Proper 13 • Luke 12:13–21 • July 31, 2016
David I. Lewis
In the verses proceeding today’s text Jesus confronts the religious authorities about their hypocrisy (11:37–54) and then warns his disciples to be faithful in the midst of persecution (12:1–12), persecution that would come in part from those very religious authorities. Today’s pericope then follows. Here Jesus turns from the disciples to interact first with one man who seeks his aid and then to address the crowd. This passage is then followed with Jesus again addressing his disciples and teaching them how to live faithfully regarding possessions and material needs (12:22–34), especially in light of his return on the last day (12:35–53). Jesus’s blunt refusal to help the man who approaches him in 12:13 is best understood in this wider context.
12:13–14: Jesus bluntly refuses this one man’s request for intervention in a dispute with his brother over their inheritance. There is no reason not to take this man’s request at face value: His (probably older) brother has refused to divide the inheritance with him and so in effect is robbing him. Yet Jesus refuses to get involved—“Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?” Jesus’s response could indicate that one reason for him refusing to intervene is that judging such a dispute was simply not a part of his calling.
Yet read in the context of what came before—Jesus warning his disciples about coming persecutions—and what follows—Jesus teaching his disciples not to worry about their possessions—the interpreter might also conclude that this man’s request displays a significant misunderstanding of Jesus’s ministry. Jesus has come to usher in the last days when God will bring salvation to Israel. For those who are following Jesus, concerns about living in this present age are not to be a distraction from living as if the last days have come. Yet what does this man seek from Jesus? He wants help in acquiring “what is rightfully his” in this present age as if the last days have not already broken in with Jesus. Even if his complaint is legitimate, he is not seeking from Jesus the gracious things Jesus was sent to give (e.g., salvation or the Holy Spirit).
12:15: Jesus uses this as an opportunity then to address the crowd and warn them against covetousness—“one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
12:16-21: Though this parable is commonly referred to as the parable of the Rich Fool, from a strictly human perspective everything the man plans seems to display worldly wisdom. He plans to do what he must to preserve this unexpected bumper crop, and then he hopes to “take it easy and enjoy life,” one life goal of many Americans. Some interpreters read some deeper sin into this man’s deliberation, that is, he does not speak of helping the poor as he deliberates and this indicates that he is selfish. Yet this might be reading more into the parable than is there. Indeed, what may be most troubling about this parable is that most of what this man plans is just about what any other person might plan in such a situation. That such simple deliberations about what to do with one’s possessions might earn the accusation of fool from God himself is meant to unsettle the hearer.
Of course, what makes all of these deliberations foolish is that it is already determined that this man will die that very night. That this man is even in control of his own property is an illusion. Jesus’s warning and interpretation of this parable then follows: “So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”
Considerations for Preaching
Covetousness is a form of idolatry that might prevent someone from faithfully responding to the initiation of God’s reign on earth in Jesus Christ. Such an idolatrous attitude is displayed by the man who approaches Jesus over the inheritance and by the man in the parable. Since the last days have come in Jesus Christ, Jesus’s disciples are not to worry about laying up treasure for themselves, but should seek to be rich for God.
What does it mean to be rich for God? Such a life is described in Jesus’s teaching that follows in 12:22–34. See especially 12:31 and 32—“seek [God’s] reign” and “it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the reign.” One who is rich for God will live as if God’s gracious reign in Jesus has been given to him. This will then be evident in how one trusts God and so does not worry about food, clothing, and possessions (12:22– 31). Such a people will even sell their possessions to give to the poor (12:33). For such a person life does not consist of the abundance of possessions, but what God has done in Jesus, bringing salvation to Israel and to all people.