The work of plowing in Biblical times involved directing some farm animal to pull the plow forward so that its pointed front edge would break up the soil. The top layer of the soil, hardened by the sun, or perhaps matted with the remains of old crops, had to be turned over to uncover a softer layer underneath – ideal for planting seeds. Plowing requires attention and effort. To look back, or to let other concerns distract us, or to stop altogether, naturally results in badly prepared or unprepared soil – which will mean little or no crop at harvest time. Jesus compares following him to plowing. To be “fit for the Kingdom of God” we must commit ourselves to take up the Lord’s yoke and make the effort to go forward.
What does it take to go forward in service of the Kingdom? Today’s readings point to radical faith. In the first reading, when the prophet Elijah designated his successor, he threw his cloak – that is, his camel-hair mantle, a sign of his prophetic identity and mission – onto the shoulders of Elisha. Elisha immediately understands that this gesture means, “Follow me.” He is being called to leave his former way of life and to go forward as Elijah’s disciple. Elisha takes steps both to honor his parents and to show his radical commitment to his new life. His livelihood as a farmer is over. He slaughters the oxen, burns up his plowing equipment and gives everything away. After sacrificing everything, he is free to follow Elijah as his attendant. He never looks back.
In the Gospel, radical faith is revealed as a total reliance on God, even if it means not having earthly security or being sure where we may find our next shelter. If Jesus, the Son of Man, has “nowhere to rest his head,” neither do we, for we do not belong to this world. This is not a source of worry, however, for as the Psalm proclaims, the Lord himself is our inheritance. “Therefore my heart is glad and my soul rejoices, my body, too, abides in confidence, because you will not abandon my soul to the netherworld, nor will you suffer your faithful one to undergo corruption.”
Radically heeding the call of Christ is an expression of the freedom that he has won for us. The more we use our freedom rightly, the freer we become. Welcoming the yoke of Christ is the opposite of the oppressive yoke of slavery to sin. As St. Paul tells us in today’s second reading, “For freedom Christ set us free; so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.” Paul also warns us not to use our freedom “as an opportunity for the flesh.” Living radical faith means resisting all temptations to self-centeredness and self-aggrandizement. Trusting in God frees us to “serve one another through love.”
Service through love rejects all vindictiveness. When Jesus sends his disciples ahead of him after making his resolute decision to go to Jerusalem, James and John, the “sons of thunder” (Mk 3:17), zealously prepare the way. The opposition they meet from a Samaritan village does not sit well with their zeal for radically following Jesus. So they ask Jesus if they can punish them for standing in the way of his mission. Jesus rebukes them, for they themselves are interfering with his mission. They are still living according to the desires of the flesh, not guided by the Spirit. So he leads them by another way.
This going another way will eventually lead them to where Jesus intended to go to in the first place – Jerusalem, and more specifically, Calvary. Jesus has set his hand to the plow. He is “resolutely determined” to proceed to the Cross, and he will not look back. Along the way, he shows us exactly what radical faith and total reliance on God looks like. Jesus invites us, just as he invited the disciples in today’s Gospel, “Follow me.” When we respond to his invitation with radical faith, following him through loving service of others, then we can truly proclaim the coming of the Kingdom of God. It has come in our very lives.
In my life of faith, how am I setting my hand to the plow and never looking back? Do I use my freedom to please myself or to serve others? How do I respond to the Lord’s invitation to follow him?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 15, no. 5. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.