61 And another also said, Lord, I will follow thee; but let me first go bid them farewell, which are at home at my house.
62 And Jesus said unto him, No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God. (Luke 9:61-62)
Jesus’s words here seem unexpectedly harsh in response to someone who just wants to say goodbye to family before leaving to follow Jesus. Thus, it is a good bet there is a principle He is explaining that we don’t quite understand.
These verses come in a context of others who are declaring they’d like to follow Jesus and they are taught different things about the commitment required, like “The son of man doesn’t have a place to lay his head” and “Follow me, and let the dead bury their dead.”
The person in these verses wanted a chance to say goodbye to family, which seems harmless, if we assume that he had a good family who wanted the best for him and who were faithful themselves.
But what if his family were not good people? What if they were a major obstacle to this man in following Jesus? In such a case, it would be better for him to separate himself and not return, since by going back even once would put himself under much negative pressure to renounce following Christ. By asking to return to this family to say farewell, the man was certainly demonstrating his reluctance to separate himself from them. It showed he wasn’t completely convinced that his sacrifice would bring him much greater blessings than those he enjoyed with his family.
Jesus taught a great principle in response. “No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.” Just like plowing is work, it takes a lot of work to be a disciple of Christ. To look back is to wish one didn’t have to plough or to look back at one’s comfortable house and bed. It is the equivalent of looking back with a sense of sorrow that one has to leave at all. And yearning for past sins definitely makes us unfit for the kingdom of God. To yearn for past sins and past dear associations that are nevertheless bad influences is as if one had never converted in the first place. It means one has not really changed their heart and has only changed their behavior. The kingdom of God is always an improvement over sin, not a step backward.
Some converts to the church have literally had to separate themselves from their families, and thereby they have demonstrated great bravery, but not all have, and I think there are other ways of applying this story to us.
Maybe we haven’t had to leave family to convert and stay faithful, but we have to leave behind all our bad habits and false traditions and our favorite little sins. When we are called upon to repent, do we find ourselves wanting to “say goodbye” to those sins we feel especially attached to with a final binge before we take up the cross of discipleship?