No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.
Are there many people today who understand "what putting a hand to the plow" means? Does someone operating a machine instead of a hand-held plow understand the meaning of these words? Perhaps. The key seems to be in the concentration and commitment of the one setting the direction -- looking straight ahead, not back. When farmers plowed with the aid of a mule or an ox, they were the ones giving the direction to the plow. During those hours nothing mattered but to cut the furrows through the prepared soil so that none of the seeds would be wasted. It was an act that took the farmer's full concentration. Turning the head back, looking back, might mean disaster for animal, for farmer, for the future of the crop, especially in a land where so many rocks cover the soil.
Against this picture that Jesus paints in the Gospel of Luke with a few stern, spare words, we are given a different picture in the story of the anointing of Elisha in the Old Testament lesson. Here the young man who was chosen by God to follow in Elijah's footsteps is seen plowing his fields. It is a fascinating picture. The twelve yoke of oxen, a very large number, is probably symbolic; this is a number used repeatedly in the Scriptures -- we see it in the twelve tribes of Israel, in the calling of the Twelve to be Jesus' disciples, and in many other instances. Elisha is plowing with the last set of oxen, the twelfth. The strange old prophet, Elijah, who probably looked wild after his sojourn in the wilderness of Damascus, as the story has told us earlier, has heard the voice of God "in the sound of sheer silence," one of the most powerful descriptions in the Old Testament. God tells him to do three things, and the third one is to anoint Elisha as his successor.
Elijah starts with this third command. He sees the young man plowing, walks by him, and throws his mantle over him. And Elisha is ready on the spot. Instead of being terrified of the old man, instead of throwing the mantle back, he leaves the oxen and follows Elijah. But first, he says, "Let me go kiss my father and mother goodbye." And Elijah gives him permission. What he has done to the younger man is very important and Elisha must return to him, he warns him. We are not told if Elisha kissed his parents, but we are told that he offered the oxen as food for the people, a concrete act of mercy before leaving everything known to him and following the prophet.
In today's Gospel, we have some vivid pictures of various other callings. These are mentioned only by Luke and they are startling in their simplicity and spare, laconic quality. The journey begins with the strong words that show us a determined Jesus, prepared to meet his painful death. "He set his face to go to Jerusalem," Luke tells us. These few words, offered without further explanation, without any descriptive phrases, are some of the most powerful in Scripture. We know what awaits Jesus in Jerusalem, for we know the story, and it stirs our hearts. The protagonist in this drama, Jesus himself, knew what awaited him in Jerusalem; he did not choose to go somewhere else instead to avoid the painful cross. He set his face to go to his death.
After this announcement, the statement that "those who set their hand on the plow and look back are not fit for the Kingdom," does not come as a surprise. In the ten verses in between these two sentences we are offered a number of vignettes on how difficult it is for one to enter the Kingdom or, in other words, to follow Christ.
First we encounter the Samaritans. Treated sympathetically elsewhere in Luke by Jesus, these same Samaritans refuse to welcome Jesus and to offer him hospitality. Their excuse is that Jesus is going to Jerusalem; they are sure that it is not the place one should choose for worship. And they reject the one who is the object of their worship. In ignorance and prejudice they don't see the truth. Two of the disciples immediately want revenge. How dare the Samaritans not welcome the Master? Let's burn them, is the solution the disciples offer. But Jesus turns and rebukes them. One of the ancient copies of the Gospel expands on this rebuke; we have the words of Jesus: "You do not know what spirit you are of, for the Son of Man has not come to destroy the lives of human beings but to save them."
How do we react to those who do not welcome the good news of God? These days, we probably ignore them, which in itself is a form of rejection.
The other scenes of discipleship claimed and then rejected are equally brief and dramatic. Here is Jesus walking toward Jerusalem, his disciples following him. They pass through villages and throngs of people who hear of the fame of the prophet and want to see him. How can anyone resist the grace and power of his personality? Some are there because they have heard of the young prophet and want to hear his words; others are there wanting to be healed of disease; there are also those who have a dream of a more meaningful life, so they come to hear him and see him, hoping he will give meaning to their existence. One of these listeners, fascinated by the personality, grace, and power of Jesus, perhaps deeply and honestly moved tells him, " I'll follow you wherever you go." Instead of welcoming him, Jesus looks into the heart of the man and tells him in effect how easy it is to say the words and how difficult it is to put them into action. He is really asking him, "Are you willing to give up everything, including the comfort of a home, a place to lay your head, to follow me?" We are not told what the man's answer is. From the silence we assume that he turned his back and returned to the comforts of home.
In the next instance, it is Jesus who asks another person to follow him. The man says he will, but there are family responsibilities that come first. After I fulfill them, the invited follower says, "after I bury my father," I will follow you. But the call of Jesus is uncompromising. Nothing is allowed to be used as an excuse, even family responsibility. And like most of us, the man turns and leaves also. The demands of Jesus are too hard for him as they are for us.
The third encounter seems, again, to be a most familiar person to all of us. "Yes, I will do the will of God," he says, "I will follow the narrow way of Jesus, but first I must spend time with those I love; I must say farewell to all that has been familiar to me up to now, to all that makes me feel secure, to 'those at home.'" But Jesus knows the human heart. He who set his face toward Jerusalem and the fulfillment of the Father's will, accepts no empty excuses. You don't look back when I call you, he is telling these hopeful disciples. The Christian life is not a life shared by the many other loyalties that take us away from the call to obey the will of God. We cannot be fractured, we cannot be distracted.
It is probable that all those people who thought they wanted to follow an easy Master turned around and went away sorrowfully. How many times do we meet God's invitation with excuses and rejection? Responding to the call to the Kingdom is not easy. When life is comfortable, we don't want to be disturbed.
It seems then as one of the great paradoxes of the Christian faith when we hear St. Paul telling the Galatians that the call of Jesus is the call to perfect freedom. "It is the freedom of the Spirit," he tells them. "Watch out," he tells them. "You have chosen the narrow way, but it is the way of perfect freedom." "Yet, the kingdom of God is not for those who become slaves to other desires and to the idolatry of the flesh," he warns. "Don't let God's freedom lull you into thinking that you can be enslaved to the desires of the flesh, the passions and idolatries that tempt human life." In his injunctions, Paul becomes much more specific than his Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul lists the vices to be avoided by those who walk in the Spirit. Fortunately for us, he doesn't stop there; he lists also the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. What lovely gifts.
We sit here today, hearing the call of God to follow Christ. It commands our unswerving love and commitment -- placing the hand on the plow and not looking back. Not looking back, not longing for what enslaves us, even if that is a relationship to a close person. Jesus Christ asks for our whole person. And when that surrender occurs, all these loyalties and loves fall into place. Then, as St. Paul tells us, we find perfect freedom. Thanks be to God.