The Context for Luke 12

This coming Sunday is the 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time in Year C when we proclaim the Gospel of Luke. The gospel is from Luke 12 and, in large part, addresses our relationship to the riches of this life and what constitutes real treasure “in what matters to God.

Prior to this gospel passage, Jesus has been instructing the disciples on the need for faithfulness in situations of persecution – then suddenly the scene is seemingly interrupted by an individual focused on getting Jesus to help him regarding an inheritance issue: “Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me.” 

Rabbis were often asked to arbitrate in family disputes. The New Testament does not shed much new light on the subject. Jews in the time of Jesus probably followed practices that came from the law of Moses. For example, according to Deuteronomy 21:17, the firstborn son was to inherit twice as much as any other heir. Outside of this, the majority of scripture and rabbinic writings address the issue where a man dies without sons. Clearly not the case here as there are at least two sons.

But what about after our text? This text, as well as the Gospels for the two following Sundays, comes in a section of Luke (12:1-13:9) where exhortations and warnings are given by Jesus in preparation for the coming judgment. Culpepper (Luke, New Interpreter’s Bible, 255) writes of the transition from vv. 1-12 to vv. 13-21 with:

Continuing the theme of this larger section, the next verses shift from confession of Jesus to forsaking the security of material possessions. Those who confess Jesus look to God for their security, not to their own ability to accumulate possessions and lay up wealth for the future.

Our text is connected with the verses that follow by the sense of possessions (desiring more than what is needed) and by the word psyche (v. 19 twice, v. 20, v. 22, v. 23). This word is translated as “soul” or “life” in these verses. Psyche is that mysterious thing that makes me “me” or you “you.” It is everything that makes a pile of organic materials come to life as an individual – life force, soul, spirit, breath, personality, etc. In modern parlance we use the word “self”.

Related to this, our text is an illustration of what Jesus had said at the beginning of this entire section: “There is nothing concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be known.  Therefore, whatever you have said in the darkness will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed on the housetops.” (12:2-3). Most of our parable is “hearing” the inner thoughts of the rich man – what is in his psyche – what is his true “self”.

As for the question of inheritance, Jesus is recognized as having the authority to do this, but he sees behind the question the very greed he warned the Pharisees about (11:39–42). He uses the opportunity to tell a parable about the trap of possessions.

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