As Jesus turns towards Jerusalem and begins to plough his furrow in that direction, he says to his would-be followers:
No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God.
One of the hardest things for Christians to grasp is what kind of leader it is that we follow. In spite of all that we might know about Jesus, in spite of the length of time we have spend doing our best to follow, we may not have fully understood what kind of leadership Jesus offers. Put simply, seen in conventional terms, Jesus is a failure. No matter how many times we read the story we often overlook what is actually there. Jesus, for the most part, by the majority, and certainly by those of power and influence, was rejected. Jesus himself simply didn’t convince most people of who he was or of what he was speaking. Or if he did convince them, if they did understand what he was about, people didn’t want what Jesus offering. We short circuit our understanding of the Gospel account and too often cut straight to the happy ending, the resurrection. That is the place where our pride can remain intact, because it turns out we have been on the winning side after all. It is where we are proved right. It is where the world and its rejection of Jesus and his message is proved wrong. And it is where we are able to thumb are noses at the world as say “. . .told you so!” Yet if we do this we completely misconstrue the nature of Jesus’ leadership. And we also deform our expectations of discipleship.
As a rule, of course, the world loves success. And successful leaders gather a following. It is certainly so in politics, Leaders who are deemed to be successful, in managing their parties, in handling public perceptions, in achieving their objectives and even keeping their promises, leaders like that tend to win elections. And “unsuccessful” leaders who can’t do those things are, usually, very quickly out of a job. Or perhaps most dramatically of all, in football management, success is everything. While the team is winning, the fans cheer and the board is satisfied But fans and boards quickly turn against managers who aren’t producing results.
Leaders who succeed gather a following. Whereas leaders who fail quickly see their following evaporate. Napoleon after his defeat at the battle of Waterloo simply could not raise another army in France to fight on, his leadership had failed and there was no one was left willing to follow him.
Because of this, because we see leadership and success in these terms, the apparent rejection and failure of the Church and the Christian message in the current age leaves us uneasy. As the leading role of the Church in our society appears to fail we begin to worry. “Maybe the end of the story isn’t true.” Our anxieties rise. “Perhaps we were mistaken.” Our self-doubt grows. “Maybe they’re right and we’re wrong.” We begin to slide towards a crisis of confidence. “After all the 80% who never come to Church can’t be wrong, can they?” We worry because we have misread the Bible. It was ever thus, even for Jesus! As he sets his face toward Jerusalem, as the drama of his life is drawing towards its climax, Jesus sends messengers ahead of him, to get things ready. They come to a Samaritan town:
On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him.
And despite who we know Jesus to be, despite what we know his mission is, that Samaritan town wants nothing to do with him! There is no getting away from it. The message of the Gospel is the message of rejection and the cross. It is surely not a coincidence that at the very point that Jesus turns toward his final destination he meets with rejection. We cannot fail to be reminded at the mention of Jerusalem what it is that waits for him there!
One of the features of “successful” leadership is often that ends justify means. Where success is all that really matters, how that success is achieved becomes relatively unimportant. If a good thing needs doing it doesn’t matter how it is done, just so long as it is done. The disciples think if the can’t persuade they can at least punish, they ask:
Lord – do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them.
“That would show them.” Success on the disciples’ terms would be the removal of opposition, by all means necessary. “Then they’d know who’s right and who’s wrong.” The way the disciples would have it there would be no one left in disagreement. “We’d get no trouble from any more towns between here and Jerusalem.”
Because we have misunderstood the Gospel and its relationship to the world we become indignant when the world mostly rejects it. We tend to become strident, we are assertive of the truth We don’t have to think too hard to conjure in our minds what are the consequences in the world of those who think they have a duty to defend God’s honour by any means available! We could begin with the crusades, and follow through with witch burnings, to the torture and execution of heretics on both sides in the reformation, and wind up with hijackers, suicide bombers, and still have plenty left over! And this would be to say nothing of those who might manipulate or even subvert political systems to get what they think God wants, or at least to get their own way. Of course we would never call down fire from heaven.
But we might still be rather too keen to be proved right! “Jesus was raised! He is the Son of God, and you had better listen.”
Neatly, we ignore all that comes before that final vindication. Because we want to follow a leader who is a success. And we’ll use any means to prove it.
Jesus though pushes all of that aside. He rejects the use of any coercion. He rejects all forms of triumphalism. Instead he reminds his followers what kind of leader he is:
Foxes have holes, birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.
We are following a leader who has no place in this world. The road to Jerusalem in not an expedition of conquest. The disciples do not sweep all the world before them like a victorious army. But just as soon as we are reminded of Jesus’ destination we are also given his call to discipleship. Jesus is going to Jerusalem. We mustn’t forget that a cross waits for him there first. We must take up our cross and follow him. Despite the fact that Jesus as a leader is an apparent failure, in the world’s terms, he gives us the most radical call to discipleship. Leave behind everything that hinders your following. Become homeless like him. Reject even those good things for which you are responsible; the funeral of a father:
Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.
or taking time even to say farewell to loved ones:
No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.
And he calls us to go where he is going, all the while knowing that it doesn’t lead to success, but to rejection and the cross. It is just not as easy being a Christian as we would like to make it.
On the other hand what choice do we have. Though we can’t short circuit the message we do know what lies on the other side of the cross. We do live in the knowledge of that final vindication of Christ. There is then no reason to look back and wonder. There is no reason for us to hesitate, or think there might be a better or different way. We can follow and accept that such following will entail rejection and what the world calls failure. But Jesus offered no other means to witness to the truth and no other way to live in relation with him. And we should take not other means, than following him with a single mindedness that fits the glory of God. Jesus’ call is that we should put our hand to the plough, not look back, and thus be fit for God’s kingdom.
Jesus: Rejected Leadership by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0