In Luke 9:62, Jesus offers this well-known saying. “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” He says this to a man who says he wants to follow Jesus, but first he wants to go back and say goodbye to his family. Out of context, Jesus’ reply might seem a little harsh. Isn’t saying goodbye a reasonable thing, even a good thing? Of course! In fact, we hear in other places in scripture that caring for family is one of the foundational priorities of being a follower of Jesus.
Yet it’s helpful to know a few things. Just a few verses earlier in 9:51, Luke tells us that Jesus “set his face towards Jerusalem.” This is a Hebrew phrase that means he honed his focus and locked in his attention. We know what awaits Jesus in Jerusalem. The stakes, the intensity are higher as he moves towards the cross.
Then there are a series of vignettes when people talk about following Jesus, and he lets them know what that entails. For these would be followers, it was literal and immediate. They had to go right then and there. Sometimes following means hard decisions and prioritizing the most important even over the really important. Trying to move forward with Jesus while looking back is as effective as trying to plow a straight line while looking back.
It’s so easy to get stuck looking back. Past pain, heartache, shame, or anger can ensnare us. We get frozen in fear of reliving past hurts. Past successes can just as easily entangle us. That’s why Ecclesiastes 7:10 warns against the unwise ways in which we opine for the “good old days.” Similarly, Paul suggests in Phil 3 that moving forward in faith means “forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead.”
Interestingly, throughout scripture, we are urged to remember the past, but we are not asked to recreate it. We can learn from the past, but we can’t live there. We can love parts of our past, but we can’t live there. We can loath parts of our past, but we can’t live there. The kingdom calls us to live faithfully in the present as we walk with Jesus towards God’s future.