No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God.
For the counselor, getting to the core of a person’s deepest motivations is perhaps a more formidable task than offering the guidance that leads to deep and lasting change. That’s why a counselor I know will sometimes ask the question “What text of scripture most haunts you?” That is, what biblical notion provokes the most negative visceral response? The answer—even if it betrays a thin understanding of the scripture—reveals what you most believe about God, yourself, and your relation to Him.
To be quite candid, it’s how Jesus rounds out His sermonette on the cost of discipleship here in Luke 9 that has most consistently arrested me. He speaks in His typical uncompromising fashion. A cursory read of this pithy instruction seems to indict anything but an undivided devotion to His program—summarized in His frequent use of the word Kingdom. Tentativeness, distraction, second-guessing—these are apparently grounds for disqualification from Jesus’s Kingdom program.
So why does my soul shudder at the sound of verse 62? I suppose it’s because I can be tentative by temperament. Tentativeness has served me when impulsive decisions would’ve done more harm than good. But it can also paralyze: The instinct to wait for more and more information, to consider varied and different angles, can reach a point when the data-mining is no longer helpful but harmful.
Jesus’s words seem to say here, “Stay with it, and if you can’t, stand aside.” When you default to the mode that implicitly asks, “Can we pause to consider?”, you can’t but wonder if you’ll always just be like the kid who gets picked last for the kickball team. Except here the stakes are higher, since Jesus ties His vision for discipleship to one’s “fitness” for the Kingdom.
Hearing Mark preach from this text last week, I’ve had to ask myself if I’ve ever really understood what Jesus meant by these stark words. I’ve done what I hope God enjoins us all to do: sat with His Word, considered its meaning from what else He has disclosed, asked in prayer for His own elucidation of the text, and then consulted the community of believers for insight.
The metaphor Jesus couches His words in does the most (imagine that) to elucidate His meaning. First we must set aside our modern view of tilling the earth—a matter of stepping into the John Deere, setting the air conditioner to the right temperature, and popping in the Tammy Wynette music. Just keep the wheel straight and you can probably even text message.
But to plow the soil in the first century was a matter of strapping a thick rope around your back and navigating both an unruly beast and a heavy, iron blade in some semblance of a straight line. In other words, one did not multitask while plowing the field. The task meant your survival. Look back—or left or right for that matter—and you simply could not cultivate the land with the care it required.
So what does Jesus mean? Jesus speaks of fitness in two senses. In one sense, none of us is fit for the Kingdom—else why would He come to die and then invite us into His yoke to learn? But the other sense of fitness—the sense He means in this text—pertains to our suitability for His work. Kingdom work entails recognizing the unsurpassable glory of the Kingdom itself. It also requires an awareness of the world’s innumerable bidding distractions. Most difficult of all, it means holding all other loyalties loosely, including those most noble, long-standing, and life-giving.
But here’s the rub: there is no quick and dirty formula for discerning whether I am living suitably for the Kingdom. I likely can’t integrate my myriad present obligations with His call to discipleship in one, swift measure. But I can enter into my prayer closet and ask, “Is my attention to x, y, and z a reflection of doing all things as unto the Lord (Col 3:17), or an expression of looking back?”
Bills must be paid, diapers must be changed, deals must be closed, and papers must be written. So, too, must prayers be offered, lest we forget that our most significant effort ought to be for what is imperishable.
No need to be haunted by what He asks here. Just know He will hound us until we are motivated most by His love (2 Cor 5:14).