A few years ago in church, the gospel text for the week was taken from Luke 9:57-62 (“The cost of following Jesus”). In the concluding line of this text, Jesus says, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”

Despite the fact that biblical references to agriculture always interest me, I never gave much thought to this particular verse until the pastor explained it.

On this day in church, the pastor was a visitor who originally hailed from the hills of Tennessee. As such, he knew a lot of old-time farmers who grew up plowing with horses or mules. In talking with these veteran farmers, he learned that when plowing with animals, they tend to plow where you look. If your attention is drawn to the left, you unconsciously direct your mules or horses to the left. If your attention is drawn to the right, you plow to the right.

“So how,” asked the pastor of one of these farmers, “do you plow in a straight line?”

“You fix your eyes on a distant spot in front of you,” the farmer replied, “and don’t look to the side. As long as you stare straight ahead, you’ll plow a straight line.”

Plowing contest

And this, the pastor explained, is what the parable means. If you allow your attention to be diverted from the cross in front of you, you’ll diverge to the left or to the right, anywhere but straight ahead. You’ll be distracted by the diversions of this world. You’ll miss the cross.

In today’s upside-down culture, we think we can look anywhere we want and yet expect our lives to be plowed in a straight path. We don’t think keeping our eyes on the prize should make any difference. Clearly, this logic is not working.

God never wanted us to travel in directionless paths. Life is so much simpler when we plow in a straight line and keep our eyes on the prize. But he gave us free will to do whatever we want.

Every sin to which mankind falls prey can be attributed to taking our eyes off the prize. Some people never see the prize and don’t know the wonder that can come from attaining it. Some people think the “prize” is so distant that they don’t have to worry about it now. Or maybe they think the prize is a mirage and isn’t really there. Or maybe they think that hey, a little side trip here and there off the straight furrow is no big deal; they can always straighten up later. Some people can; but others sink into habits or vices that are hard to escape, and others make such big mistakes that it changes their life (for the bad) forever.

It’s so much simpler, in the end, to fix our eyes on the prize and plow a straight line. If we take our hand off the plow, we may find ourselves not fit for service in the kingdom of God. I don’t know about you, but that’s not a prize I’d care to lose.

One of my favorite parables is that of the vineyard workers (Matthew 20:1-16), because it shows the extent of God’s mercy and generosity. Essentially, it says 11th-hour converts will receive the same reward as those who have been faithful all their lives. The clearest example of this is the thief on the cross who rebuked the other thief for mocking Jesus, then humbly asked to be remembered when Jesus came into his kingdom.

In explaining this parable to our daughters when they were younger, one of them logically asked, “Then why bother being faithful all your life? Why not just wait until the last minute if the reward is the same?”

I replied that a) no one has any idea when that “last minute” will be; and b) even though the reward might be the same, you still have to live an earthly existence – so isn’t it better to lead a clean, wholesome and respectable life and avoid the heartache poor choices and actions can lead to? The thief hanging next to Jesus (presumably) led a rotten life. It’s easier to make good choices, not bad, because your earthly existence is calmer and more peaceful (a true Jeremiah 6:16 moment).

An Internet meme I once saw went like this:

  • If you never felt pain, then how would you know I am a Healer?
  • If you never had to pray, how would you know I am a Deliverer?
  • If you never had a trial, how could you call yourself an overcomer?
  • If you never felt sadness, how would you know that I am a Comforter?
  • If you never made a mistake, how would you know that I am a Forgiver?
  • If you knew all, how would you know that I will answer your questions?
  • If you never were in trouble, how would you know that I will come to your rescue?
  • If you never were broken, then how would you know that I can make you whole?
  • If you never had a problem, how would you know that I can solve them?
  • If you never had any suffering, then how would you know what I went through?
  • If you never went through the fire, then how would you become pure?
  • If I gave you all things, how would you appreciate them?
  • If I never corrected you, how would you know that I love you?
  • If you had all power, then how would you learn to depend on me?
  • If your life was perfect, then what would you need me for?

God gave us free will. He doesn’t force us toward His ways. We can keep our eyes anywhere but straight ahead. We can put our hands anywhere but the plow. We’re free to live as rotten a life as we want. We are free to kick Him aside and never listen to Him. We are free to choose our own morals and abide by a code of conduct that drags our spirits and our bodies through hell. It’s all up to us.

God is generous with His rewards, but we can’t expect reward for our slothfulness, our hedonism, or our poor decisions and actions. If we live our lives by our own standards according to our feeeeelings and emotions, we’re not working in the vineyard. We won’t get rewarded, not even if the minimum wage is raised to an unearned $15 an hour. This applies across the board, even to those who call themselves Christians.

Just some thoughts as we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus this weekend.

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