“No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” These are the words of Jesus to a man who promised to follow him after saying good-bye to his family in Luke 9:62. Tough stuff. I admit this text used to trouble me. I mean, what is Jesus saying? Here is a guy who is promising to literally follow the poor, homeless, vagabond, carpenter rabbi, from nowhere Nazareth, to who knows where to do who knows what. He simply wants to say good-bye to his family before heads out. It seems completely reasonable, and yet Jesus busts him up by telling him that if he first says farewell to his loved ones, he’s “not fit” to follow. He’s “not fit” for the kingdom of God. He’s “not fit” for heaven itself.
Some years ago people started using the term ‘Christ follower’ instead of ‘Christian’ to identify themselves with Jesus. This was done to create a distinction between true disciples and chumps like the guy Jesus was talking to. ‘Christ follower’ implies that you’re doing the stuff—you’re following and not just professing, you’re “fit” for the kingdom God. But then this term became widely used. People of faith everywhere were calling themselves Christ followers—probably even people like this phony disciple Jesus was talking to. Now what? How would the legit disciples distinguish themselves from the illegitimate ones? To what higher Christian level would pastors, teachers, and bloggers push their listeners and readers to ascend? Answer: Employ the use of additional adjectives, for starters. If everyone is claiming to be a Christ follower, we’ll draw a new distinction: true disciple, radical Christian, and if we’re really serious, fully devoted Christ follower. And then we’ll author books explaining in detail what these terms mean. You can even test yourself and determine whether or not you’re in that camp. And we all want to be in that camp—the few, the proud, the radical, the fully devoted—the fit for the kingdom of God.
The question is: Had this man not wanted to say good-bye to his loved ones, would he have been fit for the kingdom of God? Was Jesus putting forth some recipe for worthiness or fitness to be a Christian? Are God’s love, forgiveness, and acceptance of us based upon our good plowing abilities? The statement Jesus makes is true, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
So let’s be honest for a moment. Have you ever looked back? Has your plowing always been straight? I know much of my plowing through this Christian life has been done with one hand on the plow and the other in Jesus’ side, with my head spinning around in worry, doubt, lust, pride, and a hundred other eye-catching sinful distractions.
How about the ‘real disciples’ of Jesus? Surely their plowing looks pretty good. Surely they are fit, right? Not even close. When push comes to shove, they fall asleep when Jesus asks them to pray (sound familiar?), they bail out after His arrest, Peter denies Him three times in a single night out of fear, and Thomas doubts His promise to rise again. Yes, Jesus’ statement is true. It’s the same Jesus who said, “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). In other words, “No one is fit for the kingdom of God.” The kingdom of God requires absolute perfection. No poor plowers allowed—not even if you are more radically and fully devoted than all the other plowers around you. One look back, one hand off the plow for even a moment, one crooked line and you’re unfit. When we read about the encounter between Jesus and this man, the thing we are supposed to come away with is how much we have in common with him. But Jesus’ words are hard here, and we’re desperate to believe that He’s not speaking about us. We’re quick to come up with all the reasons why this isn’t us, right down to labeling ourselves as the opposite. And when we do this, we miss the gospel.
Just eleven verses before this it says, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he [Jesus] set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). This means that in unwavering resolve, Jesus headed toward Jerusalem. Why? Because Jerusalem was the place where He would be betrayed, arrested, beaten, and crucified. This is why He came to a world full of pitiful plowers—to a world unfit for the kingdom of God. He was born with His hand to the plow and never once looked back, no stumbling, errors, or doubting. Instead He plowed a straight line of perfection directly to Jerusalem. He headed right to the cross to pay for all our one-handed, backward-looking, bad plowing. He even paid for the radically, fully devoted plowing we think we’ve done. There was only one man who ever put His hand to the plow and never looked back, and He freely gives you His labors. He binds you to His yoke, and it’s easy and light because He has already done the work. He takes all our bad work and gives us all His perfect work. There is no need to give yourself a label, to distance yourself from the chump Jesus is talking to, in order to feel loved, accepted, or forgiven. We are that chump. We are in and of ourselves halfhearted plowers and unfit. But the gospel speaks another word: There is One who set His face toward Jerusalem. He has plowed for you, and His work is perfect.
As for me… I’m sticking with the label Christian—no adjectives necessary.