An Only Child, the Irish writer Frank O’Connor, recalls vividly the night he finally decided to become a writer. He had lost his job with the Great Southern Railway and had no money. His neighbors regarded him as a mad good-for-nothing. Nevertheless, he gave his first public reading of something that he had written.
What mattered was the act of faith, the hope that somehow, somewhere, I would be able to prove that I was neither mad nor a good-for-nothing; because now I realized that whatever it might cost me, there was no turning back. When as kids we came to an orchard wall that seemed too high to climb, we took off our caps and tossed them over the wall, and then had no choice but to follow them. I had tossed my cap over the wall of life, and I knew I must follow it, wherever it had fallen.
In the Gospel Jesus dealt in a somewhat similar fashion with three would-be followers who came to them. He said, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’ He was highlighting the need for commitment, and saying that there could be no turning back. If you wish to plough a straight furrow, you must give your undivided attention to what you are doing. If you keep on looking back you won’t do a good job. You need dedication and commitment. If you begin such a task, you should give it your all.
All of us have put our hand to some “plough” or other. Young people to their studies … husbands and wives to their marriage … priests to their ministry … to mention just a few. And in baptism we have put our hands to another plough – the following of Christ, or discipleship.
If we keep on looking back our attention will be divided. So too will our energy. We won’t be fully committed. We will be half-hearted. We are likely to lose time, to lose sight of our goal, and be tempted to turn back or even quit altogether. To look back suggests that we are having second thoughts, and perhaps doubts and regrets. Perhaps we are finding the cost too high. Maybe other things that we thought we have given up are still tugging at our hearts?
But if we keep looking forward, we will give our undivided attention to the chosen task. We will be completely committed. We will be wholehearted. That will give us great strength. All our resources will be enlisted and harnessed to the task. We will not be easily sidetracked. And so we have an excellent chance of completing the task. Those who are wholehearted find joy in the task, despite hardship. There is no such joy for the halfhearted. So the message is: Don’t turn back; don’t even look back.
The First Reading shows how Elisha obeyed the call of Elijah. His response was total, and by killing his oxen and burning the plough he was precluding a return to his old life. In the Gospel we see the best example in Jesus himself. He set has face towards Jerusalem, even though he knew that rejection, betrayal, and death awaited him there. He would not be deflected from that path. He has given an example to his followers of the kind of dedication that is required.
This kind of dedication is a great challenge. It may be easy at the start.
But in order to persevere, we need the grace of God. That grace will keep us faithful to God and to one another. God will help us to stay on the chosen road, to persevere at the chosen task. Then we will know the joy of the dedicated, and in due time be found fit for the Kingdom.