LUKE 12:13-21. THE CONTEXT
The issue here is not ownership of possessions but ownership by possessions. Wealth is a hard taskmaster. The person who desires wealth is tempted to make its acquisition top priority. The person who has wealth is tempted to devote his or her life to guarding and growing it. We are all tempted to believe that we can find true security in wealth. Faith in wealth crowds out faith in God. It is not money that is the problem, however, but love of money (1 Timothy 6:10).
LUKE 12:13-15. TELL MY BROTHER TO DIVIDE THE INHERITANCE
13One of the multitude said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” 14But he said to him, “Man, who made me a judge or an arbitrator (Greek: meristen—divider) over you?” 15He said to them, “Beware! Keep yourselves from covetousness, for a man’s life doesn’t consist of the abundance of the things which he possesses.”
“Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me” (v. 13). Torah law prescribes rules of inheritance, and rabbis are expected to interpret the application of the Torah in specific instances and to arbitrate disputes:
• Deuteronomy 21:17 provides a double portion of the inheritance for the firstborn son. If there are two sons, the elder receives two-thirds (67 percent), and the second son one-third (33 percent). If there are three sons, the elder receives two-fourths (50 percent), and the others receive one-fourth each (25 percent). If there are four sons, the elder receives two-fifths (40 percent), and the others receive one-fifth each (20 percent). Deuteronomy specifies that the father’s affection or lack thereof for the wife of the firstborn must not affect the inheritance.
• Numbers 27:1-11 specifies the line of inheritance: son, daughter, brother, uncle, nearest kinsman.
• Numbers 36:7-9 prohibits transfers of inheritances between tribes.
This man’s issue is not the amount that he has inherited, but rather the fact that his father has left the inheritance to his two sons jointly. This man doesn’t want joint ownership, but wants to be independent of his brother. His love of money supersedes his love for his brother.
It is unlikely that this is a firstborn son, because a firstborn son would exercise control and would not require Jesus’ assistance.
While the man addresses Jesus as teacher, he does not request instruction. Instead, he tells Jesus what he wants and asks (or commands) Jesus to do his bidding. He wants to take advantage of Jesus’ moral authority—seeks to use Jesus’ authority to gain power over his brother in the dispute over their inheritance.
“Man, who made me a judge or an arbitrator (meristen—divider) over you?” (v. 14). Jesus’ reply echoes the language of Exodus 2:14, where Moses tried to stop a fight between two Hebrews. One of them asked Moses, “Who made you a prince and a judge over us?” Jesus could mean that he does not have the authority to arbitrate this dispute, but more likely he is questioning the man’s right to involve him in this dispute.
This man’s self-interest clashes sharply with the context in which he makes his request. Jesus has been teaching people by the thousands (12:1). He warned them of Pharisaical hypocrisy (12:1). He told them not to fear those who kill the body but those who can cast them into hell (12:4-5). He encouraged them to confess the Son of Man before people (12:8-9). He told them that they will face opposition, and assured them that the Holy Spirit will give them the right words when they are dragged before the authorities (12:11-12). In the midst of these serious concerns, the man interjects a request for help with his inheritance. In doing so, he reveals that he has not heard Jesus, but is concerned only about his personal problem. His interjection is trivial by comparison with the teaching that he interrupts, and so is inappropriate and disruptive.
“Beware! Keep yourselves from covetousness” (v. 15a). Jesus, who sees the heart, sees greed in this man’s heart (v. 15). He addresses his reply, not just to the man, but to “them”—to the crowd. He uses the opportunity to teach about the danger of greed.
“for a man’s life doesn’t consist of the abundance of the things which he possesses” (v. 15b). The man who brought the grievance has focused his eyes close-up on possessions so that he sees nothing else. Jesus calls him to pull back so that the whole of life comes into view, an exercise that puts possessions in perspective. Possessions are still in the picture, but look smaller when seen against the backdrop of the rest of life. Jesus thus turns the discussion from this man’s inheritance to his real need—defense against greed and opportunity to become “rich toward God” (v. 21).
These are points that Jesus makes in various ways throughout this Gospel:
• “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone'” (4:4).
• “For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses or forfeits his own self?” (9:25).
• “Therefore I tell you, don’t be anxious for your life, what you will eat, nor yet for your body, what you will wear. Life is more than food, and the body is more than clothing”(12:22-23).
• See the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (16:19-31).
• “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter into the Kingdom of God!” (18:24).
LUKE 12:16-19. I WILL BUILD BIGGER BARNS
16He spoke a parable to them, saying, “The ground of a certain rich man brought forth abundantly. 17He reasoned within himself, saying, ‘What will I do, because I don’t have room to store my crops?’ 18He said, ‘This is what I will do. I will pull down my barns, and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19I will tell my soul (Greek: psuche), ‘Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years. Take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.'”
“The ground of a certain rich man brought forth abundantly” (v. 16). The man was rich prior to this harvest, and the harvest simply increases his wealth. Jesus portrays a windfall harvest—a harvest far in excess of the rich man’s investment in planting and tilling—a harvest that is truly a gift of God. As we shall see, the abundant harvest raises the question of stewardship. What responsibility do we incur when we acquire more than we need.
“He reasoned within himself” (v. 17a). The man talks with nobody but himself. He is so inwardly focused that he requires no counsel. He certainly has not asked God for guidance.
“What will I do, because I don’t have room to store my crops?” (v. 17b). Most of us would be glad to be in this position—having more money than we know what to do with. This man certainly seems glad. However, money is all that he has. He mentions nothing of family or friends. He has no sense of community. He has no inclination to help the poor or to donate to worthwhile charities. He is rich in money and poor in everything else.
“I will pull down my barns, and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods” (v. 18). The abundance of the harvest exceeds the rich man’s expectations, requiring quick decisions regarding storage or disposal. Jesus does not suggest that the man has come by the great harvest dishonestly. There is no suggestion that the man misused his hired hands or harvested grain from his neighbor’s fields.
The first hint of a problem lies in the man’s use of the first-person pronoun. Go through the parable and circle the words “I” and “my” to get a sense of the man’s self-absorption. In his short conversation with himself, he uses the word “I” six times and the word “my” five times. He gives no thought to a bonus for his hired hands or a service project for his community. He offers no word of thanksgiving to God for this tremendous harvest. Everything is “I” and “my.”
“Soul, (psuche) you have many goods laid up for many years. Take your ease, eat, drink, be merry” (v. 19). We find similar language in Ecclesiastes 2:24; 3:13; 5:18; 8:15. Jesus presents the man’s self-absorption with crystal clarity. He has more than enough to meet his needs—more even than he needs to live in luxury. His future could not be more secure. Now all he has to do is to enjoy his wealth, and that is his plan. However, as we will see, his plan will soon go awry.
LUKE 12:20-21. YOU FOOLISH ONE!
20“But God said to him, ‘You foolish one, tonight your soul (Greek: psuchen) is required of you. The things which you have prepared—whose will they be?’ 21So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”
“You foolish one, tonight your soul (psuchen) is required of you” (v. 20a). Earlier, Jesus warned, “But woe to you who are rich! For you have received your consolation” (6:24). That is this man’s problem—he has received his consolation, which will not carry over into eternity.
“My soul” (psuche) (v. 19)—“your soul” (psuchen) (v. 20). Some translations obscure the wordplay in these verses by translating psuchen “life.” The man said, “Soul (psuche), you have many goods laid up for many years,” but God says, “You foolish one, tonight your soul (psuchen) is required of you”.
There is another interesting contrast between “many years” (v. 19) and “tonight” (v. 20). The man is a fool because he has failed to take into account his own mortality, which will claim him this very night.
“The things which you have prepared—whose will they be?” (v. 20b). People who love possessions guard them jealously—maintain tight controls—erect barriers to prevent other people from gaining access. The thought of someone squandering their wealth would be painful indeed. However, when rich people die, their plans begin to fail. Wills and philanthropic foundations provide only the barest protection. Fortunes are often spent in ways that the founder never envisioned and would never have approved. And eventually, moth and rust corrupt even the most prized possessions.
“So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God” (v. 21). We should not assume that this verse applies only to Microsoft Millionaires. We need not be wealthy to be in jeopardy. The jeopardy applies to any person who “lays up treasure for himself” and who “is not rich toward God.”
The problem is not the man’s wealth but his selfish hoarding. Some wealthy people are tempted to hoard money, stocks, or bonds, and others to squander money recklessly. However, poverty does not render one immune from selfishness. Some poor people share unselfishly with people in need, but others hoard a piece of bread. The problem is not wealth but selfishness. It is entirely possible that one person might drive a Porsche and be generous toward others while another person might drive a Ford and selfishly hoard a pan of brownies.
“rich toward God” (v. 21b). What does it look like to be “rich toward God”? First, it must surely mean being thankful to God for our blessings. Second, it must mean stewardship that returns God’s portion to God. Thirdly, it must mean generosity toward the neighbor whom Jesus has charged to love (10:27)—and to our enemy, whom Jesus has also charged us to love (6:27).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2004, 2010, 2012, Richard Niell Donovan