Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” And 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.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then 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. 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, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God” (Luke 12:13-21 – NRSV).
The Prophet is well and truly on the road to Jerusalem! Chapter 12 of Luke’s Gospel opens with an exhortation to open and fearless speech – another of the “do not be afraid” exhortations (12:1-12). Then this passage against greed – not hoarding possessions – follows (12:13-21). An encouragement to trust in providence follows immediately (12:22-32). The rest of the chapter includes a brief word on almsgiving (12:33-34), on being ready for the Master’s return (12:35-50), an allusion to the Passion (12: 49-50), Jesus as an occasion for dissension (12:51-53), concluding with a call to read the signs of the times (12:54-59). There is a sense of urgency in an invitation to go deeper. St Benedict would say, “Listen with the ear of the heart”. Be aware, do not be distracted, focus on what matters in the end!
Given that overall context and mood, the question from “someone in the crowd” – most translations say “a man in the crowd” – seems utterly out of place. Yet, Jesus’ response points the listeners back into the urgency of the journey to Jerusalem and the perspective that gives to life. “Now, with stunning irrelevancy (but providing a wonderful opportunity to the moralist), a voice from the crowd asks Jesus to mediate in a family inheritance dispute (12:13). Not only does the anonymous questioner reveal inattentiveness to the seriousness of Jesus’ discourse, but an unawareness that something more than another ‘lawyer’ is here. In any case, Luke uses this framing device to set up what is in effect a long qal wehomer (lesser to the greater) argument, but in reverse. If his teaching to this point has stressed lack of fear before the immediate threat of life, how much less should fear generate an obsessive concern with possessions. Yet, Luke’s bringing together of these two themes shows how profoundly he has grasped the symbolic function of possessions in human existence. It is out of deep fear that the acquisitive instinct grows monstrous. Life seems so frail and contingent that many possessions are required to secure it, even though the possessions are frailer still than the life. Only the removal of fear by the persuasion that life is a gift given by the source of all reality can generate the spiritual freedom that is symbolized by the generous disposition of possessions” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991, 201).
Teacher, tell my brother etc: Clearly, this “man in the crowd” is pre-occupied with his own personal concern. He is not interested in Jesus or Jesus’ message. He therefore speaks to Jesus, not as the Prophet, but as a lawyer who can solve his dispute. The basic inheritance laws are laid down in Deuteronomy 21:15–17 and Numbers 27:1–11; 36:7–9.
judge or arbitrator: Jesus is quick to reject the role the man is trying to cast him in. Jesus has not come to sort out such matters but rather, to get to and deal with the root of why such matters arise. Hence his little parable on greed.
Be on your guard against all kinds of greed: The English word “greed” translates the Greek word pleonexia. “The term pleonexia (‘greed’ or ‘avarice’) names the vice that always seeks more possessions: Plutarch says ‘pleonexia never rests from acquiring to pleon (‘more’),’ On Love of Wealth 1 (Mor. 523 E). It is prominently featured in NT vice-lists (Mark 7:22; Rom 1:29; Eph 4:19; 5:3). Colossians 3:5 flatly identifies pleonexia with idolatry, an equation having much truth” (Luke Timothy Johns, op cit, 198). Note that the man in the parable is already “a rich man”.
one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions: This statement hardly needs comment! Yet, it is probably fair to say that, for most of us most of the time, its stark truth is not recognized. The consumerist society actually depends on this truth remaining unacknowledged.
The “more than” haunts our days. We bump into it many times each day. Enough is never enough. We all want more – more of truth, more of love, more of beauty, more delights, more satisfaction …. When this yearning is assimilated in a healthy life, when it is part of an other-centred way of living, it fires such things as research and discovery, religious commitment and mysticism. In the unhealthy life, when it is part of a self-centred way of living, it tends to fire greed and avarice, exclusion and violence. In this self-centred mode, it must surely be considered a major force contributing to the destruction of the environment. Consumerism is the most obvious and pervasive example.
Consumerism – in some quite primitive and yet sophisticated ways – recognises this yearning for the “more than” and manipulates it. It functions with the same unacknowledged – even denied – forces as an addiction functions. Consumerism manipulates wishes into needs and optional extras into necessities. It lies to us: “God is an illusion! What you yearn for is available in the finite things within this finite world.” And if we accept the lie, we try to satisfy our infinite longing in finite things. This is the way to despair.
Consumerism is promoted through the TV we watch and the digital devices we use. It is beckoning from the sides of buses, the walls of buildings and highway billboards. It permeates so much of our social interaction. Consumerism is in the air we breathe. It is as well that we keep our wits about us, therefore. Otherwise we might end up confusing having with being, possessions with identity.
Plutarch was a Greek writer in Roman society, a contemporary of the first Christians. He died in 120 CE. One of his major works is called Moralia. It is a gathering of more than 60 essays, including a number on ethical topics. In one of those essays he offers a very practical insight that echoes Jesus’ teaching: “Greed never rests from acquiring more”.
Greed is the trigger consumerism switches on and feeds. It is not only the antithesis of everything Jesus proclaimed – by both his life and teachings – it is the antithesis of what makes us social beings, able to dwell at peace with all our brothers and sisters, no matter what their state in life is, their ethnicity, their colour or their culture. The human heart will settle for nothing less than God – however we name God. St Augustine (354-430) begins his Confessions with the timeless advice: “You have made us for yourself and our heart is restless until it rests in you”. It is God we want, not gods.
Greed displaces God. Greed is idolatry. Thus, St Paul writes to the Christians in Colossae: “Put to death … greed (which is idolatry)” (3:5). And the American social philosopher, Norman O Brown (1913-2002) writes in an enigmatic statement: “Incarnation is iconoclasm” (Norman O Brown, Love’s Body, Vintage/Random House, 1966, 222). Becoming human is in large measure a matter of dealing with idolatry of one form or another.