In this coming 13th Sunday of Ordinary time, the gospel is taken from Luke. In yesterday’s post we considered two encounters along the way. Today we consider the third: 61 And another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to my family at home.” 62 (To him) Jesus said, “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.”
The third person, like the first, says that he will follow Jesus. Like the second person, he asks for permission (epitrepo — “let” in vv. 59 and 61) to do something first. In some ways these two would-be followers want to place conditions on their following. “I will follow you, but first….” This third person is asking no more than what Elisha asked of Elijah (1 K 19:20). Jesus demands more of his followers than Elijah did. Jesus points out that the kingdom has no room for those who look back when they are called to go forward.
In how many testimonies does the convert talk about all the evil things that were left behind in order to follow Jesus. Jesus also demands that we give up the very best things in our lives to follow him. Craddock (Luke, Interpretation Commentaries, p.144) says it well:
The radicalism of Jesus’ words lies in his claim to priority over the best, not the worst, of human relationships. Jesus never said to choose him over the devil but to choose him over the family. And the remarkable thing is that those who have done so have been freed from possession and worship of family and have found the distance necessary to love them.
These few verses outline many “calls” – Jesus: the call of God to go to Jerusalem vs. the call of the Samaritans (perhaps) to stay and take care of them. James and John: the call for revenge against the Samaritans vs. Jesus’ call to leave the unreceptive people and move on to another town. There is the call of self-pleasures vs. the call to follow Jesus. There is the call of family obligations vs. the call to follow Jesus. There is the call of socially accepted actions vs. the call to follow Jesus. There is the call of being good citizens which may conflict with the call to follow Jesus. If burying one’s parents was considered obeying the commandment to honor them, then we also have the call of the Law vs. the call to follow Jesus.
Frankly, none of us are going to make the cut to follow Jesus. Our desires for soft pillows and comfortable beds, for fulfilling family and social obligations, our patriotism will frequently have higher priorities than following Jesus – especially following Jesus all the way to Jerusalem and the cross. We might be willing to give up some evils in our lives to follow Jesus, but to give up all these good things – to put them as a lower priority than Jesus? That is radical discipleship, but Paul writes about doing this in Phil 3:4-11. He considers all his past, good, religious deeds as “rubbish”.
Perhaps the image of putting one’s hand to the plow and not looking back refers to looking back both at all the very good things in our lives like family and friends, comforts and satisfactions, “successful” programs; but also all the sins in our lives, which have been forgiven by Christ. We can neither wallow in our past sins nor boast of our past successes if we are to be fit for the kingdom of God.