Tilling the Kingdom of God
"No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God."
Up until the day I entered the monastery I lived in a rural part of Massachusetts. Although my family didn't have a farm we were surrounded by farmers including a men's and women's monastery, both who had farms. The Sisters also ran the school I attended so it wasn't uncommon for my sister and me and school friends to volunteer on the Sisters' farm, helping with the gardens, the farm animals and in the canning kitchen.
Without realizing it, my life was formed not only by the liturgical seasons but be the seasons of planting and harvesting. The second Sunday of May is Mother's Day but it was also the Apple Blossom Festival. June and August meant haying with the chug-chug sound of the mower and the baler. June also meant LOTS of strawberries. August meant the best and freshest corn for supper and the Fall meant potatoes, squash, the beauty of grain fields ready for harvest and fairs!
But today's Gospel always had me wondering. What did Jesus mean about turning back from the plow? It didn't make any sense because all the farmers around were ALWAYS tilling with their head craned to see the furrows behind them just like the farmer in the photo above! I remember as a child looking around at the adults all around me and no one seemed to have the problem I had so I never asked the question what Jesus meant by this when farmers OBVIOUSLY look behind them with their hand to the plow (read: tractor).
For two years I was a novice with this same congregation of sisters. I never ran the mowers or tractors. It was the hoe and shovel for me! One day my superior gave me an antique hand plow and demonstrated how to use it. She instructed me to go along the rows of lettuce so as to cultivate the soil and keep down the weeds.
Using a cultivator doesn't take much practice and soon I was pushing along, hitting my fair share of rocks that are part of New England soil. As I went along I turned around to admire my work. BUMP! The front wheel went into the lettuce. Better be more careful. I continued on and turned around again to admire my work. BUMP! It happened again.
Suddenly this line from today's Gospel illumined my mind. I realized what our Lord was saying! To plow well I needed to keep my eyes looking ahead of me. If I didn't I went off course.
It's the same thing with our spiritual lives. As we putter along trying to respond to grace and to grow in virtue we are tempted to look back. Sometimes we look back because we want to wallow in pity and discouragement over the times we failed. Other times we want to look back to relish again the gifts of grace God has given us or even to "admire" our own virtue. (Of course, we don't say that publicly and most of the time don't even admit to ourselves.) But "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever" and He wants to us to keep our eyes fixed on Him, our goal. No looking back, just looking ahead to our final goal, eternal life with Him forever.
That little plow taught me a lot that day and so every time I hear this Gospel I remember that moment of grace with gratitude.
By the way, you can still get this sort of cultivator. A mantis is the gas powered version (which are no fun and can be hard to use on rocky soil). A hand cultivator can be easier for some people without a lot muscle and they are a lot more quiet!