In Monday’s gospel, Jesus is asked to intervene in a family dispute.
His reply is surprising.
Though he is the judge of the world, he refuses to play the part of Judge Judy.
And what lesson does he teach to put things in perspective?
1) What is Jesus asked to do, and what is his response?
According to Luke 12:13-14:
One of the multitude said to him, “Teacher, bid my brother divide the inheritance with me.”
But he said to him, “Man, who made me a judge or divider over you?”
2) What, specifically, is the man asking Jesus to do?
This is not entirely clear:
· He may be asking Jesus to tell his brother to give him the portion of their family inheritance that he is due. In other words, he wants his brother to stop holding back what’s rightfully his.
· He may be asking Jesus to tell his brother to split an inheritance that is jointly-held between the two brothers (i.e., one that could be split, even though the terms of the inheritance don’t require it).
What is clear is that the man is asking Jesus to intervene in a family dispute involving an inheritance.
3) Do we know who’s right in this dispute?
We don’t know. We have only the one brother’s side of things, but there are two sides to every dispute.
As the book of Proverbs says
He who states his case first seems right,
until the other comes and examines him [Prov. 18:17].
If the withholding brother (who was probably the older one) was withholding what he should have given the inquiring brother (probably the younger) then he was obviously in the wrong.
But if the elder brother was being asked to do something not required of him (e.g., split a jointly-held inheritance), he may not have been wrong at all.
Further, the elder brother may have had a perfectly legitimate reason for not dividing the inheritance, such as “Dad disinherited you” or “You got your inheritance early, like in the Parable of the Prodigal Son.”
4) Why doesn’t Jesus intervene?
Although Jesus will judge all the actions of mankind—including those of these two brothers—he will do so on the Last Day.
It is not his task to settle such things during his earthly ministry, and, in fact, becoming known as Jesus-the-Settler-of-Legal-Disputes could have been a significant hindrance to his mission:
· In the first place, it could have affected his ability to deliver the gospel to these two brothers. He would have to disappoint at least one of them, and in either case, it would keep their attention focused on the temporal—on wordly goods. He cuts through this dilemma by refusing the offer and keeping the focus on the eternal.
· Second, settling this dispute would invite others to bring their disputes to him, which would only take up valuable time and cause his mission to take on a temporal aspect he did not intend.
· Third, Jesus was concerned to avoid being perceived as an earthly leader (“My kingdom is not of this world”), therefore he avoids settling worldly disputes, as an earthly ruler would do.
We may also note that Jesus, more than once, refuses a request to intervene to the benefit of particular parties: He refuses Martha’s request to tell Mary to help her, and he refuses the request of James and John’s mother to have her sons specially favored among the apostles.
5) What lesson can we draw from Jesus’ refusal to get involved?
Although we are not in the position of Jesus, we also can have earthly missions we need to protect. This applies even to such practical (if worldly) things like preserving our reputation or just getting on with life.
In general, it’s a good idea to avoid “Let’s you and him fight” situations. As the book of Proverbs says:
He who meddles in a quarrel not his own is like one who takes a passing dog by the ears [Proverbs 26:17].
This proverb makes the point nicely. Grab a passing dog by the ears, and you know what’s likely to happen: Snap!
In the same way, meddling in a quarrel that is not your own can quickly bite you.
6) What else did Jesus to when responding to the man?
Luke presents him as doing two things.
The first is that he tells the crowd:
“Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” [Luke 12:15].
We can show by comparing the different Gospels that sometimes the Evangelists arrange material topically rather than chronologically, so Luke may be grouping this teaching with the account of the inheritance dispute because they both involve a concern with money.
On the other hand, Jesus may have discerned that the inquiring brother was too preoccupied with his inheritance and needed to take a broader perspective. He may have been applying the lesson directly to him.
However that may be, the lesson is valid for all time: We must not be covetous and must recognize that we can’t define ourselves in terms of how many possessions we have.
The one who dies with the most toys does not win.
This is made clear in Jesus’ next action.
7) What does Jesus do next?
According to Luke, he tells a parable, saying:
The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’
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. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.’
But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’
So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God [Luke 12:16-21].
In this parable, the rich man has lots of toys, but he doesn’t win. In fact, he dies suddenly and loses all of his possessions.
8) What is the rich man’s fault in this parable?
There is nothing wrong with storing up goods for the future. Jesus doesn’t have a problem with barns—even big ones.
Neither is there anything wrong with relaxing, eating, drinking, and being merry.
Those are all good things—both naturally and, especially, when done with thankfulness to God.
The rich man’s fault is revealed in Jesus’ final statement in the parable: “So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”
The rich man has focused only on earthly goods and not heavenly ones.
He has defined his life in terms of his own possessions and pleasures. Indeed, he has put his trust in his possessions (not God) and seems intent on giving himself over to a life of pleasure. He’s just going to live for himself—without any apparent thought for God or other people.
What he should do is enjoy the blessings that God has given him, thank his Creator for them, and help the less fortunate.
Then he would be rich toward God.
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