Today’s passage from Luke is known as the cranky Jesus passage among clergy. He appears dismissive of some fairly important things, such as burying a parent and saying goodbye to your family before going off to follow him, but that cursory reading misses the point entirely. At no time is Jesus cranky, he is simply saying that following him requires every part of you, so if you have other things that you need to tend to, either tend to them and then follow him or leave those things behind because if we don’t follow Jesus with every part of ourselves, it we don’t keep him in the forefront of our lives then we will inevitably falter and stray from the path. Luke says that Jesus had set his face towards Jerusalem and when a village did not greet him his disciples were ready to burn the town to the ground, but he rebuked them. What I assume he told them is that what the people of one village does or doesn’t do is not important, what is important is that they keep moving towards Jerusalem, towards the kingdom of God. The past is the past, what matters is the path ahead of us.
This message is reinforced with when he says, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Meaning that obsessing over the past, over what is finished or even unfinished is a distraction, and frankly it is one of the many things that pulls us off the path to repentance and forgiveness; however, that does not mean we should ignore the past, it simply means that we can’t allow the past to control the present, we can’t use popular memory as an excuse for not making change in the present.
One of the things I love about scripture is that it is so multifaceted. We can find truth for every possible situation within its pages and if we take the time, we can find multiple applications for the same passage, which is what I am going to do now. I am going to apply what we just learned to two radically different situations. Here we go.
If I had a nickel for every time I heard someone say, life was so much simpler back in the day, I could write a check and solve world hunger. Here’s the thing, memory is not fact, and the human memory has been proven to be one of the least reliable sources of information. There seem to be many people that want to take us back to the 1950s, when a family could be supported with one income. When we learn about the 1950s in school we hear about the booming, post war economy and a baby being born every seven seconds, and the rapid growth of suburbia, which is all true, but it is not the entire story. In 1950, 30% of the US population lived below the official poverty level, which means that the number was likely much, much higher. By 1960 it had dropped to about 23%, and again the true number is likely higher because official poverty numbers are set using a system that compares pre-tax cash income against a threshold that is set at three times the cost of a minimum food diet; I am not going to get into the many, many issues with this, but suffice it to say that it is not an accurate picture of who lives in poverty in our country. If you ware wondering why I am bringing this up, that is an excellent question. Looking to the past as an example of how to solve problems in the present is the equivalent of putting your hand on the plow and then looking behind you. You can’t think back to how well you plowed the field ten years ago to figure out how to best plow the field now; the only thing you can learn from the past is what didn’t work, so that you can avoid the same mistakes. In terms of poverty, the past teaches us that poverty was and continues to be an issue and while our efforts to erase poverty have made some headway, they have ultimately failed, and they have failed because we have allowed ourselves to believe that when most people are doing well, all people are doing well and if a person isn’t doing well, it must be their fault. While I am willing to accept a certain level of individual blame in some cases, laziness cannot account for why 140,000,000 people can’t afford to live in our country, so I think it is time to heed the advice of Jesus and stop looking back and begin looking to the future because the kingdom of God is not found in the assumptions we make based on the past, the kingdom of God is here now, and it is most especially going to be found in the future.
On a more personable level, Jesus’s admonishment to look to the future is a call for us to bring our internal life into alignment with God. We are all connected to God, through the Holy Spirit, but we very often get in the way of the work God attempts to do through us. I can think of many times in my own life when events of the past have continued to haunt me and in some cases paralyze me, causing me to turn inward and shut out the world. I stayed in a dark corner for a long time because it was safe there, but God didn’t want me there, they had plans for me. Plans that were forward looking, plans that required me to put my hand on the plow and push forward, turning over the soil of my life and allowing new seeds to take root. I was only able to do that by first learning to take care of my mental and emotional health first. There is a connection between our mental, emotional and spiritual lives and when one is unbalanced they all become unbalanced and restoring the balance can be tricky, especially if we are unaware or unwilling to accept that something is wrong. When Jesus pushes us to keep our eyes looking forward, he is not saying ignore the present, simply that the answer is not in the past. So, if you feel out of balance for a long period of time then it might be necessary to seek help and the great news is that God can help no matter what the issue is, but not necessarily in the way we think. Remember that God works through us, so if we are emotionally or mentally ill then we need to seek help from someone whom God has called to treat that type of illness; if we are spiritually ill then we need to seek help from someone who is trained to help with spiritual matters; we should also ask God for the strength and the courage to ask for that help, which I promise you will receive.
So, you see, same passage of scripture can be applied in different ways and both are completely on target because scripture is meant to be an aid to help us understand how God is moving in our lives, which is why we need to engage with it on a regular basis. So, as we move into the holy silence I ask that you reflect on how you engage with scripture? How do you draw meaning in your life from it?