I think of this as the cranky Jesus. It is one of those days when Jesus, as my grandmother was wont to say, got up on the wrong side of the bed. It is as if he goes out of his way to say difficult things, things people, even good and decent people, will simply have a hard time accepting, to say nothing of actually doing.
Someone says he wants to follow Jesus wherever he goes. Jesus replies, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head."
To another, Jesus issues the invitation to follow. This one, as any good child would do, says, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father."
Jesus does not respond positively. "Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God."
Another prospect accepts the invitation but also has a perfectly reasonable request. "Let me first say farewell to those at my home."
This time, though, Jesus says the one thing that allows me to make sense of all the crankiness. It is this: "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."
Now I have never plowed a day in my life, but I am blessed to have spent many a day as a small boy watching my grandfather plow. And I am blessed, at least for purposes of this particular passage from the Gospel of Luke, by the fact that my grandfather was old school when it came to plowing. He didn't believe in tractors. He did it the hard way with an old-fashioned plow and a mule.
When my grandfather plowed, he hitched up the mule, made sure the mule had blinders so it could not see any direction but straight ahead, he took his place behind the plow, threw a harness connected to the reins over his shoulder, grabbed the handles of the plow steadily, and then urged the mule forward with a clicking noise.
Here is what I observed. My grandfather, like the mule with the help of blinders, never, ever diverted his eyes from straight ahead. I once received a mild correction for distracting him by something I was doing along the side of the field he was plowing. I never did it again. It was imperative that the rows be perfectly straight. I assume the reason for this had to do with maximizing yield or perhaps ease of caring for the crop, or maybe it was just a matter of pride in one's work. Whatever the reason, once he had set his hand to the plow there could be no looking back at all.
Now, if you'll allow me to interject what will at first seem completely unrelated to my grandfather's practices as a farmer, I am thinking about plowing today in the context of what is a very important time for my family. My older son was married this weekend. My wife Ginger and I are thrilled. We love his bride for many reasons, not the least of which is what she brings out in our son and how obviously she adores him and he, her. We are so proud of the path he has chosen in life as a teacher. We could not be more pleased for the two of them, Andrew and Jessica.
What I wish, though, is that Andrew could have had a chance to watch his great-grandfather plow. I wish Andrew could have observed the mule's blinders and the firm grasp of his great-grandfather's hands on the plow, the way the mule was kept on track through the strength of his great-grandfather's shoulders, the effort with which his great-grandfather grasped the handles of the plow, the wash cloth dipped in cold water after every few rows on his great-grandfather's neck to combat the sun, and the fierce determination his great-grandfather put into making each and every row perfectly straight. I wish Andrew had had a chance to see that because, in truth, I think it has a lot to do with being married. It has a lot to do with beginning a life. It has a lot to do with pretty much anything in life that matters, really matters, at least that matters in a kingdom of God sense. And it makes Jesus seem a lot more practical to me than cranky.
Something I haven't told you up to this point is that my grandfather and grandmother were married to each other for just about 70 years. My grandmother once sat me down to teach me what that was all about. She used a decoration in their living room to deliver the message. It was a glass knick-knack, a statuette, I think, but I don't remember now what it was supposed to be. What I do remember is that it had a light and the light rotated. As the light rotated, the glass glowed with different colors. Marriage is like that, she explained. Sometimes it is bright and happy. Sometimes it is darker and not so happy. Her message was all about keeping one's eyes on the goal and getting through the bad times together just as much as the good times. It was her version of keeping one's hand on the plow.
It was a gentler version of the plowing metaphor, but it was the same point. Nothing that matters is accomplished without effort. Nothing that matters is accomplished without determination. Nothing that matters is accomplished without keeping one's eyes determinedly on the goal.
Although marriage is certainly on my mind this weekend and marriage is certainly a case in point, this is a lesson that goes far beyond marriage and applies to anything that really matters, anything that is related to the kingdom of God, anything that is about life and living life to the very fullest of what it has to offer. I once had a teacher who would say nothing that mattered was ever accomplished in an eight-hour day. I also learned from my grandfather that farmers know nothing of eight-hour days. My grandmother, who rose early enough to prepare breakfast before the plowing began and had dinner ready at midday for the men coming in from the field, knew nothing about eight-hour days. And I'm pretty sure that no one in Jesus' day, and certainly not farmers or fishermen, did either. Perhaps that is why Jesus got cranky sometimes. Sometimes my grandfather did, too.
I am taken by the fact that the other lessons assigned for this day evidence something of the same crankiness in Elijah and Elisha and Paul. The Old Testament lesson is about Elijah anointing Elisha to be his successor. When Elijah places his mantle on Elisha, while Elisha is plowing, by the way, Elisha asks the same question as some unnamed prospective follower asked of Jesus. "Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you." That's when Elijah gets a little cranky. He said to Elisha, "Go back again; for what have I done to you?" It's a little cryptic, but it sure sounds cranky to me.
Not only is there no mention of Elisha going back to bid his father and mother farewell, what is recorded is that Elisha slaughtered the team of oxen he was using to plow, fed the people with them, and then left all behind to follow Elijah. Now maybe it's about having a celebration, but in context it sounds a little cranky to me.
In the letter to the Galatians, Paul, who is plowing in a different sort of field, is dealing with factiousness, dissension, and a host of unseemly behavior for followers of Jesus. As Paul can so often do, he exhibits a certain level of crankiness. "Stand firm," he admonishes the Galatian church. In other words, be determined. Put your hand to the plow and do not look back.
And then Paul says this. "Through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'" Being good at love, it seems to me, requires a fair share of determination. Loving another is not the easiest of commitments to make. Love, it ought not surprise us, is going to require a little crankiness along the way. Everything that has value does, and love is what has ultimate value for, of course, it is the only thing that lasts. According to Paul and Jesus, it really is the only commandment, the only thing life is really about.
I have marriage on my mind this weekend and, of course, the love between parents and their adult children, and as I often do, between grandparents and grandchildren. Another of its forms is friendship. All of those have their challenges. But in Christ, all human relationships are to be characterized by love. It is to be true of strangers, which is challenging enough, but Jesus also reminded us that it is to be true of our enemies, which is more difficult still. In fact, if there is anything distinctive about Christianity among religions, it ought to be that, our love of our enemies, for otherwise, Jesus said, what more are we doing than those without any faith at all. It is love above all else that makes us human, even the kind that requires so much effort as to leave us a little cranky. And still, all of God's hopes for us are summed up in a single commandment--Paul said, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."
Anyone well tell you who knows, at least anyone who is telling the truth, that love is hard work. It is not nearly the sweet, romantic thing we like to imagine it to be or to pretend it is, particularly around weddings. Love is difficult. It is like a glass ornament with constantly changing colors. It requires dogged determination. It requires admonition, like Paul's admonition to the Galatians to "Stand firm." It requires putting hand to plow and never looking back, and that I know, at least from observation, is terribly hard, literally backbreaking, work.
It will leave us, as it apparently left Jesus, perhaps feeling a little cranky from time to time. Cranky, though, is not antithetical to the kingdom of God. If I understand Jesus, I think it may be a necessity.
Let us pray. Almighty God, you have built your church upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone. Grant us so to be joined together in unity of spirit by their teaching that we may be made a holy temple acceptable to you, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.