13Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” 14But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” 15And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” 16Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ 18Then 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. 19And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 20But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
Translation: Someone out of the crowd said to him, "Teacher, speak to my brother to divide the inheritance with me." But he said to him, "Man, who placed me judge or divider over you?" And he said to them, "See and guard from all greed, for someone's life is not in the abundance of possessions."
And he said a parable to them, saying, "The region of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully. And he was reasoning in himself, saying, 'What might I do, for I do not have a place where I will store my fruits.' And he said, 'I will do this: I will pull down my barns and I will build greater. And there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my life, 'Life, you have many goods laid up into many years. Rest, eat, drink, be merry.'
But God said to him, 'Fool. This night your life is demanded from you, and the things you have, whose will they be?' This (is) the one laying up treasures for himself and not being rich into God.'"
Background and situation: The passage appears only in Luke. Following last week's lection on prayer (11:1-13), Jesus is speaking to a crowd (11:14) whose number is increasing (11:29). Is this one of Luke's subtle ways of saying the "Jesus movement" is gaining momentum as it continues toward Jerusalem?
Oddly, a pharisee interrupts Jesus (11:37) and abruptly invites Jesus to dinner. Jesus attends the dinner and--rather impolitic of him--delivers a harsh denunciation of pharisees and scribes (11:38-54), which angered the pharisees and turned them against Jesus.
Outside, meanwhile, the crowd continues to gather. It now numbers in the thousands (12:1), but, before speaking to the crowds, Jesus speaks only to the disciples. From 12: 1b-12, Jesus cautions the disciples to "beware the yeast of the pharisees, which is their hypocrisy."
The language indicates a contentious environment. The Jesus movement will become public--"what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops"--but the situation at present is dire. The disciples may suffer bodily harm. Nevertheless, they are encouraged to be absolutely loyal. They will receive divine guidance when they face the authorities.
Question on inheritance: "Someone in the crowd" interjects with a question. He addresses Jesus as "teacher," and wants Jesus to tell his brother to give him his inheritance.
Questions regarding inheritance were addressed in the Hebrew tradition (Num 27:1-11, and others), and it was not improper for a rabbi to render an opinion on the issue. Presumably, the man making the request is the younger brother. In Hebrew society of that time, the oldest brother would inherit the lion's share of his father's estate.
This younger brother seems to assume that Jesus would decide in his favor. Perhaps the man has been listening to Jesus' egalitarian sermons and supposes that family inheritances should be treated in a similarly egalitarian way.
Jesus responds by saying that he is not in a position to render a judgment. "Man (anthropos)," he says, "who placed me judge or divider over you?" Then, he issues a exhortation on the subject of greed--"see and watch from all greed, for someone's life is not in the abundance of possessions."
The latter clause in that statement is particularly difficult to translate. Literally, by word order, the phrase would read something like this: "not in the abundance, a certain one, his life, is out of his possessions" (huparcho). (Think that's clunky? Try this one by Schmidt, cited by Joel Green: "(it is) not while one has abundance (that) life is his--(it does not) come from his possessions.")
Huparcho is formed from archon with the prefix hupo. Literally, it would mean something like "upon beginning" or "upon first," and is typically translated to mean "start" or "to begin." It refers to "the original state of existence", what one "possesses" from the beginning, which is how it came to mean "possessions."
Warming to the subject of greed, Jesus then proceeds to a parable regarding "a certain rich man" (anthropos). Luke uses anthropos both to describe the man making the request regarding inheritance and the rich man in the parable, thereby making a subtle connection between the two.
Parable of the rich fool: The "region" of a rich man "brought forth plentifully." In other words, the increase in production wasn't because the rich man was such a great agriculturalist, but because it was a good crop year in that locale. The whole region produced. Credit should go to God.
The situation of abundance prompts an internal dialog in the man. (Indeed, the word is dielogizeto, where we get our word "dialog.") He has so much produce that his existing barns aren't big enough to contain it. This means that he will be storing, and not selling, his crop.
With a bumper crop throughout the region, the price is probably depressed. Why sell now? Why not build a bigger barn, store the produce, and sell next year when crops might not be so plentiful and their market price will be higher?
Jesus was telling this story, keep in mind, in a world where 90% of the people lived at the level of bare subsistence. A big landowner with big barns holding "much goods" is not likely to generate much sympathy in a world where many people were losing what little land they had and many others were driven into destitution and homelessness.
The rich man talks only to himself, and, for Luke, thinks only of himself. He takes no thought of his neighbors, nearly all of whom are peasants. It wasn't that long ago (10: 25-37) that Jesus had lauded care for one's neighbor. Here, none are considered.
Rather comically, he says, "I will say to my life, 'Life'." Today, the expression "I will say to myself, Self"--the same thing the rich farmer said--is something of a cross between a lame joke and a lame cliche. (Do a google search on the expression, and you get 304,000,000 hits.) The man is not only talking to himself, he's actually addressing himself, as if he were outside his own body. He's not only disconnected from his neighbors, he's also detached from his own self!
Incidentally, the Greek word here for "life" or "self" is psyche. (We get our word "psychology" from it.) It is often translated as "soul" (NRSV) which is technically correct, I suppose, but translate it that way and you unwittingly bring in the baggage of Greek philosophy with it. The Hebrews didn't believe in body/soul dualism. The Greeks did.
For the Hebrews, and thus, also for Jesus, a person was a whole person, and could not be broken up into parts. Yes, they did speak of mind, heart, will--even soul. These, however, were aspects of a person, not divisible entities. In any case, the Hebrews used "soul" in the same sense as "heart," i.e. as the psychological and spiritual center of the one whole person.
The Greeks, on the other hand, conceived of the "soul" as something distinct from the body. The "soul" was a spiritual entity and had true value. The body did not. The body was a mere mortal shell, of no lasting consequence. In fact, thought the Greeks, it was disgusting that something so dang wonderful as a "soul" had to put up with being in this rattle-trap insult of a body.
The Hebrews would never have said anything so ridiculous. They had a much higher view of the body and the material world. Translating psyche as "soul" recalls Plato, not Jeremiah, and Athens, not Jerusalem. Therefore, in my view, "life"--or even "self"--is a better translation.
So the dude is set. He has many goods laid up for many years, and he can "rest, eat, drink, be merry"--not that that's a bad thing, incidentally. It is, after all, the position of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes (8:15). Life is hard. Enjoy yourself when you can.
God, however, calls him a "fool." He's not a "bad" man, you understand, but rather a blockhead, a nitwit. The reason he's a fool is not because he's enjoying himself, but rather because he's going to die in just a few hours--"this night your life is demanded (apaitousin) from you."
Apaiteo means "required back." God gave the man life in the first place, just as God gave the increase in produce throughout the land. Now, God is "requiring it back." Turns out the rich man, for all his self-centered strategizing, doesn't run his own life after all. And his "many goods"? God says out loud what everybody should know already: "Hey, you can't take it with you."
In terms of financial and economic sense, however, it's hard to argue with the rich man's position. The decision to build bigger barns is entirely reasonable, even smart. Bigger storage makes it easier to both play and manipulate the market.
Yet, God calls him a "fool." His foolishness is not in his attempt to "be merry," though, frankly, such an effort can't mean much for a person who is so divorced from human connection. Doesn't it take at least two to tango?
No, the man is a fool because, in pursuit of profits in the market, he has acted in disregard for his neighbors. Yes, the market has considerable power. It is able to deliver "many goods." It turns out, however, that the market is not God. All life comes from God who may "require it back" at any time.
Therefore, in discerning whether one should place their interest in their own self-advancement, or the needs of their neighbors, it might be prudent to consider God's opinion on the matter.
Image: Parable of the rich fool, Jim Janknegt