Monday, May 25, 2009

No one puts a hand to the plough and looks back

When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set towards Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’ But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village.
As they were going along the road, someone said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ To another he said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’

- Luke 9:51-62

At this crucial juncture in his mission, Jesus has decided that it is the time he must go to Jerusalem and face his fate. At this point he is moving toward the Passion, Resurrection and eventual Ascension ("the days drew near for him to be taken up"). On the way to Jerusalem, there are still things to be taught to his disciples, to those who will continue on after he is gone and carry out his mission with which they are charged, and the journey toward Jerusalem suffices to provide opportunity for teaching about ministry, and conduct in that ministry.

When a village does not receive him, his disples ask if they should use their newfound spiritual power to send fire upon the village. (See details on "Gehenna" from yesterday's commentary.) But Jesus rebukes James and John. It is not a part of his ministry to take retribution against those who do not receive the disciples. As seen in the instructions he will give to the Seventy, they are not to take action against those who don't wish to listen. This is the first instruction of conduct for his disciples on how they are to behave regarding their ministry and preaching.

The next event recorded here is when Jesus is told by someone that he will follow Jesus wherever he goes. Jesus reminds this person that he has no home: that even the foxes have holes and the birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no home. Following means giving up everything, all sort of thoughts of permanence, in order to give one's life and one's time to follow. The disciple is not above the master.

Still another wishes to follow Jesus, but first to bury his father. "Let the dead bury the dead" is Jesus' reply. This is a teaching about spiritual reality: that there is a connection within and between those who wish to receive this word, and it is now in this form of relatedness that a disciple must follow, leaving other ties behind. The young man has a family to do the job of keeping the family responsibilities, he has the opportunity to follow Christ. There are others who can do that job who have not heard the call. Yet another tells Jesus that he wishes to follow, but that he would like to go to say farewell first to those in his home. Jesus replies that "no one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."

So, as Jesus begins to make his way to Jerusalem and what awaits him there, we have several teachings on the conduct appropriate to the affairs of the disciples who will follow him after his Passion, Resurrection and Ascension, after he is gone. The rules of men - the commonly observed values of relation, of village, group and family, are suspended. The disciple who puts his hand to the plow must be prepared to live as a messenger of that kingdom: there is to be no retribution against those who do not wish to receive them, material need is secondary to the mission they undertake and in so doing they must be prepared to forfeit the kind of security that is "home" - family ties and obligations come second, such as burial and even farewell, once someone has made up his mind. There are others to do this obligatory work (such as burial), and the hesitation to follow isn't really a full "yes" to the work. We must be "all in." There should be nothing to keep us from following, nothing that comes before that following. The usual "rules" are suspended in order to follow in this kingdom. We must put our whole hearts into this, as did Jesus.

I think this says to me that point in life, whenever I have a choice to make, my choice must go first to how to follow. Throughout our lives we each have daily choices to make, some mundane, and some life-changing. But if we have accepted that indeed there is this word and this kingdom, perhaps what we feel it asks of us must come first. Taking up this cross - as illustrated in this passage in which Jesus is set to go to Jerusalem - is for us a daily activity of being "all in" and not holding back. We each have choices. May they be well-made, and for values that last beyond what we already know. The risk we take must be worth it.

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