READ : Luke 9:51, 57-62
Many people are longing for “the good old days,” but there are times when that’s an unhealthy thing to do.
When the days drew near for him to be received up, [Jesus] set his face to go to Jerusalem
As they were going along the road, a man 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, let me first go and bury my father.” But he said to him, “Leave the dead to 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 his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Luke 9:51, 57-62 rsv
Why does Jesus speak so sternly in this passage against looking back? What’s wrong with that? Is there something sinful about nostalgia, about longing for “the good old days”? May we not take pleasure in our memories?
Of course there is nothing wrong with remembering. It’s a good and necessary part of life. In a sense, we have never really fully enjoyed something until we have remembered it. And by looking back we can continue to give life to cherished experiences and beloved people long after they are gone.
WHAT IT MEANS TO LOOK BACK
But looking back can mean something else. Sometimes there’s more to it than just pleasant reminiscence. Sometimes by looking back we are expressing regret for the past and uncertainty about the present. It can be a sign of a lack of commitment or indicate a hesitant and divided allegiance. To look back may be enjoyable and satisfying when you’re sitting in an armchair by the fire, reflecting on the years gone by. But if you are a climber on the face of a mountain, it’s suicide.
Did you know that at certain places on the Great Plains of America one can still literally see the Oregon Trail, the route traveled by thousands of nineteenth-century pioneers as they set out looking for a better life in the far west? The tracks have been cut into the solid rock by countless wagon wheels, all pointing the way through the wilderness to these families’ dreams. Many more began that journey than ever finished it. Those who did succeed, though they may have differed in some things, all had this in common: They never looked back, because to look back on that trail betrayed weakness. It showed that the determination needed to endure the hardships of that terrible journey was lacking!
This is exactly what Jesus is talking about when he says: “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” To look back, for the follower of Jesus Christ, is to express some desire for your old life apart from Christ. When disciples look back they are turning away from Jesus, who is leading them onwards into his kingdom, toward the world from which they’ve come. The first thing to understand about this is how important it is. It seems like such a small thing in a way; what is a backward glance, after all? But this is, in fact, a very revealing thing, a straw that shows which way the wind is blowing. If you look back it reveals three things about you.
First, it reveals the true nature of your allegiance. People who look back while walking the path of discipleship show that they only have at best a lukewarm commitment, a halfhearted devotion to Jesus. You may be following Christ after a fashion, but you’re doing it with reservations. Perhaps your motives aren’t pure. You’re not following Jesus for his own sake but to please your family, or to keep in step with tradition, or to maintain a reputation in your community. Perhaps your discipleship is conditional. You want to strike a bargain with God. You will follow Jesus, provided he gives you a good life and makes you wealthy and keeps you healthy. But if he doesn’t, you begin to think about other options. If that’s how it is with you, it means that you are more committed to yourself than to Christ, and when following him begins to get hard, you will probably begin to look for another way to go.
In the second place, looking back reveals the true goal of your life. People look back to the world when the world is the thing they’re really interested in. The fact is, your heart is always betrayed by your gaze. You will always find that your eye is drawn to the thing that is dearest to you. As the compass needle, attracted to the magnetic pole, always swings around toward it, so the eyes of our hearts will always be drawn to the poles of our lives, to our real desire, the thing we want most.
Finally, looking back reveals your true feelings about Jesus, because whatever you may say about him, if you’re continually turning away from him, he can’t be the center of your life. He doesn’t interest you enough to absorb your undivided attention. And whatever you may say about him, you’re not following his example. The closing scene of Luke occurs on a road to Jerusalem. “When the days drew near for him to be received up” (Luke is referring to Jesus’ approaching crucifixion), Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (v. 51). Jesus knew what was waiting for him there -the cross. But he also knew that now that the time had come, he would fix his eyes toward Jerusalem and never once look back. Jesus practiced what he preached.
THREE WHO WOULD NOT FOLLOW
So for Christ’s disciples, looking back is a serious matter. It reveals a divided heart. It shows that the disciple is not really committed to Jesus, but still half in love with the world. But now let’s think for a moment about when it is that disciples do that. And really, to be honest, we have to ask when we tend to look back, because all of us have divided hearts.
In Luke 9 we are introduced to three would-be followers of Jesus. Here are three men who are on the brink of becoming disciples. But at the critical moment, each of them looks back and turns away. Each of these men can tell us something about when and how that happens.
The first man shows us that people look back when they haven’t counted the cost of discipleship. “As they were going along the road a man said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go’” (v. 57). Now that’s an enthusiastic offer. It certainly sounds good! A bit impulsive, perhaps, but most of the people who met Jesus never offered to do this much. Surely Jesus must be pleased with this disciple. Surely he must accept such an eager volunteer gladly, and be grateful for his commitment.
But surprisingly, Jesus puts him off. He responds to this man’s offer of unconditional discipleship with a warning about what life with him is like: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” You see, this man had no idea of what following Jesus really involved. As a great biblical scholar said of him:
He wishes indeed to follow Christ, but dreams of an easy and agreeable life, and of dwellings filled with every convenience; whereas the disciples of Christ must walk among thorns, and march to the cross.
A lot of people seem to think that following Jesus is a sort of free ticket to the good life. But they haven’t looked very carefully at where Jesus himself is going. He’s going to the cross. And this is what he says to any would-be disciple: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). Those who rush after Christ on impulse are later always the first to look back and stumble, give way, and then desert. “It wasn’t what I bargained for,” they explain.
Secondly, people tend to look back whenever the good in life gets in the way of the best. That’s the case of the second man. Here Jesus makes the offer. He says, “Follow me.” But this man says, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father” (v. 59). And then Jesus made a very curious reply to him. He said, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead” (v. 60).
Now why would he say that? What does that mean? Was this man’s request so unreasonable? The point here is the tremendous urgency of following Jesus right now. It is of overriding importance. Nothing must take precedence over discipleship. Nothing must interfere with it, even things that are good and praiseworthy in themselves. Following Jesus is the supreme demand. It’s the best thing anyone can do.
And to tell you the truth, often we are most tempted to trade what is best in life, not for something bad, but for something that is merely good. It’s much easier to excuse our failure to become Christians if we are investing our lives in some good cause instead. We say, “Look at me, I’m not a bad person. I’m devoting my whole life to . . . my family . . . my career . . . my community . . . my business . . . my country . . . my _______” You fill in the blank. But nothing can ever be a substitute for following Jesus.
It’s absolutely critical to follow him when he calls, for the opportunity may never come again. This man wanted Jesus to wait for him, but Jesus won’t do that. He expected Jesus to be there when he returned, but Jesus would be gone. What this man really wanted was discipleship on his own terms. “Lord, let me first. . . .” But that’s not discipleship!
Sometimes we try to substitute a program we have mapped out for ourselves for simple obedience to Christ. “I’ll do this for myself first and then I’ll serve Christ.” But it doesn’t work. You can’t plan to be a Christian. You can only hear Jesus’ when he calls and respond then and there.
Finally, people look back when they are still in love with the world. “Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home’” (v. 61). He wanted to go back home. His heart was still in his old life. He just had to enjoy it one more time before he gave it up. Jesus bids us leave our old lives and come to him. This man wants to leave Jesus to go back to his old life. When people look back, they are trying to strike a compromise between Christ and the world, to accept him while giving up as little as possible. But there is only one way to be a disciple, and that is to leave everything and follow Jesus without a backward glance.
THE COST OF NON-DISCIPLESHIP
Let me remind you once more of the consequences of looking back. “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Divided, uncertain, half-hearted disciples are useless to Jesus.
Have you ever plowed a field? I was born and raised in the city, but I have a good friend who is a farmer. Several years ago he showed me how to plow and actually let me try it a bit. Now, modern agriculture is vastly different from farming in Jesus’ day, but I discovered for myself that one thing at least is still the same. Whether you are riding in a huge tractor or walking behind an ox, you simply cannot plow a straight furrow if you’re looking over your shoulder.
Nor can you ever accomplish much for Christ when your heart is not entirely his. If you follow Christ at all, follow him for his own sake with no other motives. If you have any faith at all, let it be real faith, sincere, genuine, wholehearted faith. I say to you: Come to him today. Put your hand to the plow. Fix your gaze on Christ, and never look back.