Fr Chris’ farewell sermon.

For those of us who have been studying Revelation together, I have been emphasising the importance of understanding the context of the Scripture, especially when our context is different from the text’s original audience.  Some of the metaphors in Revelation do not translate seamlessly into our culture because our context differs from that of the churches to which John wrote, and here in Luke is another one.   No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God

This metaphor of the plough, used in biblical teachings, symbolises our commitment to God’s kingdom.  Just as a farmer must focus on the task at hand and not look back, we, too, must be fully committed to our faith and not be distracted by worldly concerns.  But even those working in the farming sector today will not appreciate all the subtleties of this because our context has changed.  Driving a huge tractor with a multi-bladed plough behind is different.  To be sure, if you look backwards when driving a tractor, there’s almost bound to be problems, but it’s still different because the consequences are, surprisingly, not as severe.

When farmers – who were often subsistence farmers – ploughed with an ox or sometimes a mule, they were the ones directing the animals and the plough.  Once ploughing started, nothing mattered but cutting the furrows straight through the soil.  If you didn’t, it made it much more difficult to sow the seeds so that as few as possible would be wasted.  See Jesus’s Parable of the Sower for further details on why this mattered.  Ploughing like this takes total concentration.  Turning the head, looking back, would lead to animals not going straight – disaster for the furrow, disaster for the farmer and even the animal who might also rely on the crop which needs to be maximised.  It might even mean disaster for the plough in a land where so many rocks lurk in the soil, and not damaging the plough is essential to a good harvest.  Looking back–not concentrating–could have a devastating impact on the harvest, which to them could be a matter of life and death.

We are given a different scenario in the account of the anointing of Elisha in the Old Testament.  Here, the disciple whom God chose to follow in Elijah’s footsteps is seen ploughing his fields.  It is an engaging image.  The twelve yoke of oxen – 24 beasts in all – is a very large, probably symbolic, number.  (Revelation students are familiar with symbolic numbers and may already be reaching the conclusion I’m about to reach.) The number 12 is often used in Scripture symbolically, particularly in association with the twelve tribes of Israel.  This numerology is why Jesus calls 12 disciples and why the disciples felt the need to fill Judas’ position, so there were still twelve apostles.  12 was a significant number.  Elisha is ploughing, walking with the last set of oxen. 

Elijah sees Elisha ploughing, goes up to him and throws his mantle–his cloak–over him.  Elisha leaves the plough, preparing to follow, but first, he says, “Let me go kiss my parents goodbye.”  An irrevocable goodbye.  And Elijah assents.  We are not told if Elisha did kiss his parents, but we are told that he sacrificed and then using the wood of his plough for fuel, offered the meat as food for the people, a definitive act of mercy to those left behind whose lives were going to be harder without him.  This, too, was an irrevocable act, burning his bridges, we might say.  He destroyed his former means of earning a living so that he couldn’t go back before leaving everything he had known and following Elijah.

Jesus is also concerned with the irrevocable nature of deciding to follow his way.  “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Is Jesus really saying that following him means not giving so much as a backward glance to the ones we love?

How different Jesus’ cautions seem from the story of Elisha’s call.  Elisha literally has his hands to the plough when Elijah calls him as a prophet by casting his mantle over him.  Elisha does look back.  He asks to kiss his parents goodbye.  Elijah doesn’t reprimand him but allows him to return.

But then consider how Elisha bids farewell to his former life: he slaughters his oxen, then burns the yoke and plough to cook his parting feast.  This act symbolises his complete sacrifice of his old life and career.  He’s not just saying goodbye to his family but to his entire former role and identity.  Can we imagine making such a profound sacrifice?

Elisha understands that the prophet’s mantle is not only a new garment, but a new life, calling, and identity.  He grasps the total commitment involved in following the path of the Spirit, of walking in the way of the Lord.

The difference is that the people Jesus was speaking to were making excuses to delay or avoid the commitment altogether.  Elisha’s reason is that this is something irrevocable.  Jesus is trying to convey a similar understanding of irrevocable commitment to his followers.  What at first sounds like harsh rebukes, however, also turn out to be teaching moments about the nature of God’s kingdom.  

Consider the words that make Jesus sound so much less flexible than Elijah: “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Jesus is telling us that once we truly understand the kingdom of God, we will never turn away from it.  Even the most important things in this life, which demand our attention, will seem less significant compared to the promise of a life filled with God’s healing and grace.”

Jesus is seeking followers on the path that he himself is walking towards the Kingdom of God.  That path may not be easy, and Jesus is simply making sure that no one encounters these difficulties without warning.   

The challenge for our churches here is to invite others to walk the path, too, because, without new fellow travellers, there is no future for the church.  Many of those we invite will care more for their creature comforts than to risk having nowhere to lay their head, they may want to metaphorically bury their dead or look back from the plough, interested only in their old life and not the path to fullness of life that Jesus offers.  But that does not mean that we should not invite.  It’s not up to us how people respond to the invitation; it is our job – our mission – simply to invite.

Jesus offers us all an invitation to follow the path.  It can call us, as it did for Elisha, to a new life’s work.  And that, of course, is where I find myself today – called to a new path. 

Does this Gospel mean that I should feel no sadness about moving on?  No, for it doesn’t call me to leave my humanity behind.  But it does invite me not to worry about what I leave behind because I know that the Kingdom of God is about fullness of life; I know that I can leave this church in God’s care while I go to invite others to follow the path towards the Kingdom.

Likewise, it’s OK for the folk at St James’ to feel sad that we’re going.  (Maybe you’re not heartbroken; maybe you’re relieved that the idiot is finally out of our hair, and that’s OK, too!).  To feel sorrow at parting is natural and not the same as wanting to turn back and cling on to the past, which is what Jesus is warning against.  We cannot change the past.  Henceforth, I am part of St James’ past, not its future.  If you keep your eyes fixed on Jesus, you’ll be fine.  If you keep moving forward as the Holy Spirit leads, you will be fulfilling the divine plan for this church and the Christian community in Dollar.  Keep working together to bring the Kingdom of God to earth and ensure an amazing future for our churches.

The path to the kingdom of God is the way to a life of abundance and fulfilment in the spirit.  The Psalmist joyfully proclaims, “You show me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” (Psalm 16:11).  Let’s celebrate the promise of “fullness of joy” that awaits us if we keep our eyes on the path ahead.  If we don’t look back.