18th Sunday Year C – Lectio divina on Lk 12,13-21
On one occasion, a stranger sought the support of Jesus to help him to settle a family dispute concerning an inheritance. He was obviously impressed by the level of acceptance Jesus had won by his preaching and the authority that was attached to his opinions. To people nowadays, the incident may seem unimportant. We are so used to seeing families quarrelling over an inheritance that, to us, it seems reasonable that Jesus should try to avoid giving a decision on a family matter. However, while it is true that he did not want to get into discussion with the two brothers, he did not let the opportunity pass without teaching his listeners what part money and property should play in their lives. He did not try to solve the family problem, but he did not let pass the opportunity to teach the people who were following him. He did not refuse justice to the man who sought his help. He tried instead to free him from his concern for possessions. What is important is not the amount we own in this life, but life itself that we have received. It is more important than any other possession.
At that time: 13 One of the multitude said to Jesus, “Teacher, bid my brother divide the inheritance with me. 14 But he said to him, “Man, who made me a judge or divider over you?” 15 And he said to them, “Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” 16 And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; 17 and he thought to himself, `What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ 18 And he said, `I will do this: I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.’ 20 But God said to him, `Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21 So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich towards God.”
I. Read: understand what the text is saying, focussing on how it says it.
On this occasion the teaching given by Jesus was not chosen by him, but arose out of a dispute between two brothers. The reason for the dispute is quite trivial but also very common. A quarrel over a legacy was threatening the relationship between the two brothers. One of them came to Jesus who was recognised as a peacemaker, a sign of his authority and impartiality (Lk 12,13).
Jesus responded in a surprising manner. He declared himself unable to act as judge in this family argument (Lk 12,14). He skipped over the question and took advantage of the occasion to give a lesson to all regarding possessions and the use to be made of them (Lk 12,15). Jesus did not direct his words only to his disciples. His teaching was intended for all who were listening.
The teaching was in two parts – a serious warning about being too anxious for possessions, which end up possessing the people who have them (Lk 12,15), and a parable which serves as an explanation and the basis of his teaching.
The episode is clear and concise. Jesus warns against an inordinate desire for possessions, and he gives good reasons. The goods we possess in life do not guarantee the possession of life. Without life, of what use will life’s goods be? The parable creates a situation that sheds light on the issue and develops Jesus’ teaching. The landowner’s reasoning is sound, because he foresees a good harvest. However, he thinks only of increasing his wealth. Instead of being master of his goods, he allows them to take ownership of him. He owns a lot and dreams about owning more. He is no longer master of his life. However, his possessions will not prolong his life. He can add all he likes to his stores, but he cannot add one day to his life. He possesses a lot, yet to him it does not seem enough and he wants more. He does not realize that what he has is worth a lot more than what he is missing. He pays little attention to what he already has – all he wants is to have more!
Those who do not put their trust in God, cannot be sure of their possessions, nor can they be sure of even one more day, because nothing can guarantee life. Their need will always be greater than their barns. There is no point in filling our life with goods, since we do not yet possess it. A life spent amassing and storing possessions is, by very definition, fragile. If we allow ourselves to be possessed by the goods we own, it will lead to losing what really matters, God and his goods. What matters is not what we want but what God wants to give us, if we allow him to become our only good. God is our only good, and we cannot but desire to have him. And if we have God, we can let go of all other desires and all other goods.
II. Meditation: apply what the text says to life
Jesus refuses to act as mediator in a dispute between brothers, not in order to avoid a controversial decision, but to free his listeners from being anxious over possessions. He does not want to enter the dispute because he does not want to condemn anybody. Instead, he wants everybody to trust in God’s justice. It is pointless worrying, he says, for something that cannot guarantee your existence. It does not make sense to lose one’s life, or in this case the life of the family, for something that cannot preserve life.
Jesus did not go looking for this case, but he was presented with an unenviable situation. There were not many times when he was asked to intervene in a situation that did not require a miracle. These people were not asking Jesus to show his power, or his compassion. All that was wanted here was his good judgement and his impartiality. By asking for his decision, they showed that they were willing to accept it. Jesus was recognised as a good mediator. This makes his refusal all the more surprising. Was this not part of his duty? Jesus points out the futility of fighting for what cannot guarantee life, however good the reasons might be. He gives a reply, an indirect but effective one, to the brothers who were fighting over an inheritance. It does not matter how much property was involved, it could not guarantee the most important thing they had, which was life itself.
Jesus did not want to make his decision obligatory. Instead of resolving an individual case, he decided to instruct his followers. He wanted to convince them all of the precarious value of material things. He was not satisfied with persuading one man to share the inherited goods with his brother. He used this particular case as the basis for a universal teaching. There is nothing more likely to cause pain and division in a family than an inheritance. A father’s legacy, no matter how big it may be, cannot compensate for the loss of a brother’s love. What matters is not what we already possess, nor what we may acquire, but what we are, and this is worth fighting for. Life does not depend on material things, so it makes no sense to sacrifice life for them.
The man was asking for justice, nothing more. Jesus told him that it was better to renounce earthly goods than to risk losing his life and his family in fighting for them. Jesus did not try to restore their brotherly love by a just distribution of the goods. He was far more concerned about healing the man’s heart, because that was where the root of his desire lay. Jesus refused to enter the dispute on behalf of one man, but proceeded to offer teaching to all on another topic: what will really heal a person’s relationships is not holding on to one’s rights, but being willing to renounce what one does not yet possess. It is not a matter of how much one has. The problem is when one desires more than what one has.
What use will it be to acquire everything we think we are entitled to, if we do not have time to make use of it all? Why do we want to be owners of so many things, if we do not care about our own life? To Jesus’ way of thinking, if owning a lot of things does not guarantee survival, there is no point in fighting for our rights to acquire goods we may not live to enjoy. It is risky to base one’s life on goods that cannot guarantee life. Getting ownership of what belongs to others is not the best way to preserve our own life. Accumulating good that we ought to share with others, will indeed make us richer but it will certianly make us less human. We are not better because we possess more, and it brings us no honour if we acquire what rightly belongs to our brother.
The things we have and the people with whom we live are to be considered goods to the extent that they sustain our life, meeting our most urgent need, be it for food or for love. What is the point of stealing something from someone if it can do nothing to safeguard life? However valuable it may be, nothing is as precious as life – our own or that of our brother. We can renounce everything except life.
Jesus has nothing to say here about the amount of goods we possess. He is talking about the mentality that drives us to seek possessions. It does not matter if our possessions are many or few, they nourish in us the desire to have more and better goods. This covetousness endangers life itself, our supreme good, because there can be no good without life. It is a precious gift that cannot be bought at any price. Jesus uncovers the deep dissatisfaction that takes hold of us when we cannot attain the goods we long for, when we cannot get what we want. And he gives us a simple rule to cure us of this greed: value life as a good that has been freely given to us, and live life appreciating it for what it is, our greatest good. The gift of life can be enjoyed without the desire for anything else.
Sadly, that is not the way we live. We are gripped by an anxiety to possess things. We watch over what we have and we fret over what we have not got. We spend today worrying about getting more for tomorrow. We have not learnt to live with what we have. We add to our insecurity by accumulating goods, and we overlook the fact that tomorrow may never come. Even today is not guaranteed! The amount of goods we have stored up in this life does not give us security, and certainly not if we have impoverished others in our efforts to accumulate them. The joy of living that is based on possessions has no future. The pleasure that comes from abundance is very small. Material goods do not satisfy the people who find their happiness in them.
With the parable of the rich man, Jesus wants to teach his listeners that there is little value in being the owner of many things, if one is not the master of one’s own life. To understand Jesus’ teaching we need to bear in mind that the rich man’s plan of action was quite logical, in part even praiseworthy. As a landowner he was acting with prudence and foresight. He foresaw a good harvest and took the appropriate measures. First of all, he would increase the size of his barns, and then he would be able to enjoy his wealth. There is nothing wrong, or foolish, in increasing the size of the barns if you are expecting a good harvest. Making sure that nothing gets lost is the least you would expect of a good landowner. Being happy with what you foresee coming is quite different from cherishing false illusions. The landowner organized everything and he was happy with the wealth that was coming. He was a lucky man and he acted wisely. But that is not how Jesus saw things! Anyone who puts his trust in what he has obtained, or finds his happiness in an abundance of wealth, will leave it all behind at the end of his life. He will find himself without wealth and without God.
There is something very serious hidden in the attitude of the rich man, even though his approach may seem reasonable. So serious is it that Jesus utters a condemnation which is quite unusual in all the parables. He speaks to the man in the words of God: the man is a fool if he puts his trust in possessions and thinks he is secure because of the amount of goods he owns, and forgets that tomorrow may not dawn for him.
Goods that can easily be lost cannot be our most valued goods, nor the most precious. Unless we have God as our supreme good, all our other goods are worthless. To make something other than God our source of happiness is to risk losing all. We cannot be sure of any goods, if we do not make sure that God is our supreme good. The man who has many possessions will always find that his barns are too small, because he is always trying to fill his life with more than what he already has. If he lets himself be owned by what he has and by what he would like to have, he will lose the one good he always has, namely God and the things of God. Our real good is not what we want now, but what God wants to give us if we make him our only good.
Jesus criticises the avarice of the landowner because he wants more and wants a better life for himself only. He was dreaming of a large harvest that would allow him – and him alone – to live the so-called good life. By accumulating wealth for himself, he actually made himself worse off, for he cut himself off from his brother in need. He was making life more difficult for those who were poorer. He thought he could live and enjoy life on his own. A man is a fool if he wants more than he needs, or keeps on trying to satisfy his desires just because he has room for more. Those who do not put their trust in God cannot guarantee their possessions nor can they add one day to their lives. God is our only good and we cannot hide from him our desire for other things. And if we have him as our only good, we cannot have other desires or other goods. As believers, our happiness comes, not from the more we have, but from the more we know we are loved by God. When we have God, nothing else is necessary and we will never be without the joy of life.