This Sunday’s lectionary Gospel (Luke 12:13-21) is mostly on one important theme: the question of where and how one should invest.
No, it isn’t going to give you clarity about what to tell Charles Schwab what to do with your savings. It might make you question the value of monetary investments — though that isn’t quite the point.
But what is the point?
The passage is in a familiar form: Jesus has a conversation with someone, and he ends up making a point which he illustrates with a parable. He did it in the previous chapter, in Luke 11:1-13, and he did it in the chapter before that, in Luke 10:25-37.
- Here he talks with some siblings who are in conflict about their inheritance.
- That leads to a statement about greed and acquisition not being the way to life.
- And that leads to the parable of a rich guy who aimed to retire early but ended up dying instead.
Just Being Himself
The teaching content is so weighty that it is easy to miss the fascinating interaction at the start.
The conversation is on topic: Someone asks Jesus to talk sense into their brother about what their parents left them.
Maybe Mom and Dad left it all to the oldest brother, and this younger sister (Luke just says “someone”) wants Jesus to encourage the guy to think more equitably than Mom and Dad did.
Set up that way it seems like something Jesus should handle — urge a little justice, a little mercy for those not given a slice of the economic pie.
But Jesus doesn’t want that role.
He responds in a way that sounds pretty snippy.
who set me to be a judge
or arbitrator over you?” (Luke 12:14 NRSV)
Ouch. At least he softened the blow by calling the person “friend.”
Jesus is playing against type here. We know he’s God in the flesh and we know God is merciful beyond all measure. We remember Jesus welcoming children and the marginalized. So we want him to be… nice.
Here Jesus is not nice. That just doesn’t seem to be his priority. He shuts his questioner down rather abruptly.
And we are left trying to figure out in what respect we should be imitating our Lord.
I don’t remember anyone who wore a “WWJD” bracelet back in the day saying we should be snippy in response to questions.
I think the thing to imitate is that Jesus knew exactly who he was. That led him to know exactly what he was called to do. It also led to complete clarity about what he was not called to do.
As the Son of God he had “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” He was here to redeem humanity, choosing the Cross for the sake of the Resurrection. That left no time to set up shop as an arbiter of domestic squabbles.
We don’t have quite so high a calling, but we would do well to follow our Lord in truly knowing and consistently being exactly who we are. If we only knew who we are, created in the image of God, redeemed by the very life of Christ God’s Son, beloved beyond measure — well that would have implications for the choices of our daily living.
Seeing the Motive
The thing we see in the actual substance of Jesus’ response is his consistent ability to look beneath the surface conversation and name the motive.
He comments on his interlocutor’s greed.
Maybe it wasn’t so hard to spot a motive of greed in a request for a share of the inheritance. But still, Jesus sees it, names it, and turns it into a teaching opportunity.
His actual criticism is of the goal of acquisition.
…for one’s life
does not consist
in the abundance of possessions.” (Luke 12:15 NRSV)
Jesus’ statement is that getting more and better stuff is not the way to life. That’s a pretty hard message to remember, at least for middle class Americans in the 21st century. We find ourselves perpetually striving materially.
Often we can only stay a paycheck ahead of financial crisis, and it just seems like the solution is a bit more material abundance.
Of course our current culture’s temptation is to solve that problem on credit, which leaves us with more possessions but an even tighter budget.
Jesus seems to call us to rethink that.
Within it, though, is a call to pay attention to a very important underlying question: What does real life consist of?
Discerning What Life Does Consist In
And to help us with the rethinking he gives us the parable. The very scary parable, actually.
There’s this guy. He’s doing well. His business (farming) is booming. He decides to save it all up, bank it and retire.
But then comes the unpleasant surprise: the guy dies. Just when he thought he could enjoy it all, it all gets left behind.
And he seems to have neglected to make a will.
He would have been so much better off if his energy had gone to — what?
Notice that the point of the teaching is a negation. That is, Jesus rules out acquisition as the thing real life consists in, the source of true thriving. But he doesn’t really tell us what WILL bring life.
The only hint is the concluding phrase: the people in trouble due to acquisition are not “rich toward God.”
So we are left, I think, needing to search the Scriptures for a better answer. It is there to be found. We need to look to Jesus himself, both to his living and to his teaching. And we need to look to the rest of the Bible — the teachings of the Law, the Prophets, and the Epistles. There is good stuff to ponder on the topic in the book of Proverbs.
One hint: It is probably going to have to do with your neighbor.
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