Ecclesiastes 1,2 – 2.23-33 + Psalm 95 + Colossians 3, 1-5, 9-11 + Luke 12, 13-21
Two questions raise a couple of troubling human issues in this scene from Luke’s Gospel:
- Who appointed me a judge or arbiter between you?”
- Who will get what you have prepared for yourself?
The man shouting out from the crowd pulls us into a very real human conflict that all of us have probably seen, and some may have actually experienced: the fighting over money and resources within a family when there is a lot to go around. “Tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” There is a little cultural issue here we ought to keep in mind: the first son got everything. So right away, it looks as though this is a younger brother. It is doubtful that the older brother had any obligation to divide the inheritance. In other words, someone is asking for something for which they have no actual right. This is what makes it easy for Jesus to brush off the request. But maybe he really isn’t brushing it off. Perhaps he is suggesting that the present system is not in accord with the values and way of God’s reign. And so, with that, Jesus moves toward the second question with what I think is a very sad story.
Two men here: one has nothing and asks for a share. The other has everything and he dies with it.
The second man is lonely, isolated, and in my judgment, a tragic figure. What I find “tragic” is that he talks to himself as though there is no one else to talk to or listen to. He is so busy talking to himself that, in a sense, he can’t hear his brother asking for a share. Listen to that dialogue. He talks to no one but himself. He is probably so paranoid and so anxious about keeping everything that he listens to no one and talks to no one.
The story wouldn’t be so sad if it were not that it continues to be lived. Families break apart, relationships are destroyed, and courts are filled with family squabbles and law suits over one inheritance after another. Those who have are still talking to themselves scheming over ways to keep what they have. I am frequently struck by this when in the car I dial past “talk radio” on the way to finding some good music. These people are all talking to themselves. They only listen to those who say what they want to hear reinforcing and offering no challenge to their privilege and power. It’s like an echo chamber!
Let’s suppose for a moment that these two men are brothers, even though Luke never suggests so. If the parents of the older brother had left their estate in order, the younger one may never have been crying out for a share. As a pastor for so long, I can’t begin to tell you how often I have seen family relationships unravel because parents acted as though they were never going to die, failing to be good stewards, and waiting too long to provide for a just distribution of their estate. On the most practical level, this story is a wake-up call to everyone who has not yet prepared for their passing from this life. It makes me wonder, as a pastor, how well someone is prepared spiritually when the material things are sometimes left in such a mess. The second question of this Gospel might well be directed to them, and I wonder, why would you let the courts distribute what is left when you die?
In the end, we can stand outside of this Gospel as observers watching as people build bigger storage units, fill their attics until they sag, and stuff their garages full until the cars sit outside. We can also watch part of the human family that has not received a share of what the Father has provided cry out for justice. However a real disciple of Jesus is not really called to be an observer standing outside the Gospel. So, we may also stand inside this Gospel and answer for ourselves the second question that really asks what we are going to do with what we have. The second man in this story has no friends, but a lot of money. He might be better off with a few more friends and a little less money.
We have inherited a great deal from a provident and loving God who has lavishly bestowed a great deal upon us. Why in the world, how can it be possible that anyone would be left asking for a share?