There are some hard words from Jesus in this passage:
“Let the dead bury their own dead.”
“No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
“The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
What’s harder is that these sentences are told to people who are keen and eager and declare themselves ready to follow Jesus wherever he goes. But Jesus has set his face towards Jerusalem, and he knows, or at least suspects, what will be demanded of him, and of those around him. He needs these would-be disciples to be sure, before they leave everything behind them, that they are truly willing to endure whatever may befall along the way.
These are not words of condemnation. In fact, many will look back, even those whose hands have been at the plough since the beginning. Remember Simon Peter, who was among the first called, who has been with Jesus throughout his ministry and mission, who will deny even knowing Jesus when the time of trial comes, yet Jesus continues to love him and to greet him after his death and resurrection with a kiss of peace, with words of commissioning. These are not words that condemn our doubts or our fallings and failings, but which demand that we understand the gravity of the commitment that we are making when we say that we are followers of Jesus.
I know that I am not the only preacher this morning who looked at this admonition: No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God – and thought of Nelson Mandela, as the world essentially waits at his bedside and prays. He put a hand to the plough a long time ago, hoping and praying and, yes, fighting for freedom. Because he refused to accept that the kingdom of God, the rule on earth was one that could discriminate against him and his family and his friends for the colour of their skin, which could segregate and separate them from their true place in society, which could demean their dignity and undermine their humanity; because he put his hand to that plough, he endured trials and tribulations that would have broken most of us; his eyesight was permanently damaged by forced labour in the blinding sun.
He spent twenty-seven years in prison, eighteen of them on RobbenIsland in forced labour. Yet when he emerged from prison, he did not look back. His hand still at the plough, he did not look back, and looking forward he helped to lead his country into a new age, not without its problems, not yet the totally new creation of the kingdom of God, but leaps and bounds along the way from where it was.
With his hand at the plough, he did not look back in anger. After twenty-seven years of imprisonment and ill-treatment, he did not look for revenge; instead his government commissioned Archbishop Desmond Tutu to chair the South Africa Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a remarkable endeavour to heal the people, to salve the wounds of division and oppression, by means of honesty and understanding, confession and candour, and the opportunity for forgiveness.
James and John wanted Jesus to call down fire from heaven to destroy those who had dissed them, but Jesus rebuked them. What must it have cost Mandela personally, to make those choices not to look back, neither to give up nor to go back and rewrite the fight as one that he had won by force?
In his book, God Has a Dream, Desmond Tutu makes the observation that, “Our world is better because of the life and witness of a Mahatma Gandhi, of a Mother Teresa, of an Oscar Romero, of a Nelson Mandela.” He is too modest to add his own name to the list, although many of us would. He goes on,
“They are notable examples of the altruistic spirit that does things, good things, heroic things, for the sake of others, for the sake of the world, for the sake of posterity. Some may way that, by their example, they show us what the rest of us lack. But behind every Gandhi, every Mother Teresa, every Romero, every Mandela, there are millions of people who are living lives of love and heroism.”
Jesus did not use hard words with his would-be followers to show them up, to tell them what they were lacking. He used them to challenge, warn, to remind them that in following him they were making a commitment, to proclaiming and promoting the kingdom of God; and that has always met with resistance. Proclaiming God’s love and forgiveness to all people has always been met with challenge.
We know for ourselves that our commitments work best when we don’t look back at what might have been, but deal with the world as it is, learning from our missteps, but not trying vainly to retrace them; taking it one day at a time; whether in our commitment to our marriages or our primary relationships; to our children; or to the spread of justice and equality, equal dignity; just treatment.. We’ve heard a lot from the courts and from the state this week about racial justice, marriage equality, equal access to education and the benefits of living in America.
Our neighbours, Dean Tracey Lind and Canon Will Mebane, released a joint statement through the Cathedral website this week, reflecting on the news out of the Supreme Court. Describing themselves as “a white lesbian from the north and a heterosexual black man from the South,” both products of the sixties, they said, in part:
We are elated by the Supreme Court’s ruling that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional. We look forward to the resumption of same-sex marriage in California and are committed to working for marriage equality in Ohio. At the same time, we are disappointed with the court’s decision regarding The Voting Rights Act. The court’s ruling on affirmative action leaves us and others confused. We would have preferred a more definitive and clear determination in support of correcting decades of discrimination against minorities. These decisions remind us that it is incumbent that we remain vigilant in working to promote God’s kingdom on earth. (http://trinitycleveland.org/blog/2013/featured-news/joint-statement-on-supreme-court-rulings/)
Remain vigilant; be steadfast; don’t look back.
When we make a commitment, personal or societal – and they are all spiritual, if we make them in the light of God, with the prompting of prayer – when we make a commitment, we know that we are called to walk forward with it, to stay with it, to steer it straight and true, not looking back, neither giving up nor looking for revenge, but moving forward from where we are, celebrating the successes, learning from the setbacks.
And there will be setbacks. Jesus knows there will be setbacks. He even told Peter exactly how many times he would deny him, and when. But Jesus has been there before us, and he will walk with us, as long as we hold the plough steady, and aim for the kingdom of God.
Jesus set his face towards Jerusalem. With no place to lay his head, no tender mercies to attend him, he put his hand to the plough and he did not turn back. Even in the garden, when he prayed with blood and tears, he did not turn back. Knowing what it would take to bring the kingdom of God, to save us from our trials, to bring us into the light, he faced the darkness and he did not look back. Even as he stepped forward into the land of the dead, he did not look back, but he kept right on going through it and into the light, into the light of eternal life, the resurrection and the glorious ascension, that we may come at last with him to that place where he has gone before, fit for the kingdom of God.