Now hollow fires burn out to black,There are occasional phrases in the New American Bible that make me wince. This Sunday contained one of them.
And lights are guttering low:
Square your shoulders, lift your pack,
And leave your friends and go.
Oh never fear, man, nought's to dread,
Look not to left nor right:
In all the endless road you tread
There's nothing but the night.A. E. Housman, A Shropshire Lad LX
In the Gospel passage selected for this week's reading, the rendering of the first verse (Lk. 9:51) reads: "When the days for Jesus’ being taken up were fulfilled, he resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem...." Omnis traductor traditor, the saying goes. The Greek phrase in this verse describing Jesus' determination is idiomatic, and rendered literally in the Latin of the New Vulgate: "Et ipse faciem suam firmavit, ut iret Ierusalem." Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem.
Now, the Gospel selection chosen in the lectionary at first glance seems a hodge-podge of events and sayings. But there is an intrinsic unity that argues for interpreting the verses from 51 through 62 as a coherent pericope, exactly as the lectionary has it. This unity, however, does not show forth so clearly in the New American translation - hence my wincing.
The first section of this passage is about Christ's determination to set out on his journey to Jerusalem, where he will undergo his passion. Immediately following this, we are told that Jesus is rejected by a Samaritan village, and that Christ rebukes the indignation of his followers. Luke deliberately chooses these events to show Christ's resolution to become the Suffering Servant, and to foreshadow his rejection by his own people. Finally, we have several sayings on discipleship which, placed into the context of this foreboding doom, take on a much weightier significance. Discipleship means rejection by the world (v. 58); it means an eschatological worldview of mortification and attentiveness to the last things of man (v. 60); and it means unwavering and unswerving commitment (v. 62). This last condition, encapsulated in the saying, "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God," is a literary recapitulation of the idiom with which Luke begins the passage: Jesus "sets his face" toward Jerusalem. He looks toward the city of destiny, and he never looks back. Luke displays Christ first exemplifying the words he is about to preach. As Jesus looks toward his trial in Jerusalem, so the disciple must not look to what is left behind once having determined to follow in Christ's path.
Discipleship begins with baptism. Now, the infant baptism ritual can be a very tidy and sanitary affair. Pretty white dresses, adorned with lace; pictures; the inevitable tiresome jokes from the minister about the baby's reaction to the water, like it's something the parents haven't seen at every bath-time: all of this can make us lose sight of the terrible magnitude of this sacrament. Dying with Christ, and rising to new life with him: yet not so early the final rising to glory, but rather rising to the life of discipleship, to the toilsome weight of a lifelong cross. Easy and light though his yoke and burden are with grace to help us, this is no mean undertaking. A child is marked on that day with the sign of the cross: he is marked for execution, for rejection by the world and for a sign that he will have no stake in its pleasures; he is marked like a criminal to be hunted by the world, the flesh, and the devil until an hour not of his choosing, when his fugation should end.
No, discipleship isn't easy. And if we find that, for us, it is - then, maybe this week's Gospel calls us to consider how firmly our face is set toward our final destination, whether we ever swerve in the plowing of our furrow for the Lord's great harvest.
There are many roots in the way of our plow, roots cast up by the seeds of sin and ignorance. Everyday the news reveals how much more the world has been overgrown with the destructive weeds of modernity, and if we do not feel our work getting harder with each sunrise, that might be a sign to us that we're not going about it with enough vigor.
I remember hearing once that ancient Christian art used to represent the plow as a Cross. It's an interesting carrying on of the Old Testament prophecy that words and sheilds should, in the Messianic age, be beaten into hooks and plowshares. It gives an added depth to the fact of the Cross being our only weapon in this world: a weapon by which to sow and reap rather than to maim and kill.
The harvest needs laborers. Elections coming up, the economy in shambles, social justice being compromised each day for money or power or just plain lazyness: plenty of soil that needs to be upturned; plenty of roots in the way. We have, of course, just the tool for the job. But how well do we use it?