It’s amazing how simple stories can bear the strongest meaning. Jesus is known for the parables he shared. To 21st century westerners, they appear quaint, but full of wisdom. However, for 1st century agrarians, these stories connected them to the deep truths that they, in part, already knew.
The one that I most connected with while directing rice planting at The Charis Teaching Farm was less of a parable and more of a sentence: “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God.” I’ve understood the basic meaning of this for years. We see it at play when we do just about anything, from driving to running to managing a company. You need to keep your eye on the goal or you’ll veer. However, it came to life and took on more meaning in the rest of my life once I lived the example it offers.
On the beginning of the second day of rice planting, our largest field was still pretty thick with water. I wanted to finish that day if possible and send our workers home with a bonus for finishing early. The only solution I knew of was a simple one: dig ditches through the field so that water at the top of the field could drain to the bottom.
I grabbed a 20 lb clay pot with a rope attached and dropped down into the field with it. In mud up to my calves, I set my sites at one solitary citronella plant at the end of the field and started walking. Walking in a rice paddy is a very unique experience. The mud is cold and warm simultaneously, full of half-degraded organic matter. Your footing can fail at any moment making it difficult to walk straight. It takes time to accustom yourself to it.
I learned a lot from this process. I learned that Jesus was right, for starters. Whenever I took my eye off my goal, I began to veer and my line became crooked. Also, it took time to regain my bearings causing me to veer a little more.
I learned that plowing is difficult work. And let’s be honest, I wasn’t plowing. I was just dragging a large clay pot on the surface of semi-formed mud. While I was fairly winded at the end of my work, it was nothing compared to what our farm staff endured plowing and leveling the 2+ acres of land we planted that week.
But I think I may have discovered something for myself that I hadn’t seen before.
As I drew nearer my target, the plant on the other side of the field, it became more difficult to keep the line straight. And for good reason. The object I focused on was generally on the ground, which brought my head down as I neared it. When we look at our feet, it isn’t very easy to walk in a straight line. I needed something further on to look to as a goal.
After subsequent experiences of this, I began to set my sites on an object much further away, like a tree 1 km in the distance instead of the plant on the other side of the field. This helped even more. After a few more lines though, I could see that my work could benefit from some improvement.
That’s when I decided to marry the two foci and create a crosshair. I now had three points of reference in the process: myself, the object that represented my physical goal and the object that represented a theoretical/altruistic/moral goal. The job of making a straight line couldn’t be simpler. Line up my field of vision with the near and far objects and then walk.
This may not seem like groundbreaking information since it seems only adapted to plowing in a straight line (or shooting a gun). I think, however, that it helps to express what Jesus was saying and has far-reaching implications for how we make decisions. From the story I told, we see that we will be more successful if we set two goals: an ideal goal (the far object), a dream or vision for your life or world that embodies the pinnacle of your life’s effort; and a realistic goal (the near object), a measurable objective that you have the ability to accomplish in a set amount of time.
Jesus preached about the Kingdom of God as being here and not yet. So when he said that we need to keep our focus straightforward, I think he was telling us to focus on the current callings (feed the sick, be kind, speak the truth) and the eternal callings (break down corrupt governments, heal the land, abolish slavery, restore all relationships) simultaneously; here and not yet.
When we keep both the finite and the ideal in focus, it is easier to move forward. This applies to us all, no matter our spiritual or occupational leanings. I believe its implications have application in all realms of human activity, from spiritual to corporate to relational. We all want to make lasting impacts on the world. If we know our ultimate goal, and we allow that to inform our goals for next week or next month, then it’s easier to plot a course and stick to it, and some how realize our Good Life.