Spring plowing on the farm was one of my favorite things to do. When I was in high school, we plowed with a 39 horsepower John Deere Model ’60,’ capable of pulling a 3-bottom plow, each bottom turning over 16″ of soil. Each spring we plowed about 100 acres, prepping the soil for spring planting of corn and grains to feed our dairy herd. Plowing 100 acres, turning over a maximum of 48″ of earth at a time, meant we plowed over 200 miles at 2-3 mph. Translation: we did everything we could to keep the ’60’ and its plow in the field, weather permitting. As soon as I was old enough to plow, my dad and I took turns keeping the tractor moving. I might start at 4:00a, he would relieve me so I could have breakfast and do morning chores, then my turn after lunch till after evening milking, then his turn until midnight. Efficiency was critical to spring plowing.
Plowing in a straight line was an integral component to efficiency. The key to plowing straight is starting straight – what farmers call “striking out a land.” I don’t know the etymology of the term, but apparently it’s part of farming 101. Striking out a land is pretty straight forward. You pick a target at the other end of the field (i.e., a tree or fence post) and head for it. Here’s the key: Never take your eyes off the target! For anything. Typically while plowing, the operator is always looking back to insure the plow is at the correct depth. Not when striking out a land. Never look back.
My first experience striking out a land didn’t go so well. I was maybe a freshman in high school. I had seen my dad do it many times. I had this. I picked a tree at the edge of the woods on the far end of the field, focused on it, dropped the plow in the ground and struck out across the field. About a third of the way across the field I looked back to see how I was doing. I was doing great – straight as an arrow! I turned back to the woods to again focus on the tree. Or was it a tree? I wasn’t sure I was focused on the correct tree. Looking around a bit, I found the correct tree a bit to the right. Whew! Or was it the correct tree? Nope. I decided the correct tree of focus was a bit further to the right. After a few such iterations, I finally settled on a tree. Another third of the way across the field I looked back to discover that a curve to the right had developed. Course correction. I picked a tree to left and headed toward it. When I got to the end of the field, I had plowed a beautiful ‘S’ curve – not the original intent.
How often do we do we start down a path only to later discover that we’ve missed our original intent? How often have we watched friends or relatives who had every intent of walking with Jesus for years to come, veer off and miss the mark part way into the journey? What happens?
When Jesus, the carpenter who understood farming, wanted to help people grasp the cost of following him, he told them “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). Jesus was not making a statement of who’s in or out of the kingdom. He talked a lot about service in his kingdom, as he did here. He’s telling us that to follow him is to put our focus on him and not look back. Look back at what?
In context, Jesus is implying that we not look back at where we’ve come from or at what we have might have left behind when we started to follow him and serve in his kingdom. I also wonder if he might have been suggesting that we not look back to see how we are doing – equally as dangerous. And we all do that. We want to know how we are progressing in the faith. Or, worse, how we are progressing compared to others. No matter why we take our eyes off Jesus, the result is the same – we veer off course. How do we keep our eyes on Jesus?
First, it’s a choice. Life is always about choices and choosing to daily focus on (follow) Jesus is one of them. Second, and of primary importance, is focusing on the correct Jesus. Sounds like an odd statement. In our culture, there are many versions of ‘Jesus’ on which we could focus – the ‘Jesus’ of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (more on that another time), the ‘Jesus’ of evangelicalism, the ‘Jesus’ of the Democrats or Republicans, to name a few. The correct Jesus is the Jesus of Scripture, the one we encounter when we read the Gospels regularly and continuously. With our eyes on that Jesus, we have a better chance to stay the course, to not veer off, to not miss the original intent.