Luke 12:13-21


Trust in God – Possessions as Obstacle

The following incident is proper to Luke, and reflects one of the values important to Luke: the use of wealth.

Luke 12:13-21  -  The Parable of a Rich Fool

13 A person from the crowd said to Jesus,
"Teacher, tell my brother to share out our inheritance with me."
14 But he said to him,
"Man, who set me up to judge
or to sort things out between you?"
15 He then said to them,
"Watch out for pure greed
and be on your guard against it.  
Life does not consist in having more and more possessions."

While Jesus had been prepared to challenge structures of marginalisation and injustice, he did not see himself in the role of arbitrator. His concern was not to set up “winners and losers” but was geared to calling people to genuine value and insight. On that basis they in turn, from a stance of mutual responsibility and the freedom of conscience, would relate in justice and equity.

Jesus identified his role as bringing good news to the poor [4:18]. But he did not have in mind an abundance of possessions. The God of Jesus was the God of “enough”: give us day by day the bread we need for the day. Such ‘enough’ would result from people’s interacting on the basis of respect for human dignity, which was in turn the consequence of their being loved by God.

The story that follows was less a parable than a cautionary tale, whose general thrust was obvious. 

16 He told them a story to illustrate the point,
"A wealthy man's farm produced a great harvest.
17 He debated with himself, 'What shall I do now?
I don't have room to store my crops'.
18 Then he said, 'I shall do this.
I shall pull down my sheds and build bigger ones,
and store all my grain and my goods there.
19 Then I shall say to my soul,
'Soul, you have plenty of goods stored up for a number of years.  
Relax, feast, drink away and enjoy yourself'.
20 But God said to him,
'Fool, this very night they shall demand your soul back.  
Then, all that you have prepared, who will get it?’

For Jesus (and for Luke) abundance of possessions was dangerous: 

In the honour-based Jewish society of the time, people at the lower end of the social scale expected the unanticipated receipt of wealth to be shared among peers. Accumulation was frowned on, and often was seen as an occasion of envy and poisoned relationships. 

For those on a higher social level, it was to be used for the sake of patronage through largesse to those less fortunate.  Wealthy citizens frequently used their resources to build public facilities. Their generosity assured their honour status in the community. 

  • Herod the Great lavishly restored the temple in Jerusalem in the hope of winning acceptance (though much of his wealth came from the taxes extracted from the peasants of Galilee).  
  • A Roman centurion had built the synagogue at Capernaum (7:5).

With the gradual spread of pagan ideas and values in society, accumulation of wealth for its own sake became more common. Big landholders lent money to smaller landholders, then seized their lands when they defaulted on their repayments. In the process peasants became mere tenants, and tenants were reduced to day-labourers. The Jewish upper class, many of them priests from Jerusalem, owned much of the fertile land of Galilee. The aristocracy living in Sepphoris owned much of the land around the city (which was just a few kilometers from Nazareth where Jesus grew up).

21 That is the way it is with all who amass wealth for themselves
rather than being rich in the sight of God.” 

What he meant by rich in the sight of God would seem in the context to mean the personal, not monetary, values, of lives lived with a clear awareness of the compassionate providence of God

Rich in the Sight of God

Scriptural Precedents. Earlier in the narrative Luke had said of the call of Simon, James and John: “they left everything and followed him”. He had said the same thing of Levi: “he got up, left everything, and followed him”. Jesus had said of himself: “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head”.

In the companion volume to his gospel, “Acts of Apostles”, Luke described how the early Jerusalem Christian community, in the first flush of enthusiastic conversion, did in fact sell their property and share the proceeds: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” [Acts 2:44]. (Most commentators agree that Luke painted an idealistic picture of the young Jerusalem community, reflecting more what he imagined might have happened than what actually transpired historically.)

Epistles of Paul, however, made mention of the later need of the Churches spread around the Roman Empire to take special steps to support financially the impoverished Christian community in Jerusalem. After describing an encounter with the Jerusalem Church, Paul wrote of their leaders: “They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor” [Galatians 2:10]. Did their enthusiastic sale of possessions contribute to their poverty? We do not have sufficient evidence to know.

Lived in the Church. In the life of the Church various individuals have taken Jesus’ recommendation literally (at least for a while), Anthony of Egypt, Francis and Clare of Assisi among them. Over the centuries, communities of religious have taken vows of poverty, surrendering individual possessions to the community. (The communities, however, generally owned property.) 

The recommendation has largely been taken metaphorically in practice. Absolute poverty has been seen as something of an ideal, the actual poverty embraced being more or less relative.

Certainly destitution has generally been regarded as evil. Indeed, the thrust of the Kingdom is precisely to do away with such poverty, particularly because it strikes at the human dignity of its victims. Rather than helping them to focus on Kingdom values, real destitution has proved a frequent barrier.

The application to the modern world is clear. With most of the world’s population living in poverty and hunger, the lifestyle of advanced nations is an affront to human dignity. The irony is that many people in the economically favoured nations live in unhappiness and anxiety. Jesus’ comments, whether interpreted literally or metaphorically, are clear: “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”. Human hearts were not made to be at home in material goods. They were made for God, and will not find rest until they rest in God. 

Jesus spoke the way he did, not to make life hard for his disciples, but to set them free and empower them to live life to the full.

Next >> Luke 12:22-48