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I Understand All Too Well

Mark Twain reportedly said, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me. It’s the parts that I do understand.”

One such understandable story is found in Matthew 9:9: “As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. ‘Follow me,’ he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.”

Pretty straightforward account. No embellishments, no cryptic theology: just a man in his tax booth who instantly responds to the call of Jesus. Some scholars have tried to soften this act of radical obedience. “Matthew undoubtedly had met Jesus before,” they explain. “Perhaps he had soaked in his teaching and was ready to respond.”

Maybe so, but the text doesn’t say that. One moment Matthew is collecting money from taxpayers, and in the next he ditches his office to follow Jesus. Whether he had knowledge of Christ beforehand misses the point. He sprung into action. He left behind his comfortable rut to follow this carpenter from Nazareth. He didn’t glance back like Lot’s wife; he didn’t say, “I can always return if this doesn’t work out.”

This story rubs me the wrong way because I understand it all too well. It shows me up; it strips away all my excuses to become a serious disciple. I feel I am rarely as obedient as Matthew. Sometimes I am not obedient to God at all. The summons to die to myself and take up my cross is a path I occasionally wonder why I took in the first place. It requires the dual action of letting go of selfish, convenient ways and trusting someone I have never seen. In biblical culture, “to follow” meant to cleave to a Master so closely you could recite all his words and ways.

A new year is always a good time to take stock. That Jesus loves me beyond all question is a settled matter. But it’s way too easy to simply say, “Jesus loves me, this I know” and go on my merry way. This was never meant to be a one-way relationship. I want to love Him back with everything I have. I yearn to obey Him like Matthew did.  I want to be His follower, but I will have to understand (and keep understanding) this raw fact: there are no shortcuts to discipleship, no “three easy steps.” It’s not a golden road strewn with roses and fairy dust, but one dotted with blood, sweat and tears.

No wonder Jesus told us to count the cost before we follow Him.

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