Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Luke 9.61-62.
I’ve written before,I think, about how, when I was still in my early teens, I was introduced by a school friend to the Closed Brethren – an extremely strict and ascetic branch of the Plymouth Brethren – and was soon admitted to full membership of the local Assembly. If getting in was easy, however; getting out was incredibly difficult, as I discovered two and a half years later. Senior members of the local Assembly would ambush me as I left work and try to browbeat me into “repentance”; but when it eventually became clear to them that I was not going to return, a note was pushed through the front door of my home, bearing the words of Jesus in the text set out above: “No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” So far as they were concerned, I was now lost and damned – no longer part of that “little flock” of Closed Brethren who alone would “inherit the kingdom” (Luke 28.24).
But is that text in fact anything to do with falling from grace and being lost to God? And, if not, what is it actually about? Had I “looked back?” What does it mean to “look back?” May not “looking back” sometimes be a good thing? And what does “fit” mean in this present context?
It seems to me that what Jesus is talking about here is a mindset. In the Greek, the “looking back” is a continuous present state – “No one putting the hand on a plough and looking at the things behind is fit for the kingdom of God” (literal translation.) He is not talking about a quick glance over the shoulder but about a hidden (or maybe not so hidden) attachment to what has been left behind, an abiding wistfulness about the “good old days,” an on-going regret at not being able to return to something or other in the past. And the older one gets, of course, the greater the temptation to indulge in such discontented nostalgia. But, oh the dangers of doing so …
The first example of “looking back” in Scripture is Lot’s wife. The angels, you recall, were trying to get Lot and his family out of Sodom before it was destroyed. “Flee for your lives!” they said. “Don’t look back, and don’t stop anywhere in the plain! Flee to the mountains or you will be swept away!” But, we are told, “Lot’s wife looked back, and she became a pillar of salt” (Genesis 19.26). This was no mere fleeting glance over the shoulder, I’m sure. I see her as first slowing down, then faltering, then stopping, then turning and gazing at her former home, probably weeping, until, like a tsunami, the volcanic ash or whatever engulfed her. No wonder that, on another occasion, Jesus told his disciples: “Remember Lot’s wife” (Luke 17.32).
The second example is, of course, that of the Israelites being led by Moses through the wilderness to the promised land. God gave them manna to eat but they said: “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic” (Numbers 11.5). Then, faced with the land which was theirs to go in and take, they said: “Why is the Lord bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?” (Numbers 14.3). Their “looking back” meant that they were simply not able to make any progress. They shut themselves out of the blessings that God had in store for them and, in sad reality, went round and round in circles in the wilderness until they died.
Looking back with any sort of longing or wistfulness may start off as a bit of simple self-indulgence and escapism – particularly if the present going is tough and our best days seem to lie behind us and the future looks bleak or difficult – but it will soon become a mindset that will slow us down and eventually stop us in our tracks. And it is at that point that we shall no longer be “fit” for the kingdom of heaven. Jesus doesn’t mean that we shall be no longer “worthy” of the kingdom. We never were worthy anyway. Merit has never come into it and never will. No; the word used is euthetos which literally means “well-set” or “well-placed.” And what Jesus is saying is that, with a backward-looking mindset, we are ill-placed to make any progress in kingdom living or to be of any service in the kingdom of God. (The NIV actually adds to “fit” the words “for service” which are not actually there in the Greek.)
There is a verse in Jeremiah 7 where God complains that his people “went backward, and not forward” (verse 24); but in the Hebrew there is no “went”: it is simply that his people were “for backward and not for forward.” Again, it is a mindset that is being described – and one that, in my view, now bedevils the church just as it once bedeviled ancient Israel. Who, time and time again, after service on a Sunday morning, hasn’t heard the older folk harking back to the way things used to be.
Let’s be clear about this: all such backward-looking is, in reality, a vote of no confidence not only in the God who holds the future but also in the future that he holds. It is tantamount to a declaration that the best has been and gone. As the last verse of W H Auden’s famous poem puts it:
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
No, no, no! The truth for us all, however young or however old, is that the best really is yet to come; and what God longs for us to do is to run towards it with glad and thankful hearts and embrace all it holds for us with open outstretched arms.
Of course some looking back is good. We are to remember God’s goodness to us. We are to give thanks for all the blessings that have come our way. We are to “remember the former things” (Isaiah 46.9) but only so as to let those memories renew our confidence in the God who never has and never will fail us. Our attitude – our mindset – should be that of Paul. “One thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3.13-14).
Paul didn’t really forget what was behind. The eleventh chapter of his second letter to the Corinthians is full of memories. But what he didn’t do was to look back with wistful, dissatisfied longing; he was far too busy pressing on into God’s glorious future for that. He didn’t want to stop the clocks and he certainly didn’t want to turn them back … and neither should I.