Dead Horses and Excuses
July 1, 2007
Luke 9:51-62 / Galatians 5:1, 13-18
Nine young marines received a weekend pass after their first month of boot camp. Because the camp was in a rural part of Georgia, they all needed to take the bus to the nearest city, which was some thirty miles away. On Monday morning at roll call, none of the nine were present as they should have been. About mid-morning the first marine straggled back into camp and was immediately brought to the Commander.
“I’m sorry to be late, Sir,” he said. “But I was on a date and I lost track of time and because of that I missed the last bus back to camp. I knew I needed to be here so I hailed a cab. But about halfway back the cab broke down. So I went to the nearest farmhouse and borrowed a horse. But after a few miles the horse lay down and died. So I walked the last five miles on foot. But here I am.”
Now the Commander was highly suspicious of this involved story. But the cadet was young, and this was his first offense. So he gave him a lecture on the importance of punctuality and sent him back to training. But throughout the day the Commander’s suspicion grew even more intense, because the next seven marines who returned all told him the exact same story. About sundown the ninth marine came into camp and was brought before the Commander. He started like all the rest.
“I was on a date . . . lost track of time . . . missed the bus . . . hailed a cab . . .”
“Wait a minute,” said the Commander. “You’re not going to tell me that that cab broke down are you?”
“Not at all, Sir,” he said. “The cab was fine. But it was unable to get through all the dead horses on the road.”
Our excuses are like dead horses on the road to life. They prevent us from moving forward to the place where God wants us to be. This truth explains Jesus’ peculiar remarks in today’s gospel. In the gospel Jesus is unwilling to accept any excuse: not going home to bury your father; not saying farewell to your family. No excuse is acceptable. Now we could be distracted by debating the reasonableness of Jesus’ stance. But this is not the point of the gospel. The gospel challenges us to admit that our excuses hold us back from the place God wants us to be.
Most of the time, we know exactly what we need to do. We understand to what God is calling us. But then the excuses begin. “I’m not ready yet.” “I’m too tired.” “I’m not worthy.” “I’m too afraid.” Those excuses, much like those in the gospel, might well seem reasonable. But they are nevertheless preventing us from moving forward. If we build our life around excuses, we will end up going nowhere.
So how do we move beyond excuses? Not on our own. It takes more than our effort to convince us that we are ready, that we are not too tired, that we are worthy, that we are no longer afraid. The only way we can move through and beyond our excuses is to turn to Christ and ask for help. The way forward is not by depending more on ourselves, but trusting in the God who loves us.
Saint Paul says it beautifully in today’s second reading. “For freedom, Christ has set you free.” Paul is telling us that God loves us. If we claim that love, if we believe that God is with us, we can find the freedom to move through our excuses. We can be freed from our weakness, from our lethargy, from our unworthiness, from our fear. With Christ’s help we can find the courage to speak the truth to our spouse or to our boss. We can find the energy to meet our responsibilities. We can build God’s Kingdom. With Christ’s grace we can begin, even though we are not sure how we will finish. We can minister to others, even when we know that we are far from perfect.
Today, Christ is calling us to himself. He asks us to move forward to deeper satisfaction and a fuller life. We can always come up with reasons not to move, to stay exactly where we are. That is why we need to believe in God’s love and let that love free us. Let us then claim God’s presence in our life. Let us believe in God’s love for us so that through that love we can find the freedom to do God’s will—without excuses.
The Plow Keeps Moving
June 27, 2010
Not many of us here are farmers. And the few of us who do some farming do so in a way that is very different from farming in the first century. But in Galilee at the time of Jesus, the hills were covered with many small farms, and Jesus uses his observation of farming techniques in his teaching. This is why we have so many agricultural images in the New Testament: the parable of the sower, the parable of the mustard seed, the parable of the weeds and the wheat. Jesus is always talking about planting and watering and harvesting. In today’s gospel he uses the image of plowing. Now most of us who have seen old movies understand how plowing worked in earlier eras. The plow is connected to a horse or a cow, which pulled it forward, and it was the responsibility of the farmer to guide it along. The purpose of the plow was to turn over the hardened earth so that seed could be planted in the newly broken soil. The farmer needed to be attentive, because he directed the plow, and the straighter the rows were and the closer they were to one another, the more productive the field would be.
Knowing this, Jesus uses the example of plowing to talk about discipleship. He says, “Whoever puts a hand to the plow and looks back is not fit for the kingdom of God.” What Jesus is telling us is that, as his disciples, we must not look back. We must not look back at past mistakes or failures. Jesus says this because he knows that looking back will not only distract us, but possibly harm us. If we keep looking back to the past, we can damage our present and our future. Just as a farmer who keeps looking back on the row he has just plowed endangers the straightness and the usefulness of the row he is plowing now, Jesus knows that if we look back, worrying about the past, it can harm us.
We all have to admit that it is difficult not to look back, because our past mistakes and failures follow us. We regret previous relationships, perhaps even previous marriages that came to an end. We wish that we had one more chance to follow an opportunity that slipped through our fingers. We feel guilty about the way that we have hurt people or the things that we have said or the responsibilities that we have ignored. So we keep looking back, picking on the scabs of old mistakes, looking and lamenting over the failures that still haunt us.
But Jesus tells us that this is no way to enter the kingdom of God. Because the good news is this: the plow is still moving forward, and it needs our attention. We cannot direct it, if we are looking backwards. We must face forward and guide it.
Perhaps you realize now that you should have done some things differently when you raised your children. You can see the harm that still exists in the mistakes that you made. Okay. But don’t look back. Give your attention to sharing your wisdom and love with your grandchildren and with others in your life today. Perhaps you realize how you have harmed others through selfishness or the abuse of alcohol or drugs. Okay. But don’t look back. Recommit yourself to live in such a way that you foster generosity and sobriety. Perhaps you keep lamenting and wish that you had one more chance to make a relationship work, to take a job that was offered. Okay. But don’t look back. Give your attention to loving and working to the best of your abilities today.
The plow is moving forward. It continues to turn over new earth and new opportunities. Our life is to be found in those new possibilities. Looking back will only distract us. Give attention to the new earth that is being overturned today. It is there that you will find God’s love and your joy. That is why anyone who looks back is not fit for the kingdom of God.