wishes indeed to follow Christ, but dreams of an easy and agreeable life, and of dwellings filled with every convenience; whereas the disciples of Christ must walk among thorns, and march to the cross amidst uninterrupted afflictions. The more eager he is, the less he is prepared. He seems as if he wished to fight in the shade and at ease, neither annoyed by sweat nor by dust, and beyond the reach of the weapons of war. There is no reason to wonder that Christ rejects such persons: for, as they rush on without consideration, they are distressed by the first uneasiness of any kind that occurs, lose courage at the first attack, give way, and basely desert their post. Besides, this scribe might have sought a place in the family of Christ, in order to live at his table without expense, and to feed luxuriously without toil. Let us therefore look upon ourselves as warned, in his person, not to boast lightly and at ease, that we will be the disciples of Christ, while we are taking no thought of the cross, or of afflictions; but, on the contrary, to consider early what sort of condition awaits us. The first lesson which he gives us, on entering his school, is to deny ourselves, and take up his cross, (Mt 16:24.)
20. Foxes have holes. The Son of God describes by these words what was his condition while he lived on the earth, but, at the same time, informs his disciples what sort of life they must be prepared to expect. And yet it is strange that Christ should say, that he had not a foot of earth on which he could lay his head, while there were many godly and benevolent persons, who would willingly receive him into their houses. But this was spoken, it ought to be observed, as a warning to the scribe, not to expect an abundant and rich hire, as if he had a wealthy master, while the master himself receives a precarious subsistence in borrowed houses.
21. Lord, permit me to go first and bury my father. We have said, that the scribe was rejected by Christ as a follower, because he made his offer without consideration, and imagined that he would enjoy an easy life. The person whom Christ retains had an opposite fault. He was prevented from immediately obeying the call of Christ by the weakness of thinking it a hardship to leave his father. It is probable that his father was in extreme old age: for the mode of expression, Permit me to bury, implies that he had but a short time to live. Luke says that Christ ordered him to follow; while Matthew says that he was one of his disciples But he does not refuse the calling: he only asks leave for a time to discharge a duty which he owes to his father. 506 The excuse bears that he looked upon himself as at liberty till his father’s death. From Christ’s reply we learn, that children should discharge their duty to their parents in such a manner that, whenever God calls them to another employment, they should lay this aside, and assign the first place to the command of God. Whatever duties we owe to men must give way, when God enjoins upon us what is immediately due to himself. All ought to consider what God requires from them as individuals, and what is demanded by their particular calling, that earthly parents may not prevent the claims of the highest and only Father of all from remaining entire.
22. Allow the dead to bury their dead. By these words Christ does not condemn burial: for it would have been shameful and cruel to throw away the bodies of the dead unburied, and we know that the custom of burying originated in a divine command, and was practiced by the saints, in order to strengthen the hope of the last resurrection. He intended only to show, that what ever withdraws us from the right course, or retards us in it, deserves no other name than death Those only live, he tells us, who devote all their thoughts, and every part of their life, to obedience to God; while those who do not rise above the world, — who devote themselves to pleasing men, and forget God, — are like dead men, who are idly and uselessly employed in taking care of the dead.
Luke 9:60. But go thou and proclaim the kingdom of God. Matthew has only the words, Follow me: but Luke states more fully the reason why he was called, which was, that he might be a minister and preacher of the Gospel. Had he remained in a private station, there would have been no absolute necessity for leaving his father, provided he did not forsake the Gospel on his father’s account. 507 But the preaching of the Gospel does not allow him to remain at home, and therefore Christ properly takes him away from his father. While the amazing goodness of Christ appears in bestowing so honorable an office on a man who was still so weak, it deserves our notice, that the fault which still cleaved to him is corrected, and is not overlooked and encouraged.
Luke 9:61. And another said. Matthew does not mention this third person. It appears that he was too strongly attached to the world, to be ready and prepared to follow Christ. True, he offers to join the family of Christ, but with this reservation, after he has bid farewell to those who are in his house; that is, after he has arranged his business at home, as men are wont to do when preparing for a journey. This is the true reason why Christ reproves him so severely: for, while he was professing in words that he would be a follower of Christ, he turned his back upon him, till he had despatched his worldly business.
62. He who, after having put his hand to the plough, shall look back, is unfit for the kingdom of God. We must carefully inquire what this declaration of Christ means. They are said to look back, who become involved in the cares of the world, so as to allow themselves to be withdrawn from the right path; particularly, when they plunge themselves into those employments which disqualify them to follow Christ.
“Jusque a ce qu'il se soit acquitte envers son pere du devoir que nature commande;” — “until he has discharged that duty to his father which nature requires.”
“Pour faire son devoir envers son pere;” — “to do his duty to his father.”