There’s no looking back

Father John A. Kiley

St. Paul refers to St. Luke in his letter to the Colossians as a medical doctor, “the beloved physician.” Taylor Caldwell authored a life of St. Luke entitled “Dear and Glorious Physician” popularizing this point in recent times. There is also a possibility that St. Luke was an artist or a portrait painter. There was reportedly an icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary painted by St. Luke. These opinions might well be valid but there is the possibility of another avocation for St. Luke. He might have been a geography teacher or perhaps a map maker. Geography and topology are quite important to St. Luke. In fact, truth be known, St. Luke even twists the life of Christ just a bit to suit his geographical bent. For example, Ss. Matthew and Mark have Jesus ascend into heaven from a mount in Galilee while St. Luke has Jesus ascend into heaven from the village of Bethany — only about two miles from Jerusalem! There is however a method in St. Luke’s manipulation of Jesus’ final earthly moments. Geography is critical to St. Luke’s twist of Jesus’ last hours before leaving his disciples.

St. Luke’s Gospel famously begins in Nazareth when the angel Gabriel announces to the Virgin Mary that she will be the mother of the Savior. Nazareth is in Galilee, an Israeli province far to the north of Jerusalem. It clearly represents the far edges of Jewish life. But then, St. Luke’s Gospel concludes at Bethany, nearby Jerusalem, the very center of Jewish life. St. Luke’s Gospel is a steady, uncompromised journey from Galilee to Judea, from Nazareth to Jerusalem, from North to South, from edge to center. St. Luke deliberately makes note several times of the resolve of Jesus to complete this descent from the rural range of Galilee to the urban limits of Jerusalem. On the mount of the Transfiguration, Jesus speaks with Moses and Elias about “the exodus he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem.” Again, as the disciples approach Samaria, St. Luke notes, “When the days for his being taken up were fulfilled, he resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem.”

For St. Luke geography is a metaphor for commitment. Once Jesus “set his face” (9:31) toward Jerusalem, there was no looking back. In this coming Sunday’s Gospel passage, Jesus demands an equally compelling commitment from all those who would follow in his footsteps. St. Luke writes, “As they were proceeding on their journey someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus answered him, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.”

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.”

Jesus is certainly harsh in his assessment of the commitment needed to be a successful disciple. The faithful follower of Christ must forget about all creature comforts — even a bed or a pillow may be denied to the committed Christian. Even more astonishing is Jesus’ apparent heartless attitude toward a disciple’s recently deceased father. The following of Christ takes precedence over the burial of the dead, even of a beloved parent, a duty the Jewish community took very seriously. And even common decency and respect is pushed aside when one faces the challenge of a Christian vocation. A plea to say goodbye to one’s family, certainly a plausible request, is notably dismissed with a reference to putting one’s hand to the proverbial plow and then never looking back.

The hand to the plow reference has roots in the Old Testament, specifically the call of the disciple Elisha by the prophet Elijah. The hesitant Elisha understandably wants to bid his family goodbye. A curt Elijah rebukes him: “Forget about that!” Elisha quickly redeems himself, abandons the plow he was guiding, and accepts the mantel of succeeding Elijah as prophet to Israel. He abandons his agricultural plow and resolutely accepts a new religious implement, namely prophecy — and there would be no looking back!

Many Old Testament and New Testament figures are resolute models of Christian commitment. Every Christian generation needs similarly committed believers — among the clergy, religious and laity alike. The hand at the plow must never lose its grip. Commitment, now as then, is written in words of service, service to the Gospel and service to the neighbor. There can be no looking back.