June 27, 2010
Not many of us here are farmers. The few of us who do some farming do so in a way that is very different from farming in the first century. In Galilee at the time of Jesus, the hills were covered with many small farms, and Jesus uses his observation of farming techniques in his teaching. This is why we have so many agricultural images in the New Testament: the parable of the sower, the parable of the mustard seed, the parable of the weeds and the wheat. Jesus is always talking about planting and watering and harvesting. In today’s gospel he uses the image of plowing. Now most of us who have seen old movies understand how plowing used to work. The plow was connected to a horse or a cow, which pulled it forward. The purpose of the plow was to turn over the hardened earth so that seed could be planted in the newly broken soil. The farmer needed to be attentive, because he directed the plow, and the straighter and the closer the rows were to one another, the more productive the field would be. If the farmer took his eye off the plow, if he looked back to the rows that had already been turned over, his work would suffer.
Knowing this, Jesus uses the example of plowing to talk about discipleship. He says, “Whoever puts a hand to the plow and looks back is not fit for the kingdom of God.” What Jesus is telling us is that, as his disciples, we must not look back at past mistakes or failures. Jesus says this because he knows that looking back will not only distract us, but possibly harm us. If we keep looking back to the past, we can damage our present work and our future. Just as a farmer who keeps looking back on the row he has just plowed endangers the straightness and the usefulness of the row he is plowing, Jesus knows that if we look back, worrying about the past, it can lessen our service.
We all have to admit that it is difficult not to look back, because our past mistakes and failures follow us. We regret previous relationships, perhaps even previous marriages that came to an end. We wish that we had one more chance to follow an opportunity that slipped through our fingers. We feel guilty about the way that we have hurt people or the things that we have said or the responsibilities that we have ignored. So we keep looking back, picking on the scabs of old mistakes, looking and lamenting over the failures that still haunt us.
Jesus tells us that this is no way to enter the kingdom of God. Because the good news is this: the plow is still moving forward, and it needs our attention. We cannot direct it, if we are looking backwards. We must face forward and guide it. Perhaps you realize now that you should have done some things differently when you raised your children. You can see the harm that still exists in the mistakes that you made. Okay. But don’t look back. Give your attention to sharing your wisdom and love with your grandchildren and with others in your life today. Perhaps you realize how you have harmed others through selfishness or the abuse of alcohol or drugs. Okay. But don’t look back. Recommit yourself to live in such a way that you foster generosity and sobriety. Perhaps you keep lamenting and wish that you had one more chance to make a relationship work, to take a job that was offered. Okay. But don’t look back. Give your attention to loving and working to the best of your abilities today.
The plow is moving forward. It continues to turn over new earth and new opportunities. Our life is to be found in those new possibilities. Looking back will only distract us.Give attention to the new earth that is being overturned today. It is there that you will find God’s love and your joy. That is why anyone who looks back is not fit for the kingdom of God.