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“Nobody who has put his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God,” said
If you’ve not done much plowing, the phrase is likely mysterious.
The idea is this: that one who looks over his shoulder while guiding the plow is looking in the
wrong direction.
Plowing with oxen, one needs to cut a straight furrow.
The great beasts must be guided, and slanted furrows will only create more difficulties,
because another furrow must be cut next to that one and then later in the growing season,
the rows will be lightly plowed between, to uproot and turnover the weeds.
While inattention will easily produce an accidentally slanted furrow, it will be hard to guide the
oxen to make a slanted furrow on purpose.
It is best to keep one’s eyes forward, choosing a point on the horizon past the edge the field to
focus on.
Staring backwards or sideways will take you off course.
Our contemporary farmers do not have this problem.
Their great tractors and combines are guided by GPS and they are steered nearly automatically,
in air-conditioned cabs.
A parallel experience we are likelier to relate to would be the experience of driving a car while
talking to a child in the back seat, adjusting the radio, or, God forbid, looking at our phones.
My friend Blake Kendrick, the associate minister at First Baptist Church,
recently commented on Facebook about how many people he notices looking down when he is
out for his morning jog.
I see them too, on the rare occasions when I jog or when I walk uptown to get some lunch.
They drift into other lanes, cutting their furrow on the diagonal,
because they are not looking ahead, in the direction their massive,
fast-moving vehicle is carrying them.
Nobody who puts his hand to the smartphone is fit for the roadways of Greenwood.
Jesus’ teaching might find a little application there but is more about the necessity of taking a
long and sustained view of following him,
of not looking back or around in such a way that we lose track
and veer off course and make a mess of the field of the Christian life.
The passage is a difficult one in his persistent suggestion that our families are one of the things
likely to make our furrows crooked.
Many have conveniently forgotten this in our long centuries of fitting Jesus into our preferences
for how we like the world to be.
Jesus’ family values wouldn’t be anything like the term as we have heard it used in recent years.
Someone else can bury your dead father; there is no need to say farewell to your parents, he said.
Get to work on the stuff of the Kingdom.
And you remember the time that he told his biological family that anyone who would do the will
of God was his family from now on.
Jesus relativized biological family, making it subordinate to our new identity as members of his
body and citizens of his kingdom.
The celebration of illustrious ancestors, the cult of domestic life,
or the worship of children that happens among the privileged;
none of these are found in the teaching of Jesus.
Yet I’m pained by the suggestion that those precious to us are distractions, behind us or off to
the side, the equivalents to smartphones in the car, in the journey of our discipleship.
Jesus’ certainly speaks with some measure of hyperbole here, meant to get our attention and
center our deepest affections and hopes on him and the Kingdom.
But to suggest that he didn’t really mean what he said or that he was flat out wrong are
interpretations that only bear some fruit.
Our confession of faith in Jesus and hope for his Kingdom is meant to put everything else in a
relative position to him.
Human beings have been in families for as long we’ve been human beings,
matching up and raising children and taking some delight in seeing our children do the same;
caring for the aged among us and meeting their final needs.
All that was happening before Christ came among us and the revolutionary nature of the new
thing that God did in Jesus was meant to change those patterns as much as any other.
And so it has been the church’s hope that family and marriage and being a child of aging parents
can be means of God’s grace and opportunities to practice the love of Christ.
We might say it this way; that we hope that a household or a family are small communities of
disciples, who have decided together to journey together toward a mutually chosen point on the
horizon that is the Kingdom of God.
Our work is not that of individual plow-women or plowmen, but something pursued together.
We make our way together across the field and are there to spell each other, encourage each
other, love each other.
On the journey, we learn that family is made all kinds of ways and that for some, relationships
built in the body of Christ will be the deepest and most life-giving.
And every sort of family will find a way of greater blessing if they commit themselves to Christ
and his hope for the world,
and if they put whatever hopes they would have before the coming Jesus behind the new hope
they have in him.
To go to nice colleges, travel in retirement, and have a beautiful home are things many naturally
want, the points on the horizon offered to us for navigation through life.
Those things are pretty readily achieved and are often experienced as rather hollow once they are
in hand.
To find existential purpose for one’s life, to find a vision for a restored world and society,
to find a story of a loving, reconciling, patient, and longsuffering God, however,
are gifts that do not fail,
worth your deepest commitment and that of those in your care.
It is not easy to steer a straight course toward those ultimately good things.
But it is possible, with God’s help.
You and those you love are called to give up other things in favor of them.
A Gospel life includes grace and discipline,
doing things we do not want to do,
and that trust we call faith,
that trust in God that means we pass by some of the good things of this life, inviting those we
love to do the same,
as we press on toward the goal, as prepare ourselves and our world
for the loving justice that God has promised.