A Lectionary Reflection on Luke 12:13-21 for Proper 13C
For someone who has shown himself to be committed to justice, Jesus’ response to a person who was potentially being cheated by a sibling out of a rightful inheritance is surprising. But, once again, it seems, Jesus saw right through to the heart of the problem, and responded to that. And the heart of the problem was a problem of the heart.
In the preceding sections of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has been warning the people, in a number of different ways, about the problems of a heart that is unchanged, and of the destructiveness of hypocrisy in which the life we live and the motivations of our hearts are divided. Now, Jesus is faced with someone who seems to have a legitimate grievance against his or her (the Bible doesn’t say) brother. Yet clearly both the offending brother and the offended sibling were suffering from the same greed of heart, and it was tearing them apart. And so, Jesus warns his hearers against this greed, reminding them that our lives are not determined by what we own.
The parable that follows is amazingly familiar, in spite of the cultural and historical distance. A wealthy man discovers that his wealth has grown beyond his ability to store it. He clearly has more than enough for himself and his dependents. But, instead of solving his problem by sharing his wealth with others, the man decides to increase his own capacity to hoard.
In a nation that had come into being as a result of God’s promise that they would be blessed in order to bless the nations, such greed is not just selfish. It undermines the very nature of what it means to be one of God’s people. Furthermore, Luke’s Gospel, in the previous few chapters has been emphasising – to the point of boredom – that hospitality is the essential characteristic of God’s Reign. Yet, here we have a man who is the opposite of hospitable. The punchline in the story, though, is that God tells the man that he will not get to enjoy his accumulated wealth. He will die, and the sharing that he should have done in life will now happen, without his help, because of his death.
If we had continued reading, we would have heard Jesus’ instruction to reject worry and to seek first God’s Reign. It’s a pity that the Lectionary did not extend the reading this far, because this is where the whole teaching of the last few chapters comes together. The Reign of God is all about hospitality – about being welcomed and accepted into God’s generous and loving grace, and about extending that same welcome, generosity and grace to others. But, in an attempt to look good, while avoiding the pain of hospitality, we may be tempted to put on appearances, yet shut God’s grace – and those whom God loves – out of our hearts. This is the “yeast of the Pharisees” of 12:1.
But, what could cause such a hypocritical reaction within us? The answer is simple – fear. When we are afraid that we won’t have enough, it is almost impossible to resist the temptation to hoard and accumulate. And then, inevitably, the possessions we gather around us to silence our fear end up possessing our hearts and driving us out of the security and life of God’s Reign.
But, if we can resist our fear, and the greed to which it gives birth, our hearts can remain open to God’s Reign and to those who are our companions in this new way of being. And, in Jesus’ characteristic upside-down way, the connectedness and hospitality that we experience in God’s Reign provide us with the very security and sufficiency we seek – but without the destructive consequences.