Someone out of the crowd came up and said to him: “Teacher, instruct my brother to share with me the inheritance [left to us].” And Jesus replied to him: “My good fellow, who has appointed me to be the judge or trustee in your case?” And he added, “You take care and watch out for all kinds of covetousness, because the abundance of life is not to be in the abundance of your possessions.” And he went on to [illustrate this] by giving them a parable:
There was a certain rich man who found that the land gave forth plentifully and [thinking about this good fortune coming his way concluded his reflection by] saying to himself: “Just what am I going to do since I have nowhere to gather the harvest of all these crops?” And he replied, “I know. I will pull down the barns I have and I will construct larger ones. And in these I will bring together all the harvest and all my possessions. And this will enable me to say to myself, “Self, you now have many good supplies stored away for many years to come. Take it easy [relax!], eat, drink and be merry [delighted in your lot]!” And God replied: “What a foolish fellow you are since this very night you yourself are required to appear before me. And so tell me, all of this that you have prepared for yourself: what then? Who is going to benefit?”
[Concluding Jesus continued:] “This is how it [always] is for those who are busily accumulating for themselves and are not at all rich before God.”
Luke has just reported on Jesus’ foreshadowing of the conflicts his disciples are going to encounter. They shall encounter these as a consequence of following him. And we have noted how this word has been fulfilled with persecution meted out generation after generation to those who inconveniently get in the way of the powers that be, those who answer his call and follow him with a service of love for all neighbours.
Recall that Luke is writing to give Theophilus, a post-Pentecost Gentile follower of Jesus, and this is an account of
all the things that Jesus began, both in his doing and his teaching (Acts 1:1).
But Jesus at that point was speaking to a crowd of people in the Judaean country-side, and this was before the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. And so, this records what was remembered as a prophetic utterance of the Messiah that would, in time to come, be of immeasurable benefit to Jesus’ disciples, including Gentiles like Luke himself and Theophilus.
To follow Jesus would mean following a path not so very different from that taken by John the Baptist. We have been reading how Jesus was aware of the hypocritical “yeast” of the Pharisees, manipulating the crowds; the “common people” were coming to him in droves, and Jesus willingly taught them, calling forth their faithful discipleship.
If their repentance, as it had been evoked by John’s preaching, was maintained and they were taking up their own cross and following him, they were reassured that even if imprisonment and death awaited them, the faithful citizens of God’s Kingdom would not be left to their own resources nor “emptied into Gehenna”. “You are worth many, many sparrows” and this life is not about to come to nothing!
Luke is documenting a phase in the schooling of Jesus’ first disciples when it is beginning to dawn on them that they are involved with something far wider and greater than they could ever imagine. And yet, as we read here, and in the other gospels too, those closest to him were often scratching their heads not having any idea what some of these teachings actually meant.
Now that we have read what Jesus taught at this time, and noted some of the “global” consequences he identified for believers everywhere, we return to Luke’s concern to remind us that this teaching was initially received in its immediate “local” situation. And so what comes next also needs our careful reflection.
A man, presumably a Judaean Israelite, comes with a request – it is as if he comes with faith and ignorance at the same time. He wants the family’s inheritance to be rightly shared. He requests Jesus assistance as “trustee” of the estate. In so asking, he presumes that Jesus, Israel’s Anointed, has come to maintain the Jewish family, inheritance and land laws according to Torah’s stipulations. But Jesus’ reply brings him up short.
“Am I appointed trustee to assist the distribution of your land when it is passed down to you both?”
And following this rejoinder, Jesus gave some carefully honed advice.
“You must take care and watch out for all kinds of covetousness, because the abundance of your life is not to be found in the abundance of your possessions.”
Jesus does not deny the man’s need for a trustee to assist him and his brother sort out the complex inheritance that they now must divide. But here the teaching of Israel’s Messiah, the Anointed of the Lord, reminds this fellow of the 10th of the ten words:
You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, his male servant, his female servant, his ox, his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbour’s (Exodus 20:17).
The fact that a brother had sought Jesus out to act as trustee to divide what had been bequeathed to them both, seems to indicate that there had been a serious breakdown in the family, and its network. Therefore such a crucial generation-to-generation matter would not be resolved by any negotiated settlement. The problem goes deeper than merely dividing the inheritance.
And even as Israel’s Anointed, the person on whom God’s spirit had alighted (Luke 3:21-22, 4:16-21), Jesus was not going to act in this capacity. He would instead direct the fellow to God’s law and in so doing devised a parable for the occasion, illustrating what he was keen for the fellow (and us) to understand.
Let us assume that Jesus has devised this parable – which we, two millennia later, can also apply to our own lives – in order to assist this young man, and his brother, to rightly respond in faith and gratitude to God in the midst of the difficult circumstance they now inherited. The man felt impelled to come to Jesus and seek his assistance. What does this say about the man’s family circumstances, let alone the inheritance? The Torah made it plain that inheritance of the land which the Lord God had given to His people had everything to do with the honour any child of Israel was to display to their parents, their father and their mother. They were truly the children of their parents and were not slaves, the possession of the Egyptian ruler as Pharaoh had presumed (Deuteronomy 5:15-16).
Now, as we read the parable that Jesus gave on that occasion to assist this man with the distributive conundrum that he and his brother faced, we note Jesus drawing a peculiar circumstance facing “a certain wealthy man”. It was “the land” that brought forth bountifully and the problem facing this man and which he set about resolving was its problematic. He simply assumed that the bounty of the land was his to live off. He owned the land; he took possession of what the land brought forth, and he lived his life as if that was all there was to it. Clearly he didn’t know about God’s Laws for landowners and harvests and if he did he didn’t much care for them (Leviticus 19:9-10; 23:22).
It is worth asking ourselves how this fellow who had come to Jesus would hear this story. You can almost hear him wanting to interrupt at the beginning as Jesus begins to develop the tale: “But the rich guy’s assuming …” “Didn’t he receive this portion of land from his parents to begin with?” “Isn’t passing on the land to the next generation an important part of the stewardship of anyone, particularly a wealthy land-holder?”
So I am suggesting that it is conceivable that the fellow would be wanting to interrupt by asking: “But what about his brothers? What about his children- where are they? His wife? His neighbours? Elderly parents?” It might even be that he would be saying, “But Jesus that man you’ve drawn is nuts! He’s come into the bounty of the land but he’s going nowhere!”
And then there is the question of whether that massive harvest stored in such massive barns will be preserved? Won’t it rot?
And so Jesus develops a “funny” story about a self-satisfied wealthy man who is only worried about himself and his possessions. He lives on the assumption that land-holding and receipt of the bounty of the earth is simply provided in order to have a good retirement. The meaning of life is simply to have enough so you can retire! [This is a parable that needs to be heard today! Obviously.] This man may not covet his neighbour’s donkey; but his life is one big covetous waste, and for what purpose?
Self, you now have many good supplies stored away for many years to come. Take it easy, relax, eat, drink and be merry. Enjoy your retirement!
The fellow with his inheritance problems, having been pulled up short by Jesus’ refusal to act as trustee, would never forget this encounter. And when Jesus concludes his parable by putting these words
And tell me, all of this that you have prepared for yourself: what then? Who is going to benefit?
“into God’s mouth”, the young man will be driven back to the law of Israel’s Lord, just as Jesus had said.
You must take care and watch out for all kinds of covetousness, because the abundance of your life is not to be found in the abundance of your possessions.
Jesus final words of the parable suggest he was helping the fellow to take note of what he had heard prior to taking his courage in his two hands and putting his request to this teacher of God’s Kingdom.
“This is how it [always] is for those who are busily accumulating for themselves and are not at all rich before God.”