Put Your Hand to the Plow

Robert S. Turner
6th Sunday after Pentecost
June 26, 2016
1 Kings 19:15–16, 19–21; Luke 9:51–62

There is a silly, childish joke that Sarah and I like a lot. As far as I know it doesn't have a
name, but if it did it would be "Your Face." The way it works is any time someone offers any
sort of criticism, you turn it back on the person, using the words "your face." You go back
and forth like this for a while, and it just gets stupider and stupider. We love it.
Here's a typical exchange:
"That was a really dumb comment you just made."
"Your face is a dumb comment."
"That doesn't make any sense."
"Your face doesn't make any sense."
"You're a jerk."
"Your face is a jerk." And so on.
In our reading from the gospel of Luke, we have a little bit of a "Your Face" moment, firstcentury
style. In verse 51, Luke tells us, "When the days drew near for him to be taken up,
he set his face to go to Jerusalem." To "set one's face" means to decide resolutely on a
course of action. This is a hinge moment in Luke's story; it is the moment when Jesus
leaves Galilee and heads to Jerusalem. It's not a pleasure excursion, either. His intention is
to confront the consolidated powers of religion and state, demanding justice for the
oppressed people of the land, and he knows there's a strong likelihood that it will not end
well for him. But he understands it to be his mission, so he "sets his face" for the journey.
To get from Galilee to Jerusalem, however, he must either go through the region of Samaria
or take a wide detour around. Many Jewish travelers choose the latter option anyway,
because of their profound prejudice and animosity toward the Samaritans. Jesus apparently
doesn't share these ill feelings, and sends messengers ahead to prepare a place for his
party to stay in one of the Samaritan villages. But when the Samaritans discover that
Jesus's goal is Jerusalem, and that he has "set his face" to get there, they refuse to receive
him in their town. It turns out the Samaritans willingly reciprocate the Jews' animosity. "Oh,
your face is going to Jerusalem?" they say. "Well, your face can't stay here. So sorry for
your face."
Jesus understands that such rejections are par for the course in his work, and seems
prepared to let the insult slide, but his disciples aren't quite so forgiving. James and John,
those hotheaded brothers Jesus has given the nickname "the Sons of Thunder," get all
indignant and say, "Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and
consume them?" (v. 54). One imagines them rubbing their hands together in anticipation,
though one also wonders what gives these two knuckleheads the idea that they have the
power to pull off such a stunt. They are probably thinking of the story of Sodom and
Gomorrah, which got torched for their failure to show hospitality to strangers, or the story of
how the prophet Elijah called down fire on two companies of soldiers trying to arrest him.
But how they think they belong in the same company as Elijah is anybody's guess.
When he hears this suggestion, Jesus turns and rebukes James and John. Luke doesn't tell
us exactly what he says in his rebuke, but I like to imagine his saying, "Shut your face!" And
they go on to another village.
What follows is a series of exchanges between Jesus and some would-be disciples. The
first comes from an unnamed enthusiast who exclaims, “I will follow you wherever you
go” (v. 57). I would be overjoyed if someone were to say something like this to me, but
Jesus is unimpressed. He replies, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but
the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (v. 58).
He is warning this person that discipleship is tough. There are no five-star hotels on the road
Jesus is taking, and a follower of Jesus couldn't afford to stay there if there were. Walking
the way of Jesus can be a lonely occupation, a thankless endeavor, and certainly not a way
to make one’s fortune. Even the wild animals—the foxes and birds of the air—have secure
places to sleep, but Jesus and his band have no such haven. And, as the response by the
Samaritan village demonstrates, they cannot always depend upon the kindness of
But there may be more to this saying than meets the eye. Earlier in the gospel, Jesus tells a
parable in which a farmer scatters seed haphazardly. Some of it falls on the path, and the
“birds of the air” gobble it up. In explaining the parable to the disciples later, Jesus
compares the birds with the devil, who snatches the word away from people so they cannot
believe and be saved. A little later, he will call Herod Antipas, who wants to kill him, a fox, by
which he means a sneaky, low-down, nasty character. So when he mentions foxes and birds
here, he may be employing metaphorical language. Whereas the powerful ones who are in
league with the devil have comfortable and secure places to live, Jesus and those who
follow him do not. This may be an implicit warning to this potential follower not only that
accommodations may be lacking, but also that Jesus’s path will put him in direct opposition
to these powerful ones, and you’d better think twice before getting on board that train. Jesus
is not just some homespun moralist and country preacher; his mission has a decidedly
political edge to it.
In the next two episodes, we find potential disciples making excuses. Luke writes:
To another [Jesus] said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my
father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their dead; but as for you, go proclaim
the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to
those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks
back is fit for the kingdom of God” (vv. 59–62).
These responses sound pretty harsh to our ears. What kind of teacher would not allow his
student the time it takes to hold a funeral and burial for his father? What kind of egotist
would think his own task more important than another person’s basic familial duties? And
who could be so demanding and impatient that he would not allow a potential follower to go
home long enough to kiss his mother goodbye, or at least to leave a note about his plans?
This sounds like the characteristics of a cult leader. It sounds more like David Koresh than
What we have to remember is that Jesus was a well-known practitioner of hyperbole—
extreme exaggeration for effect. Think of his comments about a camel passing through the
eye of a needle, or his instruction to chop off your hand or pluck out your eye if it causes you
to sin, or his declaration that to follow him you have to hate your family. Did he mean any of
these things literally? I don’t think so. He was simply setting up a contrast between two
values: on one hand, the value of one’s wealth or bodily integrity or family ties, and on the
other, the value of the reign of God. In his mind, the reign of God so far outstrips these
other, more conventional values that it’s not even worth talking about.
He’s doing the same thing here. The proclamation of the good news of the reign of God is
so important, so urgent, that it brooks no delay, and the life of the reign of God so far
surpasses “normal” life that those who do not participate in the reign of God might as well be
dead. Elsewhere in the gospels, when Jesus calls persons to follow him, they immediately
drop everything and hit the road with him. Somehow they see and understand at a glance
that real life is to be had only in the company of this Jesus, and that to follow him is the only
true adventure; all else pales in comparison.
Of course, we have also seen—in this very passage, in fact—that some of those who
exhibited such great faith at the outset don’t yet understand all that Jesus is about, even
after weeks and months in his company, so maybe we should not be too quick to condemn
these hesitant ones. Perhaps they see something that gives them pause, that makes them
want to hedge their bets just a little. Perhaps it’s something they see in Jesus’s face.
Perhaps the resolution they see there scares them. Perhaps they see it more clearly than
the first disciples did back at the shores of the Sea of Galilee, and like the Samaritan
villagers they’re not sure they want to be too closely associated with this dangerous
character. Jesus has set his face to go to Jerusalem, and perhaps these are the more
discerning souls who have an idea what that means.
Come to think of it, the apparent harshness of Jesus’s responses may actually signify
compassionate understanding rather than condemnation. After all, a little later in Luke’s
gospel, Jesus will counsel prudence before one takes to the road of discipleship. He says,
“Which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to
see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is
not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build
and was not ale to finish’” (Luke 14:28–30). He seems to be saying that if you’re not up to
the rigors of discipleship, if you’re not willing to set your face to accomplish the task at hand,
it’s better that you don’t start at all. If the reign of God does not rate higher than your family,
your instinct for self-preservation, or any other competing value, just stay home.
None of this makes these guys right or admirable. It makes them prudent. In Jesus’s
estimation, and in God’s, there are virtues more important than prudence. One who truly
catches a glimpse of the surpassing value of the reign of God will throw caution to the wind
—sell everything one has to buy the pearl of great price; leave one’s fishing business or tax
booth on a moment’s notice to follow the charismatic young rabbi; leave ninety-nine sheep
in the field to track down one stray lamb; put one’s hand to the plow and never look back.
God doesn’t keep score the same way we do, and who knows but that the impetuous
followers who get more than they bargained for, who will suffer and eventually die as
martyrs for their commitment to Jesus’s way, but who carry on anyway, aren’t in better
shape in God’s sight than the ones who see the consequences and prudently shrink from
the path?
I hasten to add that we don’t really know what happens to these three would-be disciples.
Luke does not tell us what they decide after Jesus lays it on the line for them. They very well
may say, “Okay, my brother can handle the funeral details,” or “I like camping out!” or “I
suppose my parents will figure out what happened to me eventually,” and join up right away.
Who knows for sure?
But even if they each do go away sad, as the rich ruler will later, and choose not to follow
the way of discipleship, there may be hope for them yet. We find a precedent for this hope in
the passage from 1 Kings we read earlier. It too is a call narrative; it too shows a person
hesitant to respond to the call; and it too, strangely enough, involves a plow.
Elijah is winding down his prophetic career, and the voice of God tells him to anoint Elisha
as his successor. He finds Elisha out in the fields, plowing, and without a word of
explanation, throws his cloak over him, an act that both men understand as a
commissioning. Elisha runs after Elijah, who has unaccountably kept walking, and, like the
would-be disciples in Luke, says, “Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will
follow you” (v. 20a). Like Jesus, Elijah reads this as reluctance on the part of the younger
man, so he tells him enigmatically, “Go back again; for what have I done to you?” (v. 20b),
and continues on his way.
Verse 21 reads, “[Elisha] returned from following him.” This appears to confirm Elijah’s
suspicions about his readiness for the task. And when you think about it, it’s kind of a nobrainer
for Elisha to say, “Thanks, but no thanks.” After all, he apparently comes from a
family of means; he is plowing the field with twenty-four oxen, and apparently has a fair
number of servants or hired hands assisting him. The writer of 1 Kings consistently refers to
him as “Elisha son of Shaphat,” which would seem to indicate that he is the heir of a man of
some prominence. Elisha clearly has a lot to lose by following the prophetic call. And what
does he have to gain? Elijah has spent the better part of four years either living in a dry
creek bed and being fed by ravens, or relying on the somewhat begrudging hospitality of a
Sidonian widow for his room and board. Plus, he has run afoul of the queen, and his mug
now decorates every post office in Israel. The posters read, “Public Enemy Number One.
Wanted Dead or Alive. Preferably Dead.” Under the circumstances, I can understand
Elisha’s hesitation.
But that’s not the end of the story. After thinking it over, Elisha has a change of heart. He
decides to throw caution to the wind, leave his nets at the seashore, as it were, and follow
the call. He slaughters the two oxen that were pulling his plow, burns the yoke to cook the
meat, and feeds the people. He is cutting his ties; symbolically saying, “This is my Rubicon,
and here I go across.” The writer tells us, “Then he set out and followed Elijah, and became
his servant” (v. 21).
The story of Elisha strikes me as good news. It tells me that it is never too late to respond to
the call. Maybe you have heard the call of Jesus, but other cares have held you back from
following. Maybe you have considered the cost of discipleship and found it too steep. Maybe
you have been afraid to dive straight in, and the times you have dared put your toe in the
pool you have found the water icy and have drawn back. But still you hear that nagging call
in the back of your mind; you feel the voice of Jesus tugging at your heart.
If that is the case for you, hear these two truths: it is never too late to respond to the call;
and it is the best decision you will ever make. It will cost you everything, but it is worth it. It’s
a hard road, but there is joy when we walk it together. Today may be the day for you to set
your face, put your hand to the plow, and not look back.