And to another he said, "Follow me." But he replied, "Lord, let me go first and bury my father." But he answered him, "Let the dead bury their dead. But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God." And another said, "I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to my family at home." To him Jesus said, "No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God."
More than fifty years ago, Father Theodore, who had worked with plow horses on his family farm, explained this parable to the high school seminarians at Mount Saint Francis. Although the horses are doing the heaviest labor the plowman works fiercely to keep the team and the plow heading the right direction. A moment of inattention and the wayward plow will wander. The furrows will be crooked; useful soil, unplowed; and seed, wasted. Even twisting around to see how straight the furrows are will throw the plow out of line.
The old priest explained to this Boom Generation of boys that training for the priesthood required our full attention. We could not afford to look back with regret or look around at other options. We had to keep our furrows straight as we plowed through the books.
Perhaps I did something right because I am still here.
In today's gospel Jesus is accosted by wannabe disciples who have certain reservations. They have important business to attend first. Jesus dismissed them; he didn't want to hear their excuses because he had resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem.
There would be no "later" for him. You can't tell a leader you'll follow him after he is dead!
This unwillingness to commit has reached epidemic proportions today. Students fail to declare a major as they shop around from one specialty to another. Many couples refuse to marry despite having children, and then refuse to baptize their children. Some cannot decide which sexual orientation or gender they want to be. Others "identify" with european, then african and then native american -- and back again.
Many alcoholics and addicts cannot decide to quit. They might go for days without a fix; they attend twelve-step meetings, declaring "I am an alcoholic" or "I am an addict." But, still unwilling to quit using, change their minds again.
Essentially, they are unwilling to die. They think there is still time to decide -- later.
In my experience it's best to let things go. My brother-in-law asked recently if I would play racquetball with him. We played together a few times twenty-five years ago, and he has continued to play. I've not attempted it since the surgeries on both shoulders. I declined. If I played I would try too hard; I would lose anyway; and I'd be crippled for a week. Only a week, if I'm lucky.
It was fun while it lasted. God willing, if there is racquetball in heaven, I'll try it again there. In the meanwhile I'll prepare for my death by exercising this body with safer, less violent exercise.
One by one the Lord gives us gifts; and then, one by one, he takes them back. We enjoy his gifts but, more importantly, we enjoy him. When we have died to ourselves completely, surrendering even the gift of
No one who sets a hand to the plow
and looks to what was left behind
is fit for the kingdom of God.