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Luke 12:13-21 1
13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” 14 Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” 15 Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” 16 And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. 17 He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ 18 “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. 19 And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”‘ 20 “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ 21 “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”

Background

The issue here is not ownership of possessions but ownership by possessions. Wealth is a hard taskmaster. The person who desires wealth is tempted to make the acquisition of more things their top priority in life. We are all tempted to believe that we can find true security in wealth. Faith in wealth crowds out faith in God. It is not money that is the problem, however, but love of money (1 Timothy 6:10).

Lets look at the Old Testament and what it says about inheritance.  Deuteronomy 21:17 calls for a double portion of the inheritance for the firstborn son. If there are two sons, the elder receives two-thirds (67 percent), and the second son one-third (33 percent). If there are three sons, the elder receives two-fourths (50 percent), and the others receive one-fourth each (25 percent). If there are four sons, the elder receives two-fifths (40 percent), and the others receive one-fifth each (20 percent). Deuteronomy specifies that the father’s affection or lack thereof for the wife of the firstborn must not affect the inheritance. This complicated questions concerning inheritance, sons of different mothers, or from multiple wives.

This man’s issue is not the amount that he has inherited, but rather the fact that his father has left the inheritance to his two sons jointly, not equally. This man doesn’t want joint ownership, but wants to be independent of his brother. His love of money supersedes his love for his brother. This is not about the law in Deuteronomy.

It is unlikely that he is a firstborn son, because a firstborn son would have control of any estate and would not require Jesus’ assistance. While the man addresses Jesus as teacher, he is not asking to be taught anything. Instead, he tells Jesus what he wants and asks (or commands) Jesus to do his bidding, to separate the estate and inheritance for him. He wants to take advantage of Jesus’ moral authority—seeks to use Jesus’ authority to gain power over his brother in the dispute over their inheritance.

This man’s selfishness is in sharp contrast with the context in which he makes his request. Jesus has been teaching people by the thousands (12:1). He warned them of hypocrisy coming from the Pharisees (12:1). Jesus told them not to fear those who kill the body but those who can corrupt them and cast them into hell (12:4-5). Jesus encouraged them to confess the Son of Man before people (12:8-9), to share their reasons and faith in Him. He told them that they will face opposition and assured them that the Holy Spirit will give them the right words when they are dragged before the authorities (12:11-12). In the midst of these serious concerns, a man interjects a request for help with his inheritance. In doing so, he reveals that he has not heard anything Jesus has been saying. The man is only concerned about his personal problem. His interruption and issue is trivial by comparison with the teaching that the man is interrupting, and so is an inappropriate and disruptive question.

So Jesus gives us a parable to answer this man. “The ground of a certain rich man brought forth abundantly” (v. 16). The man was rich prior to this harvest, and the harvest simply increases his wealth. Jesus portrays a windfall harvest—a harvest far in excess of the rich man’s investment in planting and tilling—a harvest that is truly a gift of God. As we shall see, the abundant harvest raises the question of stewardship. What responsibility do we incur when we acquire more than we need? “He reasoned within himself” (v. 17a). The man talks with nobody but himself. He is so inwardly focused that he requires no counsel. He certainly has not asked God for guidance.

“What will I do, because I don’t have room to store my crops?” (v. 17b). Most of us would be glad have this problem,  having more money than we know what to do with. This man certainly seems glad. However, money is all that he has. He mentions nothing of family or friends. He has no sense of community. He has no inclination to help the poor or to donate to worthwhile charities. He is rich in money and poor in everything else. What is the man’s solution? “I will pull down my barns, and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods” (v. 18). The abundant harvest exceeds the rich man’s expectations, requiring quick decisions regarding storage or disposal. Jesus does not suggest that the man has come by the great harvest dishonestly. There is no suggestion that the man misused his hired hands or harvested grain from his neighbor’s fields, no fraud involved.

The parable draws a contrast between “many years” (v. 19) and “tonight” (v. 20). The man is foolish because he hasn’t taken into account his own mortality, which will claim him this very night. Jesus is not responsible for his pending death in the parable, Jesus just knows this. “The things which you have prepared—whose will they be?” (v. 20b). People who love possessions guard them jealously, maintain tight controls, build fences to prevent other people from gaining access to those possessions. This is not about someone squandering their wealth, it is a longer range view of wealth. What happens when rich people die? What happens when any of us die? Wills, trusts and philanthropic gifts provide only basic protection for someone’s wishes. Fortunes, big and small, are often spent in ways that the person never envisioned and would never have approved.

“So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God” (v. 21). We should not assume that this verse applies only to Silicon Valley Millionaires or politicians. We don’t have to be wealthy by the world’s standards to fall into this trap. The jeopardy applies to any person who “lays up treasure for themselves” and who “is not rich toward God.”

The problem is not this man’s wealth but his selfishness and hoarding. While wealth tempts people to hoard or squander, poverty can also have its risks.  If poor people share their surplus unselfishly with people, they are following Jesus’s instructions. However, even the hungry can hoard a piece of bread, especially if it is more than they really needed.

Items for Discussion

  • Do you think people try to take advantage of Jesus in today’s society, similar to the rich man in this story?
  • How would you define “surplus wealth?”
  • Can you think of any biblical characters who were wealthy and successful? How were they different from this rich man?
  • What is the problem with looking for satisfaction in possessions?
  • How is the world’s perspective on investing in our lives at odds with God’s perspective?
  • How do you define greed and what introspective test questions could you give yourself to see if you are at risk like the man in this story?
    • Self-Test:
    • (1) Do my thoughts more often run after material things than after God Himself?
    • (2) Do I ever compromise godly character in the pursuit of material gain?
    • (3) Do I enjoy material things more than I enjoy knowing God?
    • (4) How do I respond when I lose material things?
    • (5) What would I do if I suddenly came into a fortune?
  • What is the lesson here on maintaining relationships with people over handling our riches?

Discussion Challenge

  • How can we teach others to view Jesus is like an eternal 401K?

Notes:

  1. NIV New International Version Translations
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