Luke 12:13-21 – The 11th Sunday after Pentecost – for Sunday, July 31, 2016
“Someone from the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.’” (Luke 12:13)
At the first opportunity, he shouted the question. He didn’t need to shout, since Jesus stood a few steps away. And it hardly sounded like him, with his voice hoarse and shaky. Blame it on adrenaline. Blame it on the crowd’s noise. Blame it on his fear that this might be his only shot for an answer.
“Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”
The guy, fist closed, the thumb angled right like a flag blowing in a strong breeze, gestured toward the person next to him . . .
That brother’s expression abruptly shifted from admiration for Jesus to anger at the intrusion. Uninvited and unwanted, his meddlesome sibling had embarrassed both of them.
Jesus gazed at the questioning brother and asked, “Man, who appointed me as judge or referee between you and your brother?”
If I’d been the brother with the request, I might’ve thought: God appointed you!! Aren’t you the Prince of Peace, the anointed and awaited One, the prophet who made the arrogant Pharisees cringe and the despicable Romans scowl? (And yet that way of thinking would be me reading and wondering with my 21st century sensibilities.)
To the brother seeking an answer to his inheritance question, Jesus was a “teacher,” rabbi-like without officially being a rabbi. This Nazarene had captured the imagination of others, including his brother, and seemed to inspire followers to open their hearts and minds.
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Of course, I’m making most of this up! Except for the scriptural language of the question the “someone” in the crowd asked, and the answer Jesus gave, it’s my fanciful fabrication.
We hardly know anything about this moment.
- Were both brothers present? We don’t know.
- Was the brother with the question a clever and greedy fellow or humble and generous? We don’t know.
- Was the sibling who was the subject of the question a humble and generous person or clever and greedy? We don’t know.
- Was the querying brother younger or older? In Jesus’ time this mattered for inheritance issues. We don’t know.
- Was the brother with the singular question spiteful or hopeful, right or wrong? We don’t know.
- Was Jesus irked, amused, cynical, or sympathetic to the questioner’s request? We don’t really know . . .
Of course, I could argue the brother’s question and Jesus’ response had little in common. Unless it’s assumed Jesus knew “everything” about people, how could he know the spiteful (or hopeful) brother’s intentions? I could further argue, with great enthusiasm, that the scene between the asking brother and the answering Jesus never happened. It was merely a Gospel writer’s device to provide a launching pad for Jesus’ admonition about greed. When studying the Gospels, I try to recall that these words were scribed generations after Jesus’ ministry. Nobody had followed Jesus, iPhone in hand, recording all of the newsworthy moments.
When reading this passage with “innocent” eyes, as if reading for the first time, or (even more difficult) reading without my biases, I still struggle with it.
A person asked for Jesus’ advice.
And Jesus refused! Hey, this was the same Jesus who insulted—judged—a “foreign” woman that sought help for her daughter because she wasn’t a Jew. (See Mark 7:25-30). This was the Jesus that challenged the Pharisees’ opinions with his own countercultural opinions. This was the Jesus that scolded his parents—like a referee?—when they found the pre-teen in the temple.
Isn’t every parable an example of Jesus being “judge or referee” of human actions and attitudes?
Wasn’t Jesus really avoiding the subject?
And yet, what was the subject?
Greed? Sure . . . but was greed the only issue?
Tell my brother, the other brother asked Jesus. Maybe the brothers were shoulder to shoulder. Maybe the brothers hadn’t spoken, or even been near each other, for years. Maybe the brothers hated each other. Maybe the brother only asked Jesus based on a dare or was just joking. Ha. Ha. Ha.
Ever the advice giver, I believe Jesus did advise the brother. Jesus didn’t ignore the subject. Instead he bluntly confronted it.
I recall a family in hospice struggling over a decision about their dying loved one. This person, with only months to live, was still alert and talkative. The family wanted to do the right things for him, but dreaded making wrong choices. Huddled at the rear of the house, voices low as the patient dozed in a rented hospital bed in the living room, they discussed (and discussed) options. I was their chaplain, visiting with a social worker. I wish the next words were mine, but just enough humility compels me to admit it was the social worker that gently wondered . . .
Why not ask him?
Him being their loved one . . . him being the dying patient . . . him being the discussion’s subject . . . him being the one person not yet included in the decision.
Whether or not in hospice, sometimes you can’t ask the other. Disease or distance can thwart communication. But often enough, the other can answer. (Well, she or he can answer if a question is actually asked.)
Did Jesus guess (or know or hope) that one brother could talk to the other? I believe so. Sadly, even tragically, our greed appears in myriad forms. How often do we “hoard” our mercies and dreams or fears and doubts, keeping them from the ones that matter most?
At the heart of its heart, faith must be open, vulnerable, and relational.