Plow Straight


Last month Laura Young from Austin, Texas made the headlines. She made them with her new Italian friend, Pompey. They met in Goodwill four years ago, probably not the first friendship to form and blossom in a thrift shop, but certainly one of the most unusual. The guy turned out to be a bit older than he looked in his eHarmony profile. Pompey was clearly getting up there in years, but being a deep person, Laura thought the age-difference did not rule out a friendship. But age wasn’t the only challenge their relationship had to overcome. Laura and Pompey were made of very different stuff. I mean, literally, they were made of different stuff. Laura was flesh and bones, a regular human being, and Pompey, well Pompey was made of marble. All he had was a head and shoulders; but nonetheless, Laura liked the look of him, and paid Goodwill $34.99 for the right to take him home, plonk him down on the coffee table, and feast her eyes on him until her heart was content. At the time of buying him, Laura didn’t know his name or his story, but hey, that didn’t matter. Then, last month, just out of curiosity, she decided to dig into Pompey’s past, the way you do when someone has been sitting on your coffee table for four years. And she approached that great relationship guru, Sotheby’s, to examine Pompey and find out his story. They duly identified him as Pompey the Sixth – the son of Pompey the Great, who was a renowned Roman general and statesman around 100BC. Don’t you just love a bargain?

Just now I told you that Laura was a regular human being, but I’m not sure she is, because instead of selling the bust of Pompey, she gave it to the San Antonio Museum of Art. Greater love has no one than to give away their priceless ancient Roman sculpture so that the general public can enjoy looking at it.

I love a bargain. But there’s one thing I won’t do. I won’t haggle. My British reserve just doesn’t want the embarrassment of lowballing a vendor at a flea market. Now Gelind is the total opposite. Three years ago, I watched, mortified, wishing the ground the open up, while she talked a leather goods merchant in Florence down from $1,000 to $70 for a very smart handbag. I was going, ‘Oh please don’t.’

If you’re looking for a bargain, if you want to do some haggling, then there’s one place you should not go. The market stall belonging to Jesus. In today’s Gospel lesson Jesus is approached by three bargain-hunters – men in the market for spiritual reality, browsing the displays for that missing ‘thing’ that will fill their souls and quench their thirst. They’ve heard all about Jesus, they’ve maybe sampled his goods, the life in God – they’ve felt the quality, they’ve taken it off the rack and maybe even slipped it on to see how it fits. They’re convinced that this is the best that money can’t buy – the deaf hear, the blind see, the dead are raised. The hungry eat their fill, the outcast is welcomed, the guilty liberated, and the oppressed set free. They are ready to make a deal. And so the first bargain-hunter says to Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go.” The second announces, “I will follow you too, but first let me go and bury my father.” The third declares, “I’ll also follow you, but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.”

Now, if I had been Jesus, I would have responded like a high street sales assistant. “Excellent choice, sirs. You are men of great taste. You will make great disciples. Really, you’re just the type of people I’m looking for. Come and join the fun. If you like, take it home with our no quibble 14-day return policy. If following me is not working for you, then we can make some changes, find a kind of discipleship that is just right for you.” That’s what I would say to the bargain-hunters. But not Jesus. No, get this – Jesus explicitly discourages these shoppers from following him. To bargain-hunter Number One, an enthusiastic convert, he says, “Really? Have you thought about this? Do you know what you’re getting into? This is going to be tough. The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. Are you prepared for hardship and discomfort?”

What he says to shopper Number Two sounds even harsher. Number Two says, “I’d love to follow you, but I just have to go and bury my dad,” which sounds pretty reasonable doesn’t it? And, it would be, if his father were actually dead. But he isn’t. You see, in that time and place, when someone died people mourned for several days, during which they did not leave their homes. Then the funeral took place, and people would go back to their regular lives. The fact that this man is walking around town and not at home grieving, tells us that his father must still be alive. He was probably getting on in years, growing frail. So Number Two is actually saying, “Give me a couple of years, Jesus. When my family commitments are finished, I’ll be free to be your disciple.” And Jesus essentially replies, “You are too bound up in the affairs of this life. If you’re going to follow me then that must be your priority.”

And then shopper Number Three says, “Excellent Jesus, I’m with you. I’ve got my stuff; all I have to do is go home and say goodbye to the family. I’ll be straight back.” And Jesus responds with a farming image – “when you’re ploughing you don’t look behind to see where you’ve been, because if you do, your furrow will be wavy. I need people who will look straight ahead, not folk who are glancing over their shoulders at the things they’ve left behind.” To really get this metaphor we must dismiss the image of tractors. We’ve all seen a tractor pulling a plough, and the farmer is positioned up at the front in the driver’s cab – ahead of the actual plough. The furrow is being created behind him. So he must keep looking backwards to make sure the furrow is straight. Now drive that John Deere out of your mind and imagine instead a plough pulled by an ox, like in Jesus’ time; and the farmer is positioned behind the plough, where he can drive the animal and see the furrow being ploughed. So, work with me here, if he looks back then the furrow won’t be straight. Our task is to keep looking forward, and trust that what is behind us will be just fine.

Barbara DeGrote-Sorensen wrote a book about decluttering. She says, “Decluttering your closet leads to the other closets, into cabinets, into the garage and into your very soul. Old grudges? Out they go. Harbored hurts? Who needs them. Sins of the fathers? Let them be. Sort through a closet or two. You’ll be convinced.”

We are people on a mission. We live with intention. We are not willing merely to drift through life from one meaningless experience to another. No, we are here for a reason. Our lives have purpose. Each morning when we get out of bed, we do so with the clear goal that today we’re going to be better people, today we are going to be more ethical workers, today we will be more loving partners, more loyal friends, more faithful disciples. The Christian life is about focusing on something – and that ‘something’ is the back of Jesus as he strides ahead of us. Oh, and don’t forget where he’s going – a cross; but ultimately to glory.

Now, let’s keep this ploughing metaphor in perspective. The past is our friend. It teaches us lessons, it cheers us with happy memories, it gives the present moment context and meaning. As Christians we are people of the past. Our faith is based on historic events, some 2,000 years ago, some even older. Our worship is full of the past. Most of the words we have used this morning were written hundreds of years ago, and many of them thousands. We’re nourished and sustained by ancient rituals. But when we focus too much on the past we flirt with twin dangers – nostalgia and regret. We can idolize the past, enshrine it as a time that was happier, holier, and all round better than now; or we can curse the past – ruminate on mistakes we made, messes we created, decisions we got wrong. And so Jesus calls us to stop looking back. Those two enemies – nostalgia and regret – are wavy furrows, and it’s hard to grow good crops in wavy furrows. It doesn’t matter which one of them you pick – nostalgia or regret – they will both distract us from seeing God now, they will make us fear the future, and they will depress our mood. To the nostalgic person God says I am here now. This is the moment of answered prayer and abundant grace. Today is the day of salvation. And to the regretful person God says, “It’s over. It’s gone. I forgive you. I don’t call to mind your failures, and neither should you. I give you a new start. Your mistakes are the paving slabs I am using to create the way for my kingdom to come.”

Now, back to those bargain-hunters. I want to be generous to them. I believe they are sincere in their wish to follow Christ. They’re not making excuses. It’s just that they misunderstand the true cost of being his disciple. They’ve seen the beauty, they’ve felt the quality, they’ve been convinced that following Christ would enrich their lives, they’ve taken it to the checkout, brandished their credit cards, and got the fright of their lives when they’ve seen the number on the cash till. Because when they decided to make the purchase, they didn’t look at the price tag. They thought following Christ would be a nice addition to their lives, something to make them feel happier about themselves. Following Christ was a consumer item – useful, attractive, desirable – but, that’s all. Just an add-on to their cluttered, distracted, self-oriented lives. They assumed they could follow Jesus and keep the same old priorities. But the call of discipleship touches every aspect of us. The life in God is not an added extra but an all-encompassing transformation.

Jesus, the market-trader doesn’t sugarcoat the cost of following him. There are no gimmicks, there’s no small print; no glossy brochure or cheesy smile. It’s tough to follow him. But we do it because we know that it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. So don’t look back, plough on.

About Theresa Wright