If the bible had not indicated that Jesus was a carpenter, we might well be forgiven for thinking that, before meeting John at the riverside at the start of his short ministry, He was a farmer or at least a market gardener. Often he uses parables and metaphors drawn from the processes of growing food or other plants. Think of the parable of the sower, the imagery of the vine, to which we are grafted as branches, the mustard seed or the unfortunate fig tree on the road to Jerusalem. He speaks of judging the weather from signs in the sky and the merits of hired labour looking after the flocks against a true shepherd who is a stakeholder in the farm business.
Jesus was, then, no stranger to an existence centred on agricultural principles, and indeed it is not so surprising that he should seem so knowledgeable about farming customs. In those days the people of the entire village would join together at times like seedtime and harvest sharing a way of life and playing their part in helping the farmers, the professionals, with manual tasks now taken over by machine and advancing technology. As a carpenter, perhaps he may even have made the ploughs, pulled by oxen, making them strong and true so that they could dig a straight furrow, preparing the earth to receive its seed. Nowadays we have become so specialised, with little understanding of each otherís views or experience of each otherís livelihood, interests or way of life. We are in danger of losing sight of our common humanity. We cease to think of other people as living and breathing, thinking and feeling as we do, and instead of co-operating to support each other in a common livelihood, profits become central in importance, the workforce is downsized and human resources become expendable.
In the reading from Isaiah, (28.23-29) we hear of the dedication and thoroughness of someone who does his job properly. He goes out to prepare the ground for the planting of seed. He continually opens and harrows the ground until he has a level and receptive surface. Then he chooses which part of the land he has prepared is suited to which seed. Wheat, the main bread-producing crop, would take the open field. Other seeds would be planted on the margins of the field, each in conditions best suited to support the germinating seed. Seed that preferred shade, or brighter conditions would be planted appropriately. Smelt, mentioned in this passage was a seed found in the tombs of the Ancient Egyptians, which grows well in poorer and drier soil than its cousin, wheat. And Isaiah tells us the ploughman's skills were taught to him by God.
As Christians we also are in the business of ploughing. And just as God teaches the ploughman his craft, showing him how to treat different seeds in different ways, he calls us to spread and nurture his seeds in the people who surround us. The seeds we care for must be sown in receptive soil. Soil that must be prepared carefully so that it can best nourish that growing seedling of faith. The crop to be reaped at harvest time is our greatest hope, and a powerful motivation, nothing less than the establishment of God's kingdom on earth, making our world a place where righteousness is at home and people live in love and peaceful brotherhood with each other.
Just as the different parts of the land the ploughman prepares are widely variant in form, requiring judgement of how best to cultivate, and what to plant, so the people that surround us in our daily lives are also widely variant in personality, understanding and in their hopes and dreams. The diversity of our ecumenical make up, with so many denominations of Christian is to be celebrated in that between us all we have the capability of encouraging the interest of many different groups of people, the traditionalist, the evangelist, the young, the elderly, people from all walks of life. Even so in playing our part in ploughing for God's Kingdom we, like the ploughman, must be aware of the differing needs and personalities of those that make up the ground we are called to prepare. In gaining their interest we are ploughing for God, preparing the ground for them to accept the seed for themselves and decide to follow the teaching of Jesus, accepting Him in their lives.
In Luke's Gospel we hear of Jesus using ploughing as a metaphor for following Him. "Anyone who puts his hands to the plough and turns back is not worthy of the kingdom of God". Ploughing a single furrow at a time with the help of a well-trained horse requires total concentration. Often, with both hands on the handles of the plough the animal would be steered by reins looped round the ploughmanís neck. By raising his head the skilful ploughman slowed the horse. Turning his head to the left would cause the horse to steer to the left, and likewise to the right. Not only that, but if the furrow was to be straight then the ploughman must fix his eyes on a distant point, something to aim at, to keep the line straight and true. I'm sure you've all heard the tale of the ploughman's apprentice, left with that very advice, whilst the ploughman went about other business. On his return he saw that the poor apprentice had made a dreadful mess of the field, with lines going in all directions like a child scribbling on paper.
ďI thought I told you to fix your eyes on a point over there?" the ploughman scolded.
"I did sir!" replied the apprentice. "I watched our old cow Daisy in the next field!"
The business of ploughing for God is the same. We need to keep our eyes on a true and fixed point, the life and example of our Lord, and not be distracted by the many more worldly influences that affect the day to day running of our churches. We need to plough according to the ground we find, valuing the enthusiasm and energy of our youth, whilst respecting the tradition and devotion of the elderly. And we must be prepared to put aside our worries and other concerns to give ourselves wholeheartedly to the task of working for the kingdom of God.
Jesus seems very harsh in his dealing with those who wanted to follow him in our Gospel reading. In talking about the foxís hole and the birdís nest he was saying that once you decide to follow Him, and work for his kingdom there can be no rest, there is nowhere to hide. You can't just be a Christian in Church on Sundays, it must be clear to all around you at work, at the pub, wherever people know you that Christ is in the centre of your life. It will be hard. People will laugh, but the prize will be worth the pain.
And then a second man asked to 'bury his father' before he would follow. The translation here might suggest that the father mentioned was not yet dead. Matthew Henry's commentary suggests that the man was nursing an aged parent, and was not ready to consider a religious calling until his earthly duties were done. How many of us perhaps allow the burden of our care of others to excuse us from efforts to find out more of what Jesus has planned for us. Surely the man would have made a far better carer for his father with the strength of the Holy Spirit inside him.
And then the man to whom Jesus spoke of the plough. "Let me first go and say goodbye to my family and the people at home." He thought that leaving everyone behind in order to follow Jesus was the right thing to do. But why should following Jesus mean that you should say goodbye to all your friends. As Christians if people are truly our friends then it must be our hope that they also should share in the eventual coming of God's kingdom. Leaving his friends and attachments behind him would mean that he always had something to look back to. Something to cause his mind to wander away from the task he was entrusted with, a feeling of regret and guilt that would fight with his resolve to follow Jesus.
God needs us as ploughmen of his Kingdom. He needs us to spread his word, preparing the ground to receive the seeds of faith in him that will germinate and grow into his Kingdom. If the people around us see us veering to right and left, not seeming to have a focus that gives direction to our own faith then they will continue to say of us. 'Those church goers, they say one thing in church and then go and do the opposite.' People judge us by our actions, or our fruits. Matthew tells us of another of Jesus' sayings about growing things. "Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles?" (7.16) Without the trust built up when people see that we are prepared to live in the way we are called to by our Lord the ground will be ill prepared for God to reach their minds and hearts. But by keeping our eyes on the fixed point that is the life and example of Christ, and doing our best to plough a straight furrow with his help then we can really play our part in bringing his Kingdom closer