Sunday’s gospel (Luke 12:13-21) begins, Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?”
The person in the crowd saw Jesus as someone with moral authority. He called him teacher or rabbi. It was common in first-century Palestine for Jews to ask rabbis for a legal ruling. The man thought Jesus could convince his brother to give him his inheritance. He regarded his inheritance dispute as something that the teacher would and could resolve.
But there is a disconnect, too. In the opening verses of this chapter, Jesus had been teaching about hypocrisy, integrity and how God values each person, more than sparrows for whom he also cares. (Luke 12:1-12) In abruptly changing the discussion from these broad themes to his own personal issue, this petitioner seems to have been deaf to the larger conversation, or so self-involved that he did not care.
Before he responded, Jesus may have looked at the man without speaking for a few moments, considering the request. An inheritance is an unearned benefit. Jesus may have wondered about the man’s sense of entitlement, as well as his request to have Jesus intervene.
Recall the episode in the gospel two weeks earlier (Luke 10:38-42) when Jesus and his disciples stayed at the home of Martha and Mary, and Martha approached Jesus and said, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’… rather than settle her disagreement directly with her sister Mary. She, too, wanted Jesus to get involved.
On the surface, the man’s inheritance issue appears to be one of justice as Martha’s issue with Mary seemed to be equitable sharing of the workload. In both cases the petitioners to Jesus felt that they were ‘right’. They had made themselves the centre of their small universe and defined right and wrong in their own terms.
Jesus declined to intervene for either one, instead making it a teaching moment.
He said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”Greed is a disordered sense of self-care. It is about acquisition that exceeds the boundaries of what is necessary and reasonable. (John D. Rockefeller, then the richest man in the world, was once asked by a reporter, “How much money is enough?” He famously responded, “Just a little bit more.”)
We also know that wealth conveys an aura of status and it may have been that regard by others that the man sought.And Jesus told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. The man was already rich. The abundant harvest would have made him obscenely wealthy.
He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’
“But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’“ This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”
One interpreter saw the parable as describing someone who wanted to hoard his harvest and create a scarcity of grain, ultimately driving up the price. The already rich farmer was only interested in his well-being, ignoring the needs of the poor around. By extension, this self-centered farmer wanted to make an unethical profit and harm the economy. By hoarding his grain, the rich fool wanted to secure his economic power and status in the village as others were made more and more dependent on him.
The economic interpretation seems a bit of a reach, given the words of the parable, but it is consistent with someone who is already wealthy and greedy.
In last week’s gospel, Jesus taught his disciples to pray, (Luke 11:1-11) one of the key phrases is, give us each day the bread we need. Jesus focused on the food and drink necessary for the day… not excess.
Recall, too, that Jesus had, earlier, sent his disciples out two by two with the instruction Do not take a purse or bag or sandals (Luke 10:4). He wanted them to travel lightly and to rely on God’s grace and human hospitality for their daily bread.
Jesus’ instruction on prayer and on going out to preach the good news represented a more modest approach to food than the rich fool in the parable.
Still, the parable poses an interpretation challenge. On the one hand, grain grows only in specific seasons in response to sun, heat and moisture. It will spoil if it is left in the fields or not secured from the wind and rain after harvest. When a superabundant harvest happens what is one to do? It makes sense to store it. In our days, it is appropriate to have retirement savings or to set aside something for medical contingencies not covered by insurance… dental work, eyecare or replacement of some essential item. This isn’t greed; it is prudence…also a virtue.
But Jesus wasn’t talking about the common sense of grain storage or retirement savings. His judgement appears to have zeroed in on the hedonistic call of Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry. (It sounds like a biblical version of contemporary billionaires with mega-yachts, private jets, exotic car collections and multiple mansions.)
More particularly, the parable focuses on one’s right relationship to God. Nowhere did he thank or credit God for his good fortune. When Jesus said, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you he was instructing people to live each day in gratitude to God for the graces of the moment, loving our neighbours …and our enemies… and sharing our wealth. A paraphrase might be that a lifetime is limited and that the truly important consideration is whether we are ‘ready’ to meet our maker by living in right relationship with God.
While the passage for Sunday July 31 ends with the parable, Luke’s gospel continues with a further instruction in the same vein: do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? Since you cannot do this .. why do you worry about the rest?“Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If God so clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you…! Do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; … your Father knows what you need. Seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you. (Luke 12:22-31)Jesus’ instruction is to seek the kingdom, first.