Keep Your Hand On The Plow, Hold On (A Parable for our Time)
In chapter 9 (51-62), Luke announces a new direction for Jesus’s ministry: “When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” The evangelist already knows the outcome of the events he is about to chronicle. It is as Jesus has outlined to his followers: there will be conflict with the civil and religious authorities, he will be executed, he will rise up from the dead and ascend to return to his Father, YHWH, Allah, the One God of all.
So he turns his face toward Jerusalem – that is, like a plowman plowing his field, he means to take a direct route, a straight row, to what he knows is going to be a tough time. His face is set, his mind is set, his heart is set. And as we see in these two vignettes, nothing is stopping him now that he has set his way. For all others, either you are ‘on the bus or off the bus,’ but this bus, like the gospel train, is bound for glory! Glory with a cost, a very dear cost.
This direct route takes Jesus and his followers through an inhospitable Samaritan village. His disciples, evoking the image and actions of the great prophet Elijah, want to rain down fire upon the Samaritans. Jesus says no. His ‘no’ means, “I am not Elijah, and those are not my methods!” It may help to know that earlier chapter 9 also raises the question of just who Jesus is, and his followers tell him that many think he is Elijah, or John the Baptizer, or one of the ancient prophets. So for a second time Jesus makes clear just who he is and is not.
As to the Samaritans, they are a place-holder for all those who have different religious practices than those of the Judeans in Jerusalem. The Judeans believe sacrifices to YHWH are to take place in the temple in Jerusalem, while the Samaritans, quite possibly the faithful remnant of the Northern Kingdom of Israel after the Assyrian captivity, believe God is worshipped on Mount Gerizim, now near the West Bank town of Nablus. This dispute had been going on for centuries at the time of Jesus and continues to this day.
We ought to take careful note that Jesus will have none of it. That is, he is not concerned with such intramural religious disputes. Elsewhere he remarks that the day is coming “and now is” when worship of the One God will take place neither in Jerusalem nor on Mount Gerizim, so keep moving. Keep your hand on the plow and your eye on the prize.
Besides, in chapters 10 and 17 Samaritans will be shown to be just as faithful, if not more so, to the purposes of God in the story of the Good Samaritan and one man out of ten who thanks Jesus for being healed – a Samaritan. One might say with a great deal of confidence that for Jesus the truly faithful of any religious tradition are to be respected, even above and beyond the less faithful of our own tradition. Parse that however you wish, but forbidding free movement and practice of those who differ from us is not to be tolerated as Jesus sets his face toward a new way of living in this world with others – all others.
Then there are his retorts to three would-be followers, and in all truth we are not told what decisions they ultimately made. To the first he makes clear that to follow him is no walk in the park – ie there are going to be serious costs to discipleship as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote and discovered first hand. To the second and third he is even more harsh: let the dead bury the dead and go proclaim the coming kingdom of God; there’s no time like Elijah granted Elisha to go say goodbye to family and friends, keep your hand on the plow and do not look back.
Again, I am not Elijah and I am not like Elijah, and the time is now. This journey has begun and there will be no turning back to former times, former attitudes, or even simple farewells.
As inconvenient as it may be, Jesus is speaking directly to us – every single one of us. A vision that looks back, not forwards, is doomed from the outset. First of all, how far back do we go? To prohibition? To before women could vote? To before Civil Rights? To legalized slavery? To old disputes over who says potato and who says potahto? To some archaic and arcane notions that there is only one place or one way to worship, that is to honor with our lives, the One God of all?
The plow metaphor is a powerful one to be sure. Before tractors and mechanized farming, which is a relatively recent human development, there was a man with a plow and an animal, often a horse, donkey, mule or ox. The reins are looped over the man’s head around his neck, his hands are on the plow. To plow straight rows, to meet your goal, to get where you are going literally means keeping your hand on the plow and looking forward, not back. For when one turns one’s head the animal will turn with you and ruin your row. If you let go, the animal will wander to and fro, and you will be thrown to the ground or dragged along with the reins around wrapped around your neck. Either way is disaster and destruction.
We may allow ourselves to think that this is primitive stuff, but we would be wrong. This is a parable for our time – and frankly for all times, which is what makes the Bible so compelling. It is always tempting to look back instead of moving forward. It is always tempting to say you want to go forward but not quite yet. It is always tempting to hold onto ancient disputes rather than plow new ground and plant new ideas, new values and a new sense of justice and peace for all people while respecting the dignity of every human being – which is what we promise in our Baptism into following in the way of Jesus. Jesus, who has set his face toward Jerusalem but as we know went much further than Jerusalem. He honored and respected the enemy Samaritans. He made them conspicuous examples of how to really honor God’s vision for humankind.
Fear is a destructive thing in this world. We can fear others and wall them out, or embrace them like Jesus does. Holding on to the plow and not looking back means to move forward, not back to whatever we might convince ourselves was some kind of golden age. Because it wasn’t. Fewer people enjoyed the freedoms and liberties that more and more people now enjoy.
As Saint Paul, once a persecutor of Jesus’s followers, wrote to the church in Galatia, “By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.” (Galatians 5: 24-25) In the same letter Paul writes,” There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female.” To which we might add there is no longer Christian, Muslim or Jew, there is no longer American, Syrian or Afghan, and the listing can and must go on and on and on. This is the life of the Spirit.
It is this life in the Spirit to which we are meant to hold on, not the passions and desires of those who wish to take us off the way of Jesus. Keep your hand on the plow, hold on. Hold on, hold on! Keep your hand on the plow hold on!