No Turning Back

No turning back
No turning back
I'm moving on
Not looking back

--Christian Hymn

So there I am minding my own business, when this guy comes along I never laid eyes on before. Out of the blue he says, “Follow me,” just like that. Do I follow? Where? This is the scenario that unfolds in the early chapters of the Gospel of Matthew (as well as the Gospel of Mark) when Jesus is recruiting his disciples. Jesus just walks up to perfect strangers and says, “Follow me.” His first recruits are brothers Peter and Andrew, who are fishermen. He tells them, “I will make you fishers of men.” Now comes the kicker. Peter and Andrew and the other disciples immediately drop their nets, or whatever else they are occupied with at the time, and follow him.

Would I do the same, even knowing who Jesus was? I often ask myself this question when I read these passages. Of course, knowing who Jesus was also means you know things end badly for him — and not just for Jesus but also for many of those who followed him. But, even leaving all that aside, would I abandon wife and family and everything else in my life up to that point? For what?

A spiritual journey begins with a call: in this case, “Follow me” -- take it or leave it. Jesus was an itinerant preacher, so there was no answer to the question, “Where?” As he explained to one would-be follower, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man [meaning himself] has nowhere to lay his head.” To another disciple who asked leave to bury his father, Jesus replied, “…let the dead bury their own dead." Jesus’ disciples were expected to travel light. "Take nothing for your journey,” he told them, “no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic.” They were expected to live off the land.

The Hebrew slaves who followed Moses into the wilderness to escape bondage in Egypt were likewise expected to live off the land — and they didn’t like it one bit. There were some 600,000 men, plus women and children, wandering around in the wilderness with no food or water. They made it abundantly clear they would rather be back in Egypt, eating regularly and worshiping other gods. The Lord heeded their grumbling and caused manna to fall from the sky so they could eat. Still, they were not satisfied. “We detest this miserable food,” they cried. When Moses sent spies to scout out the land of Canaan, they returned bearing fearful reports of the opposition they faced. The Lord condemned the Hebrew people to wander for 40 more years in the wilderness until the naysayers had all died off.

The ultimate destination of a spiritual journey is variously identified as the Promised Land, the Kingdom of God, paradise, nirvana and a host of other names. With Adam and Eve, their starting point and destination are the same, and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden marks the beginning of their journey. Even here, there is no choice thereafter except to move forward. The Lord has assigned angels armed with flaming swords to guard the way in case you are ever tempted to turn back. As perilous as the journey ahead might appear, the way back forces a metaphorical reckoning with menacing angels, slavery or other threats to spiritual equanimity.

I sometimes wonder what makes Jesus’ disciples so special. They are invariably depicted in old paintings with halos around their heads. But judging by their actions in the gospel accounts, including abandoning Jesus altogether in his hour of greatest peril, they strike me as a pretty ordinary bunch. The only thing that seems to set them apart is their willingness to drop everything and follow Jesus when he called. And they mostly stuck with him through thick and thin (apart from that temporary lapse at the end).

The same could not be said the rich young man who asked Jesus what good deed he must do to inherit eternal life. He no doubt imagined himself to be on some sort of spiritual quest. Playing along, Jesus advised him to keep the commandments. "All these I have observed,” the young man proudly replied, “what do I still lack?" Since he seemed to think he was still lacking in something, Jesus zeroed in on the one thing the young man was not prepared to do. "If you would be perfect,” Jesus told him, “go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me."

By all outward appearances, the rich young man was far more qualified to be one of Jesus’ disciples than the ragtag crew that actually went around with him. Jesus had correctly discerned that the young man was more interested in being perfect than in finding eternal life. The gospel account notes that the young man “went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions.” Jesus’ disciples were astonished. If someone as worthy as this young man failed to measure up, who then could be saved? "With men this is impossible,” Jesus replied, “but with God all things are possible.” It was impossible because the young man insisted on going his own way. Had he been willing to follow without turning back, it might have been another story.

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