N.T. Wright tells this funny story about a sermon he once preached on Luke 12:
Jesus did not come, I declared, to settle our property disputes. Pleased with my own eloquence, I came home to find a note from my [neighbor], pinned to the back door, telling me that my garden shed encroached on his land and that if it wasn’t moved soon, he would bulldoze it. He was probably in the wrong, but the irony stung too badly. I moved the shed.N.T. Wright, Luke for Everyone, Westminster John Knox Press, 2004
“Jesus didn’t come to settle our property disputes.”
For those of us in the Anglican Diocese of South Carolina, that certainly hits home. As I so often remind my parishioners, however, reading yourself into the biblical text is always an exercise in missing the point. Yes, the Scriptures do speak to us today. In every chapter, every verse, every word, there is a message we need to hear–but if we want to hear that message, we need, first, to hear and understand it within the context of its original setting.
Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”Luke 12:13, ESV
Throughout the Gospels, people come to Jesus and ask for many things, but they are usually of a far more serious nature.
“My son is sick.”
“My daughter is dying.”
“I want to recover my sight.”
This man, however, comes to Jesus with a matter that seems, in comparison, to be quite trivial.
“I want my fair share of my family’s land. Tell that stingy brother or mine to give it to me.”
It sounds trivial, perhaps, because we are forgetting that this man is a Jew, an Israelite, a descendant of Jacob (who had a rather contentious relationship with his own brother over an inheritance). His forebears had been led by Moses out of Egypt, across the Red Sea, and into the land promised them by God.
After the exile in Babylon, when the Jews returned to the land under Ezra and Nehemiah, it was essential for each family to have records proving they had ancestral claim to its various properties.
The land, and the ancestral claim to it, was (and is) a central tenet of Judaism. Getting the inheritance right was part of obedience to God, symbolic of the return from exile and the ultimate regathering of God’s chosen people.
So, maybe this matter wasn’t so trivial, after all—at least not in the mind of the man who came to Jesus, expecting him to settle it.
Nevertheless, Jesus appears to be entirely disinterested.
But he said to him, “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?”Luke 12:14, ESV
“But, Lord, it’s my birthright we’re talking about! It’s my rightful claim! And if you’re the One we’ve been waiting for, it’s your job to make it right!”
The man knew, apparently, that Jesus was somebody who had authority from God. Unfortunately, like so many, he misunderstood how Jesus would use that authority.
This man embodies what would prove to be a fatal misunderstanding of the role of the Messiah by the people of the land.
The land was merely the symbol. It pointed to a deeper reality.
God’s election of Israel as his chosen people was not supposed to be merely a source of national pride. Part and parcel to their election was the vocation, the divine call, to be a light to the nations—not to store up all the treasure for themselves, but to spread it throughout all the earth.
That’s why Jesus’ admonition applies not only to the man, but to all the people of Israel.
And he said to them, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”Luke 12:15, ESV
As he often does to make his point, Jesus tells a parable.
And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”Luke 12:16-21, ESV
A parable is neither a morality tale nor an allegory. A parable is a parallel story. When Jesus tells a parable, he is employing language the runs parallel to the work he is doing to bring forth the kingdom of God.
The man who came to Jesus with the inheritance dispute represented a problem in Israel that ran much deeper than sibling rivalry. The people of Israel were clinging to the symbol at the expense of obedience to the vocation.
While they prided on themselves on the land as their rightful possession, God was calling them to step outside the boundaries of their sacred turf and be what he had intended them to be all along: the light of the world.
Ultimately, then, the matter this man brought to Jesus was trivial. It is no wonder that Jesus swatted it down so quickly. This wasn’t what he came to do. Inheritance disputes are the purview of the sons of men, not the Son of God.
Earthbound justice is not Jesus’s concern. The only justice about which he is concerned is the justice that vindicates the holiness of God–and, other than wiping out the entire human race as punishment for sin, the only way that justice can be satisfied is on the cross, where Jesus takes that punishment upon himself and stretches out his arms as he bleeds to death, that the whole world might know the height, the depth, the width, and the length of the love of God.
It is a love that knows no boundaries; that is not confined to any sacred turf.
It is a love that draws us in, that we might know the joy of mercy and forgiveness.
Most importantly, it is also a love that sends us out, that we might beacons of its glorious light in our community and, indeed, throughout all the world.