I am generally pretty good at starting things. My problem is in finishing them. I invariably begin new projects with great enthusiasm but too soon my interest wanes. Thus, I am somewhat dismayed when I hear of Jesus’ admonition that once you place your hand on the plough, you need to keep it there. No stopping or turning back. One goes on and on until finished. At best it sounds like an endless duty, at worst, a joyless obligation. Who doesn’t want a break now and then?
Taken at one level, this might be true, but if we go deeper, as Jesus always invites us to do, there is a wisdom that touches our everyday lives. The command to “Keep our hand on the plough” is really an invitation to stay the course in being true to our deepest selves.
I thought of this while listening to a political radio show a few months ago. Broadcast just prior to the Canadian federal election, it featured a panel of experts discussing a notable change of party policy taken by the leader of a major party. There was a great deal of cynicism about the leader’s motives, with most of the panel charging political expediency as the driving force for the change. The host asked whether such “flip flops” in a party’s position were generally a matter of “getting on the bandwagon of public opinion,” and thus insincere and self-serving, or whether they could be a true sign of authentic growth and wisdom.
One panelist responded that it is not necessarily wise to hold anyone rigidly to a “party line.” On the contrary, it is good to be able to change one’s mind: inflexibility is generally not deemed to be a virtue.
However, she cautioned about what she labelled “flip-flopping” in one’s thinking, i.e., simply switching because of expediency. The way to judge whether a change of either mind or heart was sincere or merely expedient, she advised, was to consider whether or not the new position was in line with one’s core values. Does the new way, she asked, lead you to be more deeply in line with what you truly believe, and is therefore most likely a true growth in maturity, or does it go against what you stand for and therefore not authentic?
It is in this context that Jesus’ commandment to hang on to that plough handle makes sense. When we consciously choose something because we believe in it, when we put our hands to a particular plough, we are committing to something that reflects the deep truth and reality of who we are. To the extent that our choice is authentic, if we turn back from it, we are betraying our own best selves. Furthermore, this is something we live every day.
A simple example is something as minor as an exercise program. Perhaps your New Year’s resolutions involved, as mine always do, getting to the gym more often. Ideally, we choose to do so based on some core values we hold: a belief in the necessity of taking care of our bodies; our commitment to good health; our desire for more energy. Putting our hand to the plough, we sign up for a gym membership. We start strong, but as the weeks go by and our energy wanes, we regret signing up. We start skipping our workout times: we take our hands from the plough. In doing so, however, we are betraying our own chosen values.
A more complex example involves relationships. A young man I know, his marriage at stake, fortunately learned what it meant to keep his hand on the plough. In the first years of marriage, while deeply in love with his wife and seemingly happy to married, he was also reluctant to forgo some of the routines of the single life. He frequently spent Saturday nights with his buddies, occasionally pulling an “all-nighter.”
His wife tried to understand but there were arguments. The issue simmered for a few years but grew into a huge problem once they had children and the “boys’ nights out” increasingly interfered with the entire family’s routines and needs. The marriage came close to breakdown before the husband finally recognized who he really was and where he really wanted to be. He recommitted to his wife and children and ceased trying to be “one of the guys.” He put his hand back to the plough and in doing so, was true to his own deepest desires.
We put our hands to the plough in many ways. It might be as a priest or a religious sister or brother in service to the church. It might be as a spouse and parent, committed to giving ourselves over to our partner and children. Baptized disciples put their hands to building the kingdom. And even as these choices reflect our deepest desires, there are times when we grow tired, frustrated and lackluster. We long for the days prior to our commitments when we felt carefree and unburdened. But whether it is the gym, our marriages, our faith commitments, or anything else that reflects who we really are, it is here, when we are tempted to turn from our choices, that Jesus’ words come to strengthen us: Keep your hand to the plough. In doing so, we remain faithful to who we really long to be.
Prather, BEd, MTh, is a teacher and facilitator in the areas of faith and spirituality. She was executive director at Star of the North Retreat Centre in St. Albert, Alta., for 21 years and resides in Sherwood Park with her husband, Bob. They are blessed with four children and 10 grandchildren.