“Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.’ ” It’s tough to know what’s going on here, but that’s often the case in judgments. Any parent knows that. People only tell what’s advantageous to their case, only speaking partial truths and personal perspectives. There has to be more to this context, as there always is, but we have no context and no background information. That’s usually the case with judges and parents, anyway: They have to go on the information they have.
Well, Jesus isn’t a judge in Israel. He has no legal authority or standing. The law (Dt. 21.17) said older brother gets 2/3, younger brother 1/3. Possibly the man isn’t satisfied with his share. Maybe he’s just being greedy and covetous, and wants more. Tough to know. In any case, he feels ripped off, so it seems. It would hardly make sense that he’s coming to Jesus because he’s trying to cheat his brother. It’s more likely the other way around. They lived in a very poor world where there were a few rich, and MANY poor. Most of the audience would not have been inheritors of ANYTHING. Their world was not a “make your own way” kind of world, but one of “the class you were born into is the class you will live in is the class you will die in.” Inheritance belonged only to secure, respectable people, mostly the leisurely class. For slaves, freedmen, laborers, soldiers, commoners, hucksters, prostitutes, artists, entrepreneurs on a shoestring, and all the others who were economically struggling, inheriting anything was a fantasy. So this guy is speaking out. He feels he’s being cheated in a world where being cheated like this can spell the end of you.
Jesus replies, “Who appointed me the judge of you?” Ouch. Wasn’t even going to help? Or maybe not going to put himself in the middle of a battle that wasn’t his. The man’s case may have been a good one, but there are two other factors at play: (1) there were courts to settle such disputes, and (2) Jesus’ ministry and vision are not patching up incidental local injustices. He’s here to deal with injustice at its core. That’s why he follows with v. 15: “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed.” So much for the IRAs and the 2nd homes. Our world surely runs on greed. We all clutch at our lives, security, comfort, and possessions. As long as we do that, then the kind of denial of self and dying to sins remains quite out of reach. It’s not that desires are a bad thing. They’re not. God created us with desires, and what spring out of them are love, commitment, and achievement. But when desires warp they become lust, power, and greed. The former seek the well-being and increase of others, and moral purposes. The latter seek the well-being and advancement of self.
This is so like Jesus’ style. There’s nothing wrong with justice, fairness, or possessions. There’s nothing wrong with desires. But Jesus is seizing a teachable opportunity to discuss core things far deeper than the case presented to him. I guess Jesus is saying, “You have placed your highest values on the wrong inheritance!” Then, in typical Jesus style, he tells a story. (He’s masterful.)
“The ground of a certain man produced a good crop.” The implication is that the man’s prosperity was from God. Palestine generally is not good agricultural country, so a good crop is truly a blessing. It clearly is setting the stage for the idea that his prosperity was not due to anything that he did, but it came to him by good fortune.
“Hm. Whatever shall I do with all my good fortune?” There’s a choice. There’s always a choice. The man is accountable, not for what goes through his head necessarily, but what he chooses to do. He has a choice to be generous or greedy, to be selfless or self-centered, to be a good steward or an irresponsible accumulator. “I have no place to STORE my crops.” Shows he’s thinking of accumulating rather than sharing. There’s nothing wrong with having a successful year and a good harvest. There is nothing wrong with responsibly storing up for a rainy day. The storyteller is holding out for now as to where this will go.
“Then he said, ‘This is what I’LL do. I will tear down MY barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all MY grain and MY goods.” Notice the intentional attention to his growing self-interest: I, I, my, I, my, MY! You see, materialism isn’t possession of material goods, but OBSESSION with them. Materialism has nothing to do with the amount, but with the attitude.
v. 19: I have plenty stored up for many years. Time to eat, drink, and be merry. Oh yeah. Our version of it is, “He who has the most toys wins.” This proves that his motive and goal were accumulation, not responsible stewardship. Jesus is having the fool do what we all do: congratulate ourselves on our lifestyle whenever possible. We congratulated ourselves as master of an operation that is not within our control. An earthquake can happen any minute, right? Every word this man breathes is oriented to his own self. Do you know ANYONE who has lived out the “Eat, drink, and be merry” philosophy successfully? I don’t think so.
Maybe the man thinks he has some resources and a sense of control. Yeah, when it comes right down to it, he has diddly squat. We spend our whole lives pursuing what amounts to no more than a hill of beans. He was dealing in a medium that was un-keep-able, accumulating what is by definition temporary. Instead, Jesus’ point is, “Do everything to accumulate what cannot be lost.” As Jim Elliott said, “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”