Thirteenth Sunday of the Year. Fr Mark Edney preaches on Jesus’ replies to some would-be disciples.
Today’s Gospel ends with Jesus’ warning that ‘no one who looks back is fit for the kingdom of God’.
Human thought and literature is full of similar warnings against ‘looking back’. The ancient Greeks told the story of how Orpheus went to the Underworld to seek his dead wife, Eurydice, whom he felt had been taken before her time. He was allowed to bring her back with him to the world of the living on condition that he would not gaze upon her until they reached the ‘upper air’. Famously, he looked back and in a flash Eurydice had vanished from his sight.
In the Old Testament, the Lord warns Lot, the son of Abraham, to flee with his wife and children from the city of Sodom and not to turn their faces toward the destruction about to be wrought. We’re told, however, that the ‘wife of Lot looked back, and was turned into a pillar of salt'(Gen 19:26).
Looking back leads either to the evaporation of what you most desire or your being turned into something as hard as stone. Neither is fit for the kingdom of God.
Jesus’ words of warning are both solemn and imperative. Not surprisingly. Twice we’re told in today’s reading that he ‘set his face toward Jerusalem’. He had, in other words, to steel himself for the fate that awaited him in the city that killed her prophets. How tempted he must have been to turn back, to flee from the destruction not behind him, but still ahead of him.
Looking back is sometimes people’s solution to the fear they experience by looking ahead. Christians, however, must steel themselves for what’s coming rather than bury themselves in what’s been. Jesus says:
Leave the dead to bury their dead.
The past can be a refuge only because it is easily manipulated by our present desires. We imagine we have a certain control over it. The kind of control that the two disciples in the Gospel try to exercise – the control of time. ‘Let me do this first, then I’ll join you,’ they say to Jesus. Like Orpheus had once done with the gods, these would-be disciples here try to bargain with Jesus about time. What is their attitude if not the ancient equivalent of our diary-driven lives? Each of us bargaining our time.
‘Diary’ in French is agenda and it’s our own agendas that so often make us unfit for the kingdom of God. We want to be part of it, we pray for it to come, but only when we’re ready for it and only when we have the time for it. Jesus, who has no agenda but God’s, is not bargaining or controlling. His face already set toward Jerusalem, he knows he hasn’t time.
When the British playwright, John Osborne, published his famous play, Look Back in Anger, he launched a whole generation of ‘angry young men’. Osborne was not looking for that which we had once come to believe the young desired – to be unshackled from the constraints of the past and set free for the future. No, he was angry precisely because so much of the past as he imagined it to have been was simply no longer to be.
Looking back for Osborne, as for the generation that followed him, was a source of anger because what he wanted to see had long since died. People often wish to relive history as if it hadn’t already passed away and thereby fail to live in the present as if it had no future. Christians have sometimes been tempted to do just that with the Gospel message.
Jesus is a young, if not angry, man when he warns us not to look back – perhaps he wasn’t angry because he wasn’t looking back. His time-frame is very different. He ‘set his face toward Jerusalem’. Toward what was to come. It is, after all, that same young man who taught us to pray daily, ‘thy kingdom come’. That kingdom is not behind us. It is ahead of us still. And we will not be fit for it if we spend our time looking back in the past for it.