The Question of Inheritance

This coming Sunday is the 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time with the gospel taken 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.” One of Jesus’ hearers was having trouble with his brother about the proper division of an inheritance.

Jewish laws of succession covered most cases (cf. Deut. 21:17), but there was sometimes room for doubt and in this case the man who spoke up felt that an injustice was being done. His brother was clearly in possession and he wanted Jesus to persuade him to quit his claims. He does not ask Jesus to decide on the merits of two claims: he asks for a decision in his own favor. He seems to be acting unilaterally for nothing indicates that the brother had agreed to have Jesus try the case. The man is taking Jesus as a typical rabbi, for the rabbis customarily gave decisions on disputed points of law.

Jesus is interrupted in his instruction of the disciples. Besides being rude, the interruption betrays an insensitivity to what Jesus has just said about matters of essential importance. Jesus sees behind the question the very greed he warned the Pharisees about (11:39–42).

Jesus’ admonition in 12:15, “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions,” provides a commentary on the previously narrated request for arbitration, warning against the danger of the possession of material wealth, even when it is inherited. Life is defined not by objects, but by relationships, especially to God and his will. Several OT passages state the same perspective: Job 31:24–25; Ps. 49; Eccles. 2:1–11, and Sir. 11:18–19.

Jesus refuses to be recruited as the arbitrator in a dispute over the division of family holdings, addressing instead the dispositions out of which he apparently perceives the man’s dispute to have arisen. He uses the opportunity to tell a parable about the trap of possessions.

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