And another also said, “I will follow thee, Lord; but first suffer me to bid farewell to them that are at my house.”
But Jesus said unto him, “No man, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:61-62).
Here we have the third vignette in a row instructing us regarding discipleship. Jesus has already indicated how His true disciples never feel completely at home anywhere on earth (Luke 9:57-58), and that latching onto the greater good of the proclamation of the Kingdom must take precedence over all lesser goods (Luke 9:59-60).
The third man is like the first– he volunteers to follow Jesus. But he is also like the second man– he has a “small” request to make first. He wants to bid farewell to those in his household.
The request seems fair enough. At any given moment in life, people have a lot of things going on. The call to discipleship is very important indeed, but there are bills to pay and people to whom we must say goodbye and other matters of business that ideally would be taken care of first.
Jesus makes it evident, however, that discipleship does not work this way. When He called Peter, James, and John, they left their fishing equipment at the boat and followed Him (Luke 5:1-11). Jesus calls Levi (Matthew) to follow Him; Levi leaves the tax collection booth immediately and follows (Luke 6:27-28). And Jesus’ answer to this individual in Luke 9:59-60 is no different: to look back after putting your hand to the plow renders you unfit for the Kingdom!
This seems rather dramatic and overboard at first. The individual seems to just want some closure before entering into a new phase of life. Would it not be good for him to take care of his obligations so as to follow Jesus without hindrance?
This perspective, however, overlooks many pitfalls that may take place. His family may attempt to persuade him out of following Jesus (cf. Luke 12:51-53, 14:26). Once he leaves Jesus’ company, there is no telling how many different factors could weigh down upon him– temptations from Satan, challenges from family and obligations, and simple inertia, falling back into the same patterns as before. He might go home resolute to follow Jesus, and before long, be back at his old habits in his old way of life.
Jesus understands these pitfalls and many others. He calls this man to give up everything already to follow after Him. Jesus does want this man to have closure– the closure must happen right now, as it was for Peter, James, John, and Levi. He must look forward to the advancement of the Kingdom and not be seduced into looking back.
If one has put his hand to the plow, and does not look forward, he will not be able to successfully plow the field. There is great focus necessary in the advancement of the Kingdom, and it requires the discipline and use of all of our faculties (1 Corinthians 9:24-27). We do not have enough resources at our disposal to accomplish God’s purposes while looking back at our past lives.
The danger of looking back is very great. Consider Israel in the wilderness– they were delivered out of Egypt with a mighty hand, but they did not forget about Egypt, and they did not set their faces forward sufficiently. Therefore, at every hint of difficulty, they remembered Egypt and the “benefits” they had there, and wanted to return (e.g. Numbers 14:1-4). Lot’s wife is another example of this– she looked back to Sodom and her life and friends that were just destroyed, and became a pillar of salt herself (Genesis 19:17, 26, Luke 17:32).
All of our resources– physical, emotional, spiritual– must be invested in God’s Kingdom. If we look back, and reflect upon our life when we were in the world, we run the very real risk of falling away when danger or difficulty arise. There will be times when it seems easier to be an unbeliever than to take up the cross and to follow Christ (Luke 14:27). The godly life will lead to persecution– that much is guaranteed– while the ungodly life may not be as troubled in the flesh (2 Timothy 3:2). There will always be temptations to resist following Jesus. Our families may be against us. Satan most certainly is against us, and we may suffer from his temptations directly or through family, friends, associates, or culture in general. The “business” of life can become so overwhelming as to demand all of our energy and time. These are all the dangers that accompany looking back when putting the hand to the plow, the desire to tie up worldly loose ends before we follow Jesus.
Ultimately, we must follow Jesus. We must turn away from the lives of sin we have led. Looking back is counterproductive– whatever “benefits” we had were outweighed by our separation from God in Christ and the sentence of condemnation that came with it (Romans 8:1-10, Ephesians 2:1-11, Titus 3:3-8). Even in Christ we might be tempted to look back to all of our challenges, difficulties, miscues, and deficiencies; better to learn from our past mistakes but keep looking and moving forward, as Paul did (Philippians 3:11-14). The task before us is sufficient to expend our energy, our time, and ourselves (Romans 12:1, 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, etc.).
Jesus has made the call: follow Him as His disciple (Matthew 28:18-20). It is time for all of us to put our hands to the plow and work, looking ahead, having made a break with our sinful past. Let us not be tempted to delay or to work halfheartedly; let us expend ourselves for Christ as He gave Himself up for us!
Ethan R. Longhenry