Hand to the plow
In our society to be called an old man or an old woman is considered an insult. Not in Africa. In Africa, being called an old man is a sign of respect. My friend Marc well remembers the time he heard a preacher in a Venda church say, “Would the old man please read a passage of Scripture for us?” Marc, whose hair was whiter than mine, although I am older than he is, realized that he was being addressed because he looked older than me.
Why is it that in our society old age is not respected the way it is in Africa? It has to do with the speed at which people live their lives today. In Africa, especially in rural Africa, the pace of life is fairly slow. That means that old people are not in the way. One African friend told us once, “You have watches; we have time.” Time to stop and inquire about your well-being. Time to wait for an older person to indicate readiness.
So we do well to honour those who have lived a while in the past.
Postponement kills action
But what about Jesus’ observation not to look back while plowing? Is he urging us to look at our watches after all, and not get lost in calm deliberation?
Context is everything here. Jesus says it in response to someone who wanted to avoid following Jesus: “Let me first bury my father.” This could take a long time because the father in question was probably still running the farm and in fairly good health. “To bury my father” meant “Let me stick around at home because you never know when the old man might keel over.” It was not about carrying out an urgent task of filial duty. The man was not ready to commit, and he probably wouldn’t follow Jesus a year later either.
Following Jesus means hating your father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even your own life (Luke 14: 26). Radical language that! Again, context is everything. Jesus is talking about our tendency to put relationships and our own comfort above the Father’s will. He is talking about our reluctance to take up our cross. That cross is more important than any relationship we have. It is even more important than our own life!
We don’t know what that cross is for ourselves, but it is whatever God places on our shoulders when we are obedient to him. It is a cross that prevents us from being self-centered. It is a cross that forbids us to lash out at people who try to hurt us. It is a cross of forbearance and forgiveness. It is a cross of self-denial.
The rich young ruler who came to Jesus asking, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” found out that his cross was to sell everything he had and give it to the poor. Following Jesus means leaving behind whatever hinders you from following your calling.
The disciples were flummoxed by what Jesus told the rich young man, especially when he added that it is easier for a camel to crawl through the eye of the narrow gate called “the needle” than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.
Peter, who was afraid that even he and his fellow disciples could not crawl through that proverbial eye of a needle, said to Jesus, “We have left everything to follow you.” But Jesus reassures him, “No one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age and in the age to come, eternal life.”
Putting your hand to the plow and not looking back is all about leaving everything behind that hinders you from serving in the kingdom. And that kind of commitment to service sets us free to honour our fellow workers at a slow but steady pace.