READ : Luke 9:62
Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Luke 9:62 RSV
Something Jesus said to a would-be follower of His once has always intrigued me. The man had offered, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Didn’t he seem like a sterling candidate for discipleship? He called Jesus “Lord.” He committed himself to follow, making at the same time what seemed a very innocent, reasonable request. Jesus’ reaction must have taken him by surprise. The Lord said to him (this is from the Gospel according to Luke, chapter 9, verse 62): “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
We aren’t told what happened to the volunteer after that exchange, whether he went away sorrowful like the rich young ruler, whether he needed time to think it over, or whether he made right on the spot an unqualified commitment. Who knows? We’re simply left with these searching words of Jesus.
As I’ve thought about what the Lord said, three questions seem to leap up naturally for me. Maybe they occur to you too. I wonder, what does it mean to “put your hand to the plow”? Second, what does a person do who “looks back” after doing that? And finally, why is someone like that “not fit for the kingdom of God”? Let’s have a go at those together. Maybe we can understand better why Jesus said this and what He meant. Best of all, maybe you and I can learn for ourselves what it is to be fit for His kingdom.
STARTING TO PLOW
All right, this putting a hand to the plow, what’s that all about? The man has just said to Jesus, “Lord, I will follow You,” so taking hold of the plow must be another image of some kind for discipleship. We were noticing a while ago how Jesus said, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). There, the decision to follow Jesus involves saying no to ourselves and a readiness to stay with Him, even when it means danger and death. That still stands. That part doesn’t go away. But here we learn also that discipleship involves hard work.
Just before this interchange, Jesus had called to another man, “Follow me.” This prospect had replied, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” The Lord’s words were jolting then too. He said, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” That apparently is what following Jesus involves. You become one of His witnesses. You announce to the world that God has come in Jesus to establish His reign in the hearts and lives of people. You tell who Jesus is and what He came to do. You call people to repent and believe the gospel. You may do that as a preacher, a pastor, a missionary, that is, as a professional minister. But most of the followers of Jesus don’t go to seminary, don’t become ordained, don’t have “Reverend” in front of their names. Yet, they are to be, no less, witnesses to Jesus. They have just as much responsibility to tell others about Him. They do it in connection with their daily work, in their schools and neighborhoods. They’re to be ready always to give an answer to everyone who asks them a reason for the hope that is in them. And for those who won’t even ask, they’re still to go and tell.
Have you realized that about following Jesus? You say, “That’s not my style. I believe in living the life.” I say that’s wonderful. That’s essential. Unless you evidence the Christian way, your words about it will be worthless. But all the Christian living in the world will not by itself bring others into the kingdom. If you never speak of Jesus, if you don’t openly identify yourself with Him, if you will not tell His story, how do people know you’re not living the good life for your country, for the U.N., or E.T., or whomever? Christian evangelism is always “the meeting of a life with a life – plus a word.”
You say, “I believe in being a silent witness.” Really? How does that work? How does a silent witness do in a courtroom? When a friend wants you to recommend him for a job, how much help does your silent witness give? You can speak readily about other things, can’t you? You often do, with enthusiasm. Are you going to be silent about the most important things in the world?
But don’t take my word for it. What I think about what you should do matters very little. Simply listen to Jesus. His words are meant for everyday people like you and me. And He says, “Go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” As long as you have life and breath, tell people the story of God’s love. Tell them of Jesus. Yes, and back it up with your life. Yes, and do it with a servant heart in the kind of love that’s always seeking to do people good. But settle the fact that you are His witness, His messenger, His ambassador in this world. That’s what it means when you put your hand on that plow.
Well, when you do that, when you decide to become a follower, what does it mean to look back? Now, remember, the would-be disciple has just said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Apparently, the idea that other things have to be done first is a way of looking back. There’s no question that other things we’ve had in mind to do may be worthwhile – like staying with an aged parent until that person’s life is over, like returning home to say good-by to friends. But Jesus wanted to warn us about thinking there’s anything we have to do first before obeying the call of God. Who says we have to do those other things? That is, what can possibly claim priority over the call of Jesus?
We don’t have to respond to His call. We’re free. When His invitation comes, no one compels us to say, “I’ll follow You, Lord.” But when we do, it has to be with the utmost seriousness, with the recognition that this is the highest privilege imaginable, and that we are putting our lives under new management.
Suppose you’re a soldier and your commanding officer orders you to the front. Do you say, “I’m sorry, sir, I have to handle some family responsibilities first” or “Let me first say good-by to my buddies in the next platoon”? How would that sound? Or when your boss gives you an important assignment, how would he react if you said, “I’ll be happy to do that for you, sir, but I have some other things here at the office that I have to take care of first.” Let’s say the coach of your team sends you out on the football field with a play selection right at a crucial point in the game, and you tell him, “Oh, wait, sir, until I can put on a different uniform.” Will he be pleased? All those other things may be perfectly appropriate in their place, at their time, but not when you’ve just been given a great assignment.
Sometimes the claim that we have to do something else first can be a stall. I know it is with me. I’ll have a big job ahead of me that’s difficult, demanding. It involves some things I don’t find easy to do. I’m having a hard time getting myself down to doing it. Do you know what happens to me then? I start seeing picky things in my office that I have to adjust. I’ve got to clear off my desk first. I’ve got to answer this letter that’s been sitting on my desk for a month. I have to check something out with one of my colleagues. So I’ll stew about attending to a bunch of details. But I’m only kidding myself. I don’t have to do those things first. I’m just putting off the real thing I have to get going on because I know it will be tough. Has that ever happened to you? If you’re like me, you won’t really be at peace, you won’t really feel good about yourself until you turn away from those minor distractions and work on what’s really urgent.
I think about Lot’s wife, a tragic figure in the Old Testament. God had warned Lot and his family that certain judgment was coming upon the city in which they lived, and that they were to flee for their lives. But Lot’s wife looked back. She had a continuing attachment to that unsavory place. She was unwilling to break with her past. And she didn’t really take God’s warning seriously. Looking back may involve something like that in our case.
Remember the apostle Paul and how he wanted to press toward the mark for the prize? He had counted all his own accumulated righteousness as so much refuse when he came to know Christ. For him, to look back would have been to revert to his pre-Christian style, to trust again in his own pedigree and performance instead of relying completely on Jesus Christ and His finished work.
Looking back means trying to take the reins of our lives back into our own hands. It means looking to something else, or someone else, when Jesus Christ is meant to fill our whole horizon. It’s to become people with split vision, followers with divided hearts.
Why is someone who does that “not fit” for the kingdom? What is the kingdom of God anyway? It’s not an organization or a stretch of land somewhere. It’s God’s active reigning in the hearts of people. It’s a way of living in which we are totally surrendered to the lordship of Jesus, sold out to doing His work and speaking His word.
For a long time, I was somewhat puzzled by that word fit, fit for the kingdom of God. It seemed to me that Jesus was saying that I wasn’t worthy if I looked back, that I couldn’t get in, that I would be rejected as unfit.
But a better rendering of the word is “useful” or “suitable.” The NIV Bible translates this phrase, “fit for service.” It reminds me of the old King James translation in 2 Timothy, “meet for the Master’s use.” It means fitted for a task. Able to do it. That’s the flavor of what Jesus calls being fit.
Now it’s obvious that a man at the plow can’t do his job if he’s looking back. Anyone who’s ever done any plowing will recognize that instantly. They tell me that you have to fix your eyes on something across the field and move straight toward it. If you lose your bead on the distant objective, you’ll never plow a straight furrow. You’ll wander all over the place. If you’re looking back, you might as well quit as far as plowing is concerned. You’re not going to be a successful farmer. You’ll never get that job of plowing done.
And in Christian work, if you look back, you can’t preach a straight message. Everything depends on keeping Jesus Christ out in front of you, fixing your gaze on Him, moving in His direction. Everything depends on staying in fellowship with the Lord, giving Him your full attention. Otherwise, you won’t be giving a certain sound when you speak of Him. There won’t be real integrity in your living for Him if you keep looking back, if you have some other agenda in life other than that of following hard after Him.
It’s fascinating to me that just before these little interviews with prospective disciples, Luke has been telling us about Jesus’ fixed purpose to go to Jerusalem. Listen to these words, “When the days drew near for him to be received up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make ready for him; but the people would not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem.” Twice that striking expression is used: “setting the face.”
You know what was ahead of Him at Jerusalem: hatred, rejection, betrayal and suffering, a cross. Jesus knew that well, but the time had come for Him to make His way toward the Holy City, toward His appointment with destiny. He had steadfastly resisted all the temptations to take another road, to save Himself. Now He was on His way, and when we read that He “set his face,” we’re seeing fixed determination, steadiness of purpose. He was intent on going there and nothing was going to stop Him. That became evident not only to His disciples but to the Samaritans when He wanted to stay in their city. They could see it in His eyes. They could hear it in His voice. He was Jerusalem-bound. That was where the Father was leading Him, and He knew it.
Now Jesus is saying to all who think about following Him, “This is the way it’s to be for you, too. I want you to count the cost before setting out. I want you to weigh carefully everything that’s involved, for when you put your hand to the plow, when you say, `Yes, Lord, I’ll follow You,’ then you have to set your face. You have to keep on looking straight ahead, moving on. You know how we sing it, `I have decided to follow Jesus, I have decided to follow Jesus, I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back.’” If you’re ready to say that, to fix your gaze on Jesus and follow Him all the way, you will be fit, and more than physically so. You will be useful for God’s kingdom. Oh, friends, may that be so for you and for me. God help us.