Not Everyone Can Be Yeshua’s Disciple

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When three eager prospective disciples asked permission to follow Jesus, Jesus responded to each of them with a riddle. Why would God allow Jesus and his followers to sleep on the ground when he provides safe places even for the animals to sleep? How can the dead bury a corpse? Why would a disciple set his hand to a plow when Elisha had given up plowing in order to follow Elijah? These riddles would have to be puzzled over before their meaning was fully understood. But each of the riddles were ominous, and it appears that each of the three prospective disciples reconsidered his desire to join Jesus.

Matt. 8:19-22; Luke 9:57-62

(Huck 49, 138; Aland 89, 176; Crook 93, 195)[1]

Revised: 22-February-2017

וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ רַבִּי אֵלֵךְ אַחֲרֶיךָ אֶל אֲשֶׁר תֵּלֵךְ וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ יֵשׁוּעַ הַשּׁוּעָלִים יֵשׁ לָהֶם פִּּירִים וְעוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם יֵשׁ לָהֶם מִשְׁכְּנוֹת וּבַר אֱנָשׁ אֵין לוֹ אֵיכָן לְהַנִּיחַ אֶת רֹאשׁוֹ וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ אַחֵר אֲדֹנִי הַנַּח אוֹתִי תְּחִילָה לָלֶכֶת וְלִקְבֹּר אֶת אָבִי וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ לֵךְ אַחֲרַי וְהַנַּח אֶת הַמֵּתִים לִקְבֹּר אֶת מֵתֵיהֶם וַיֹּאמֶר אַף אַחֵר אֵלֵךְ אַחֲרֶיךָ אֲדֹנִי אֲבַל הַנַּח אוֹתִי תְּחִילָה לִנְשֹׁק לְבֵיתִי וַיֹּאמֶר יֵשׁוּעַ כָּל הַנּוֹתֵן יָדוֹ עַל הַמַּחֲרֵשָׁה וּמַבִּיט אַחֲרָיו לֹא הָגוּן לְמַלְכוּת שָׁמַיִם

…and he said to him, “Rabbi, wherever you go, I’ll follow.” But Yeshua said, “Beasts and birds have homes, but those who join me won’t even enjoy that basic comfort.”

Someone else said, “Lord, I’ll follow you after I’ve seen my dad through to the end of his days.” But Yeshua said, “Come join my life-giving mission, and let those who have not been brought to life take care of everyday existence.”

Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me go say good-bye to my family.” But Yeshua said, “The person who commits himself and then takes it back isn’t fit for my band of disciples.”[2]


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Conclusion

In the Not Everyone Can Be Yeshua’s Disciple pericope three individuals approach Jesus to seek admission to his band of full-time disciples. Although it is possible that the three encounters described in this pericope took place on different occasions, they were crafted into a tight literary unit at a pre-synoptic stage. Each encounter is initiated by an aspiring disciple, and each elicits a response from Jesus that leaves the door open, but which none of the three prospective disciples appear to walk through. In the first and third encounters the aspiring disciples declare, “I will follow you.” The middle encounter is the only one in which the aspiring disciple does not make a confident declaration, and only in this encounter does Jesus extend an invitation to the would-be disciple to join his band of followers. The middle encounter, where Jesus’ demand seems the harshest, also portrays Jesus as going out of the way to encourage the would-be disciple to follow him.

In each of the three encounters Jesus responds with a riddle. How to make sense of them may not have been immediately evident to the prospective disciples. Why would God allow Jesus and his followers to sleep on the ground when he provides safe places even for the animals to sleep? How can the dead bury a corpse? Why would a disciple set his hand to a plow when Elisha had given up plowing in order to follow Elijah? These riddles would have to be puzzled over before their meaning was fully understood. But all of the riddles sounded ominous, and each of the three prospective disciples reconsidered his desire to join Jesus.

Jesus riddles may have sounded disheartening to the prospective disciples, but they also seem to bespeak a sense on the part of Jesus that the world was out of balance. Wild animals have what they need, but Jesus and his followers do not. The living are spiritually dead, while the disciples, who take up their crosses, are the means by which God is restoring his people to life. Many are looking backward who ought to be plowing ahead. The images in Jesus’ riddles are eerie, and the effect is heightened by the somatic imagery—head, corpse, hand—around which the riddles revolve. In such topsy-turvy times, Jesus needed disciples who were fully committed to his mission, disciples who would not grow faint when faced with challenges, hardships and danger.

It seems likely that the examples of Ruth and Elisha influenced the literary crafting of this pericope. Ruth declared that she would share whatever conditions Naomi endured. Elisha gave up his prosperous livelihood as a farmer to follow Elijah. The first and second encounters might contain echoes of Ruth’s declaration (Ruth 1:16-17), since the first encounter is about following Jesus even when he has no place to spend the night (cf. Ruth 1:16), and the second encounter is about burial (cf. Ruth 1:17). The second and third encounters might also contain echoes of the Elijah-Elisha narrative.[3] This certainly seems to be the case in the third encounter where Jesus speaks of plowing, but the influence of the Elijah-Elisha story might also be detected in the second encounter with its emphasis on the tension between the demands of discipleship and the duty to one’s family. Elisha and Ruth both showed remarkable commitment and resolve. Jesus expected nothing less from his disciples.


  • [1] For abbreviations and bibliographical references, see “Introduction to ‘The Life of Yeshua: A Suggested Reconstruction’.
  • [2] This translation is a dynamic rendition of our reconstruction of the conjectured Hebrew source that stands behind the Greek of the Synoptic Gospels. It is not a translation of the Greek text of a canonical source.
  • [3] The influence of the Elijah-Elisha narrative on the second encounter is recognized by many scholars. Cf. Schweizer, 221; Davies-Allison, 2:54-55; Bovon, 2:13.

Comments 7

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  2. Have you considered that foxes do not live or even sleep in foxholes, nor do birds live or sleep in nests? These are both places where babies are nurtured until they are able to stand on their own. If you read it from that standpoint then how does the third part about the head fit into this construct?

    1. Joshua N. Tilton

      Hi Joshua,
      Thank you for your question, although I’m not sure I fully accept its premise. According to the sources I’ve read, foxes in Israel do have burrows where they sleep. Likewise, the saying probably doesn’t refer to a bird’s nest, but to a roost, where it would spend the night.
      The provisional conclusion I’ve reached is that this saying is about how God automatically supplies animals with their needs whereas human beings have to work for their sustenance. Therefore it would require extraordinary trust for a disciple to abandon his means of livelihood in order to follow Jesus on his tour through the towns and villages of Israel.

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