Don’t Look Back!
Imagine you arrive at a border and on the gateway is a sign that reads: Don’t look back. You are entering a strange new country.
No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit to enter the kingdom of God.
Back there is the way of death. Let the dead bury their own dead. Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head… in the land of the dead.
What Jesus brings to the world is something fundamentally new. And this newness creates a stark contrast.
Not only a new sense of God as Abba, as love, but a new awareness of the way his world, in its failure to trust in Abba-God, was deeply shaped in violence. I need to say more about that. But James Warren summarises it nicely when he says that “Jesus arrives on the scene almost, one might say, like an alien from outer space” – he’s not talking about being an alien from human beings, but from the conflicts that “dominate and enslave human life”.
The Sermon on the Mount captures Jesus perspective on this beautifully. We live in a world in which we copy each other. If someone hits us we hit them back. If someone takes our eye we take theirs. If someone knocks our tooth out we knock their tooth out (an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth). If someone slaps us on the cheek we slap back. Enemies (those who hate us) we hate back. And because we copy each other like that, we end up struggling against our friends and family. We want what they want (we copy). We are like children who arrive in a room full of toys and are somehow drawn to the toy the other child wants.
Jesus is so aware of this he develops his own special term for it. In the Greek it is ‘skandalon’ which literally means ‘stumbling block’… we are stumbling blocks for each other. We are drawn into conflict all the time.
You might remember when Jesus says he must go to Jerusalem and die and Peter says, “No way Jose!” Jesus says “Get behind me Satan”! You are tempting me to another way. “You are a stumbling block to me (a skandalon).”
We get this context by reading the passages immediately prior to today’s reading as well. For all Jesus teaching about rivalry and conflict, we find the disciples, still arguing about who is the greatest. And Jesus places a little child among them… and tells them “the least among all of you is the greatest”. At first glance this is a mysterious comment. What exactly does he mean, the least among you is the greatest? Does that mean those who achieve least are actually achieving more? Does it mean that there is no such thing as greatness? That actually makes no sense at all (contradiction). What I think he means is that there is a greatness (the most common kind of greatness in human community) which is all about rivalry. It is about comparing myself with others. He’s saying you have to snap out of this if you are part of the kingdom of God. You have to make a break … somehow. Somehow the impossible is becoming possible – life without them and us… or beating up on myself because I’m not as good as him or her… etc.
That’s the context in which today’s reading begins: “he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Jesus is going to Jerusalem (the centre of his universe in the Jewish world) to turn the other cheek, to love his enemies. On the way there is a Samaritan village. Samaritans and Jews love to hate each other. They are rivals. They are stumbling blocks (skandalons) for each other. So the Samaritans do not welcome Jesus. The disciples reaction captures perfectly everything that Jesus is up against – everything he is leaving behind. “Lord,” they say “do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them”. How about a little holy war!
“But he turned and rebuked them.” Other ancient manuscripts add “and said you do not know what Spirit you are of, for the Son of Man has not come to destroy the lives of human beings but to save them.” That’s an interesting phrase ‘you do not know what Spirit you are of.’ Again the disciples are playing the Satan for Jesus. Jesus is in a spiritual battle – a battle against violence. For the disciples, their every instinct reacts to this snub by the Samaritan village. Jesus is determined not to be driven by these ‘instincts’ and instead to follow Abba-God to Jerusalem.
Someone comes up to him and says: “I will follow you wherever you go.” We expect Jesus to be chuffed. But Jesus replies “Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” I’m going to a place of homelessness in this world. Your ambition (if that’s what it is) to follow me will be disappointed. In other words, this world of rivalry and skandalon is not my home. I am an alien to it. The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. He doesn’t even say the Son of Man will rely on the hospitality of others (as some interpreters like to gloss it). That may have been the case. But Jesus has a much deeper point. The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. He finds himself an alien.
It’s not like he doesn’t want disciples to follow him, for in the next sentence he says to another person ‘Follow me’. To which the person replies “first let me bury my Father”. Fair enough!… And Jesus shockingly replies. “Let the dead bury the dead”. This might be the strongest thing Jesus ever said to challenge the assumption that family relations are supreme. “Let the dead bury the dead”. In other words, back there is the way of death. Even families are not immune to the way of death.
What is this way of death?
I am reminded here of Genesis 2 and 3. Remember the Serpent suggests to Eve that God is not really Abba-God at all but a rival who wants to keep a tree with special knowledge all to himself (his precious). As Jesus might put it, he tempts Eve to be scandalised by God, to stumble over God. What if God is actually dangerous, your enemy, rather than the giver of life? What if God’s warning about the tree is not so much warning you kindly of the danger of a world divided up into good and evil (the knowledge of good and evil), what if it’s more of a selfish act on God’s part… because he really likes those apples. And Eve thinks, yeah, come think about it, the apples look a whole lot more attractive now. Like a child in the playground. So she eats from the tree and dies!…
Did she die? Well not exactly… it seems. She eats from the tree (copying what she thinks is God’s desire for the apple) and in doing so becomes a competitor against God. And the man sees how attractive the apple seems and copies her desire and they too become competitors, against God and against each other, so now they need protection – symbolised by fig leaves. And on the story goes. Death is not immediate. But death is the result. The story of civilisation begins with a murder. Cain kills Abel. And by the time we get to seven generations the world is said to be “full of violence”. The first part of the book of Genesis is a kind of ancient parable of the arrival of violence and death.
Why this excursion into the story of Genesis? Jesus says, back there is the way of death. Let the dead bury the dead. I must do what Eve didn’t do. Trust in Abba-God, the God who gives rain to rain on the just and the unjust, the God above and beyond all our violence. I must go to Jerusalem. Jesus succeeds where Adam and Eve failed at being human.
You’ve got to leave it behind. In other words this burial, (let me bury my Father) becomes a kind of symbol for Jesus of the point he is trying to make. To follow him is to enter a strange newness… a new world. Anything short of a new world is not good enough.
Now we need to be clear here. The new world is not a world cut off from the old world of family and politics and life. Jesus is going towards Jerusalem, not away from it. He is going to meet the old world. But he is not making it his home. He has nowhere to lay his head there.
“No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God”.
To follow Jesus is to move from death to life, from violence to non-violence, from rivalry to love. It may be a life-long process but Jesus says to us today: Don’t look back!