Sunday, June 26, 2016

No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God

May my words be in the Name of Almighty God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

In our gospel today we have three sayings from our Lord which emphasise the cost of discipleship. Context is, of course, very important, so it is necessary for us to understand the circumstances under which Jesus is speaking. The time, St Luke tells, is drawing near for Jesus to be received up, in other words to be crucified; and he has set his face towards Jerusalem. And as he journeys, men come up to him, offering to be his followers. The high cost of his own obedience to the will of the Father is quite naturally very much on his mind. And out of that he speaks to these would be followers of what the cost will be for them for trying to emulate that obedience by following him.

His response to each man is phrased very much like a proverb. Proverbs are, as I am sure you all know, a way of saying something wise and profound in a short and often dramatic form. But they are not to be take with slavish literalness, for if you do, then you get bogged down in the details while at the same time missing the fundamental point of what is being said. For example, the saying a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush has actually nothing to do with either birds or bushes or the market value of feathered creatures; and the one that states it is a long road that has no turns is not really talking about roads, turns, or indeed commenting on highway construction. Taking these sayings literally would cause you to miss the point they are trying to make. And the same can be said of the rather challenging proverb-like sayings that our Lord speaks in today's Gospel.

So let us consider these three sayings in more detail. The first is when Jesus says, in response to a man who wants to follow him ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ The next is when, having called a man to follow him the man says first let me bury my father and Jesus says ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ And to a third man, who has said he will indeed follow the Lord, but first wishes to go home and make his farewells, he says ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’

Now, if we look elsewhere in the Gospels, we can see that Jesus does not intend what he is saying here to be taken as literal requirements of the Christian life. Looking at the first one, when he says the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head, we know from Scripture that Jesus, while he did indeed spend a lot of time travelling from place to place teaching, was far from being homeless. There was a house in Capernaum that is referred to as his home; we frequently see him being welcomed into people's homes as an honoured guest; and we know that there were wealthy women who were part of his followers who provided for him and the others out of their resources. So he is not exactly homeless; but he has left what little comfort there is in his life for this last journey to Jerusalem.

In relation to when he tells a man to let the dead bury their own dead, taken literally that would be rather shocking. But we know from the Gospels that Jesus had great compassion on the bereaved, as we see from his encounter with the widow of Nain at the funeral of her only son or his visit to the tomb of Lazarus. Mary and Martha, it should be noted, we already devoted followers of his; and there is no suggestion from our Lord that they should do other than mourn or ensure the usual funeral customs are observed.

The final one is when the man wishes to say goodbye to his family and Jesus says that no one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of heaven. We know that St Peter and all the Apostles abandoned him in the Garden of Gethsemane when his enemies came for him; that Peter in fact denied him; and that none save St John stood with him in his agony as he suffered and died upon the cross. And yet Christ welcomed all of them back, made them leaders of his Church, charged them at his Ascension with making disciples of all nations, and that all of them are now saints in heaven standing before the throne of God. They all did far more than look back; and yet all of them was most certainly fit for the kingdom of heaven.

So, as we are clearly not to take what our Lord here with complete literalness, what are we to learn from these sayings of his? With the first, that the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head, he reminds us of the challenge of Christian living. It is a life of sacrifice; something for which the rewards are not this life but in the next. And it is worth noting that many Church Fathers, in commenting on this passage, believe that this man sought personal advantage in associating himself with Jesus, thinking that he would gain in some way by becoming a follower; and that as a result of Jesus' stark warning that this would not be the case, he walked away from Christ.

In relation to letting the dead bury their own dead, our Lord here uses hyperbole, exaggeration for the sake of effect. To be a Christian means having obedience to God as the first priority in your life in all things. Nothing else can be set before following his will in all things, no matter how important they may seem. And again it should be noted that St Cyril of Alexandria, a Father of the Church, wrote that it wasn't the case that the man was looking to go and attend to the funeral of his father; but rather that his father was still living and the man was telling Jesus he would come and follow him when he died, whenever that might be. He was effectively telling Jesus that I would love to be your follower – at some time in the future when it is convenient to me.

Finally, with regard to the man who wishes first to return to his family, our Lord is again employing hyperbole. First let us consider the metaphor he employs, that of a plough. In ancient Israel, this was a light wooden affair, pulled by oxen. The ploughman needed one hand on the plough to to keep it straight, and the other holding the reins of his team of oxen. To plough a straight furrow required that all one's focus needed to be on the task at hand; looking around or looking away meant at best the furrows would go all over the place, and at worst you would run into a rock or some other obstacle and shatter the plough itself. The Christian life requires full focus on what lies ahead, not looking back longingly at the life that that has been left behind. That is the old life of sin and death; and dipping back into it for friendly visits with those who are still part of it risks tempting the Christian back into that life. As St Augustine puts it with the regard to the man Jesus was speaking to, it was as if he was being called to the East, and instead he wished to turn to the West; or as the Venerable Bede says, he acted like Lot's wife and by looking back at the things he was to leave and thereby risked loosing the gift of the kingdom to come.


But even if what our Lord is saying here is not to be taken with slavish literalness, they are nonetheless intended to make it forcefully clear of the great cost that is entailed in following Christ. And as I said at the beginning, proverbs contain great wisdom. And if that is true then such sayings given us from our Lord contain greater wisdom still, coming as they do from the lips of the God himself, the second person of the Blessed Trinity. The wisdom he imparts to us in our reading today is intended, as with all his teaching, for the salvation of our souls, to help us end where God created us to be – with him in heaven. And I pray that the words we have heard spoken by our Lord today – words intended to make us realise the importance of making living the Christian life the primary focus of our lives – will indeed enter into your hearts and bear fruit in your lives this day and always. Amen. 

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