Lot's wife, Satchel Paige, and the Walking Dead: Sunday reflection

Wikimedia Commons.

This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 9:51–62:

When the days for Jesus’ being taken up were fulfilled, he resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem, and he sent messengers ahead of him. On the way they entered a Samaritan village to prepare for his reception there, but they would not welcome him because the destination of his journey was Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them?” Jesus turned and rebuked them, and they journeyed to another village.

As they were proceeding on their journey someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus answered him, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.” And to another he said, “Follow me.” But he replied, “Lord, let me go first and bury my father.” But he answered him, “Let the dead bury their dead. But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

And another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to my family at home.” To him Jesus said, “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Don’t look back — something may be gaining on you. — Satchel Paige

What did one of the greatest pitchers in history mean by this statement? According to the June 1953 Collier’s article in which this appeared in print, Paige meant it as advice for “how to stay young.” It works just as well as advice on how to succeed, and Paige likely did very little looking back over the course of his illustrious career. It speaks to commitment, if in a very humorous way — of keeping focus on the goal, the prize, and not allowing distractions, regrets, or old mistakes to derail you.

The tale of salvation is littered with similar wisdom, of course. Whenever the Lord offers His people a way to conquer sin and embrace eternal life in His presence, we stumble and fail, in many cases by looking backward and longing for what we should leave behind.

And what is it that we must leave behind that still calls us back? The very thing that exiled us in the first place.

One of the earliest examples of this comes from Lot’s wife. The Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah for their utter wickedness, as told to us in Genesis 19, but rescued Lot and his family for his righteousness and hospitality. Lot defended the two angels sent to deliver God’s judgment on Sodom, not knowing who they were but keeping them safe from the attackers who tried to beat down his door. The angels sent Lot, his wife, and two daughters fleeing from the destruction with the clear instruction not to look back. On the cusp of salvation at the town of Zoar, however, Lot’s wife turned and looked back — and was transformed into a pillar of salt.

We find a case that’s even more on point in Exodus 16. When the Lord called His people out of slavery, they initially rejoiced in their freedom, but later complained bitterly and looked back nostalgically for their condition in slavery (Exodus 16:2-3):

2 In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. 3 The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.”

Later, as we know from Exodus 32, Moses went up the mountain to receive the Law, but the Israelites grew impatient. Rather than wait for Moses, they looked back again to their slavery and built a golden calf as an Egyptian-style idol to worship.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus gives us two strong admonitions about looking back once we are on the path to salvation. He rebukes His disciples for suggesting that the Samaritan village be destroyed for it inhospitable response to His mission, and his later answers explain why. Those who do not follow the Lord’s path to salvation are already dead, and there is no need to look backwards at them or their choice. “Let the dead bury the dead,” Jesus instructs one young man, and tells another that looking backward rather than forward on this mission makes one unfit for salvation.

But why? Looking backward is in the figurative and spiritual sense a lack of commitment and purpose. It displays a yearning for the slavery of sin, just as the Israelites looked backward for the slavery of the Egyptians while suffering on their path to the Promised Land. We grow nostalgic for the slavery of sin not because we have a particular animus toward salvation, but because we yearn for the deadly delusion that we ourselves are God, or at least His equal. It is one of the many manifestations of original sin, which is that very arrogance that drove us from Eden in the first place.

When we look back, we look back on death and embrace it. Even if our hands are on the plow and the oxen are still moving forward, we have become in essence the Walking Dead.

Jesus came to us and offered Himself as a sacrifice for that sin, but that doesn’t mean we can remain looking backward. In order to reach salvation, we have to put aside sin, and especially the delusion of being our own gods, to receive the grace necessary to live in the eternal presence of the Lord. That is what He wants for each and every one of us, and it is why our mission is to keep looking forward to proclaim the kingdom of God.

Because as Satchel Paige warned us, when we look back we will find something gaining on us. And it will be the dead versions of ourselves, hoping to claim us back and transform us into pillars of salt and the Walking Dead, rather than our true calling to be the children of God.

The front-page image is a mosaic of the story of Lot’s wife in the Cathedral of Monreale in Palermo, Sicily, c. 12th century. Via Wikimedia Commons

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  

Jazz Shaw Aug 10, 2022 8:01 AM ET