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This is the third response of Jesus to a would-be disciple: Luke has brought the three together into one context. There is no parallel to this response in Matthew's record, as there is to its two predecessors.
"I will follow you, Lord," said this man, "but let me first say farewell to those at my home" (RSV). The words "I will follow you, but . . ." have served as the text for many a powerful sermon, but in the present instance the "but" was not unreasonable and could indeed claim a venerable precedent. Over eight hundred years before, the prophet Elijah was divinely commanded to enlist Elisha the son of Shaphat to be his colleague and successor. As Elijah went to do so, he found Elisha plowing with oxen. He said nothing, but threw his cloak over the young man as he passed. The young man knew immediately what the prophet's gesture meant, ran after him and said, "Let me kiss my father and mother good-by; . . . and then I will come with you." "Go back," Elijah replied. "What have I done to you?" But Elisha would not be put off; he knew that Elijah had called him to go with him but did not wish to put any pressure on him; the response to his gesture must be Elisha's spontaneous choice. So Elisha went back and not only said goodby to his father and mother, but made a sumptuous farewell feast for all who lived or worked on their family farm; he killed two oxen, cooked their flesh on a fire made with the wood of their yoke, and after he had entertained the people in this way he "set out to follow Elijah and became his attendant" (1 Kings 19:19-21).
Elijah was a very important person, outstandingly engaged in the service of the God of Israel, but he offered no objection to Elisha's taking time to bid his family and friends farewell in a suitable manner. But the business of the kingdom of God, on which Jesus was engaged, was much more urgent than Elijah's business and brooked no such delay. Once again it is evident that, in Jesus' reckoning, family ties must take second place to the kingdom which he proclaimed.
Jesus' reply, like the story of Elisha's call, has a reference to plowing, but this is probably coincidental. In any agricultural society we might expect a proverbial saying about the importance of looking straight ahead when one's hand has been put to the plow: the plowman who looks back will not drive a straight furrow. Jesus may well have adapted such a saying: the plowman who looks back is unfit for the king-dom of God. Here the plowman who looks back is the would-be disciple whose mind is still partly on the life he left to follow Jesus. The work of the kingdom of God requires singleness of purpose.
Sometimes a reference has been detected here to Lot's wife, whose backward look as she and her family fled from the destruction of Sodom was her undoing (Gen 19:26). This reference is unlikely in the present context. On another occasion Jesus did say, "Remember Lot's wife" (Lk 17:32), but that was when he was warning his hearers to flee from a future destruction comparable with that which overtook Sodom.