“Never Look Back”
Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Someone once said, “I don’t want to live in the past, but it is nice to visit for a while.” Memories are like that: places we can go for comfort, instruction and renewal. It is tragic when, as we age, more and more of those precious memories slip away. But while we have them, memories are there for us to draw upon like water from a well.
Memory was a vital part of Israel’s corporate life and worship. God warned them of the danger of forgetting where they came from (Deut. 4:9, 23; 6:12; 8:11, 14, 19; 9:7, etc.). To prevent this, God designed Israel's worship to reenact the past through symbolic festivals, rituals, and sacrifices as a way to keep those memories alive. Sadly, all it took was one generation after Israel entered the Promised Land to forget their heritage and plunge the nation into ruin (Jdg. 2:10-11).
Memory is a necessary tool for us, so long as we are looking back at the right things in the right way. Like Israel, the people of God today are called to remember their past (Eph. 2:11-12) through retelling the story of their deliverance and taking part in symbolic actions like eating the Lord's Supper (1 Cor. 11:26).
But memories can also be poisoned and hinder our faith. For example, suffering in the present has a way of altering our memory of the past (Num. 11:4-6; cf. Ex. 14:11-12). This kind of mental distortion can even warp our minds enough to lure us back into old destructive habits that lead us away from God (Heb. 3-4; 2 Pet. 2:22).
Or we may be seduced into creating versions of the past that never existed. The Preacher exhorts those of us prone to creating these fantasy memories, "Say not, "Why were the former days better than these?" For it is not from wisdom that you ask this." (Ecc. 7:10) Contrary to the opinion of many, the past was not altogether better than the present. All it takes is reading the Bible, the newest documents of which are some 2,000 years old, to see that despite many advancements people haven't really changed much.
Even if our memories are clear and accurate we can grow so fond of the past that we begin to mentally “live” in the past at the expense of our future. But faith requires us to look to things “hoped for” in the future (Heb. 11:1). Faith, by its nature, is forward thinking and is therefore forward acting. We live in accordance with the "new" person that Jesus has created in us through his resurrection (Col. 3:10; Eph. 4:24). We are meant to live resurrected lives in anticipation of our bright future (Rom. 6:3-4). In Jesus' resurrection and ascension God's glorious future has come rushing right into the present so that we may taste the "powers of the age to come" (Heb. 6:5).
In the gospel which announces God's heavenly reign come down to earth we are invited to live as part of that kingdom (Mt. 28:18-20). Even though God's reign is currently contested (Heb. 2:6-8) we live in view of his victory over death experiencing all the spiritual blessings of that victory here and now (Jn. 5:24; Eph. 1:3). Yes, even though things aren't perfect now, we dare to live in “hope” for a brighter future where death will be no more (Rom. 5:3-5; 8:24-25).
Remember Lot’s wife who, after escaping from the destruction of Sodom toward God’s salvation, “looked back” and was destroyed (Gen. 19:26). We cannot afford to be like her - frozen in the act of looking backwards. An unhealthy fixation on the past will immobilize us in the present and cost us our future.
Our Lord demands this kind of single-minded, forward-looking devotion: “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Lk. 9:62) When it comes to our commitment to Jesus, we never forget our past but we must also confidently progress toward our future with our eyes fixed on him.