Commentary on Luke 12:13-21
Fighting over inheritance is a common problem in all societies and cultures. It stresses people out and divides families. In this pericope of Luke, a man comes to Jesus asking him to intervene with his brother to give him his inheritance. Jesus refuses to take the role of the divider; he begins to talk about greed and supports his teaching with the parable of the rich fool. What is wrong with the man’s request? Why does Jesus talk about greed? Is it wrong to ask for your inheritance? How does the parable apply to the man’s request?
It was common in first-century Palestine for Jews to ask rabbis for a legal ruling.1 The man thought of Jesus as a respected rabbi who influenced people, and could convince his brother to give him his inheritance. By calling Jesus a teacher, he acknowledges his “authority to render a decision in his case.“ 2
The man seems to be the younger brother because, according to the Law of Deuteronomy 21:16-17, the firstborn son receives a double portion of his father’s main estate. The eldest brother is also responsible for keeping the estate intact or dividing it among his brothers. Therefore, younger brothers initiate when asking for their inheritance. Take, for example, the prodigal son/father parable in Luke 15:11-16, where the younger son asked for his inheritance, and his father gave him one-third of his estate (the oldest son received a double portion). The eldest brother wants to keep the land intact, while the younger wants his share. To achieve a settlement, the younger brother asks Jesus to play the role of “an arbitrator, expert, reconciler, in order to settle the dispute.”3 Jesus refused. Why?
Jesus refuses to act as arbitrator or divider of inheritance because he knows the younger man’s inner thoughts and evil intentions. Jesus exposes the younger man’s desire to covet his brother, “And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions’” (verse 15). Jesus indicates that the young man’s claim on inheritance is not just, otherwise, the laws of inheritance (Numbers 27:5-11, 36:5-9; Deuteronomy 21:16-17) would have taken care of the request.4 As a wealthy farmer and landholder, this younger brother wants to obtain more wealth and a more advanced status within his community at the expense of his older brother.
Jesus tells the parable of the rich fool to teach against greed. He emphasizes that secured life does not depend on possessions, but on entrusting one’s life to God. The scenario that Jesus depicts is a vast wealthy landholder who had an abundant harvest and decided to tear down his current storage facilities to make room for larger ones. This rich man is a shrewd businessman, but his shrewdness is very evil. By building colossal storage, the rich fool decides to hoard his harvest and not contribute to the market with his surplus. His intentions affect the food supply and create a sacristy of grain, ultimately driving the price up. This farmer is only interested in his well-being, ignoring the needs of the poor peasants around him who will be affected by his decision.5 Jesus describes a self-centered farmer who makes an unethical profit and harms the economy. By hoarding his grain, the rich fool “secures his economic power and position of status in the village as others are made more and more dependent on him.”6 The rich fool wants to control the market at the expense of his neighbors.
The wealthy farmer is a fool because he assumes that his security depends on his possessions and wealth, not God, the source of all gifts and security. God summons his soul when the rich farmer invites his soul to be merry and enjoy wealth. In a single moment, all his hopes vanished. God asks him a rhetorical question, “And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” (verse 20). God’s question means that he cannot take his hoarded grain to the grave, nor does he know whose they will be. His children or his poor peasants, whom he withheld his grain, may take them.
Jesus tells his audience, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God” (verse 21). Jesus means that the rich fool lost his soul to gain earthly possessions that will not benefit him in the afterlife. The wise person is the one who is “rich toward God,” which means generous towards others in need.7 Jesus further instructs his disciples about greed, trusting God to provide for their needs, and not to worry about life (verses 22-35).
Greed is the moral antithesis of generosity. It makes us worry about the future instead of trusting God, who holds the future. Greed destroys us, but generosity blesses us. This pericope invites us to reflect on what we do with our possessions. Do our possessions give us security for the future? All our possessions are God’s gift to us, and as Christian stewards, God calls us to share the gifts with those in need.
This pericope also invites our political leaders to be faithful stewards in managing our national wealth and serving the underprivileged, not themselves or their allies. The rise of gas prices and inflation result from greed and unfaithful stewardship. Companies are jacking up prices by more than is necessary to gain unethical profit. These companies and political leaders act as the rich fool who is concerned with his earthly life, not his poor neighbors or his afterlife. This pericope reminds me of Proverbs 11:24-25…
“Some give freely yet grow all the richer;
others withhold what is due and only suffer want.
A generous person will be enriched,
and one who gives water will get water.”
- Henry Mugabe, “Parable of the Rich Fool: Luke 12:13-21,” SAGE 111, no. 1 (2014): 69.
- Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke (W B Eerdmans Pub Co, 1997), 488.
- Bovon François, Helmut Koester, and Donald S. Deer, Luke 2 a Commentary on the Gospel of Luke 9:51–19:27 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), 195.
- Mugabe, “Parable of the Rich Fool,” 69
- Green, The Gospel of Luke, 490.
- Ibid, 491.
- Mugabe, “Parable of the Rich Fool,” 72.