Gospel: Luke 12:13-21

What's Really Important?

What measures of success do we have? Why does society reduce success to material wealth, fame, or power?

How many of us look out for a "sure thing?" The score. The big pay-off. The retirement check. Watch enough late night cable television and you will find the same "get rich quick" infomercials play over and over. Look beyond the gloss of these presentations and you will find one fact. If you want really to make big money, sell greed!

Is the road to success paved with greed? Jesus didn't think so.

Popular Translation

13 Someone in the crowd that surrounded Jesus yelled out, "Teacher! Tell my brother to share what my dead father left us!"

14 "Hey, buddy!" Jesus shot back. "Who made me your judge?" 15 Then Jesus said to the crowd, "Watch out! Guard against every kind of greed! Someone's life is not equal to everything he owns!"

16 Jesus continued with a parable. "One year, the land a rich man owned had a great harvest. 17 'What will I do?' the rich man wondered. 'I don't have a place big enough to put the harvest.' 18 Then he got an idea. 'I know what to do. I'll tear down my old barns, build bigger ones, and store everything I have there. 19 Then I'll say to myself, 'Congratulations! You have a lot of stuff that will last a very long time. So, relax! Eat! Drink! Party everyday!'

20 'You, fool!' God told the rich man. 'Tonight, you will die! Who will get all that stuff you saved?' 21 The same thing will happen to those people who build up their own treasures, but who do not grow rich in God's eyes."

In Luke's gospel, Jesus warned his contemporaries against an obsession with material goods with a simple, yet direct parable.

Literal Translation

13 Someone from the crowd said to HIM, "Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me!" 14 HE said to him, "Man! Who appointed me judge or arbitrator over you?" 15 HE said to them, "Look out! Guard against every form of greed! For someone's life is not (measured) in the abundance (that comes) from his possessions." 16 HE told them a parable, saying, "The farmland of a certain rich man had a good harvest (one year). 17 He thought to himself, saying, 'What will I do, since I do not have (a place) to gather my crops?' 18 He said, 'I will do this! I will tear down my barns, build bigger (ones), and will gather together there all my wheat and possessions. 19 I will say to my life, 'Life, you have many possessions reserved for many years. Relax! Eat! Drink! Have a good time!' 20 God said to him, 'You fool! This night your life will be demanded of you! What you have prepared, to whom will they (go)?' 21 So it is (with) the one saving up treasure for himself, and not being rich with God."

12:13 "Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me!" The man in the crowd wanted Jesus to act a scribe, an expert in the Law who could make judgements in civil cases such as inheritance disputes. The man in the crowd was either anxious or (more likely) wanted to shame Jesus into a rash judgement.

12:14 "Man! Who appointed me judge or arbitrator over you?" Jesus rejected the status as a scribe. The use of the title "Man" was an unusually harsh rebuke.

12:15 "For someone's life is not (measured) in the abundance (that comes) from his possessions." is literally "For not in excess for someone is his life from his possessions."

12:19-20 Jesus used the term "life" (literally "soul") three times: twice as a way for the rich man to address himself, once as a means for God to address the man. The man mistook his life as a possession, not as a gift. The man did not "own" his life, like his possessions. Life was a gift that would be returned to the Giver at the moment of death.

12:20 "You fool!" The insult God threw at the rich man may have startled Jesus' (and Luke's) audience. For, in the eyes of their contemporaries, wealth equaled divine blessing. But, the wisdom of people and the wisdom of God were truly different! The rich man tried to secure his future through wealth. But, in God's eyes, wealth was meaningless; only a faith relationship had worth.

What is truly important?

The gospel began with a request. Like a spoiled child who did not get his way, someone in the crowd appealed to Jesus to settle a fight over money. And like a wise parent, Jesus turned the problem back to the person by answering the question with another question: "Who made me your judge?" [12:13-14] The question also led to a teaching on the insignificance of wealth. And the importance of faith.

In the time of Jesus, there was no middle class, only the few who were rich and the masses who were poor. In the Roman empire, the elite (less than five percent of the population) controlled 80-90% of the wealth. The poor rented land to farm from the wealthy. Greedy bureaucrats served these elite by taxing the poor, and served themselves by "skimming" extra tax moneys for themselves. So the poor were victims in two ways, from land rents and over-taxation. The poor were so burdened that it was not unusual for many to be underfed in times of food surplus; many would actually sell themselves into slavery in order to feed their families.

In that desperate atmosphere, there was the temptation to place prime importance on economic survival. But Jesus questioned that logic: life was more than possessions. [12:15]

To make the point, Jesus told the parable of a rich, self-absorbed man who, on the eve of great material surplus, died. In life, the rich man hoarded, but in death, that what he desired was taken away, leaving his heart empty and his character hollow. Before God as judge, the rich man lacked what was truly important. [12:16-20]

Like the contemporaries of Jesus, the gospel teaches us to store up what is important: faith in God and active compassion for one's neighbor. [12:21] Faith in God flies in the face of cynicism. Compassion flies in the face of greed. Together, faith and compassion challenge what people believe is really important in life.

Catechism Themes: Capital Sins and the Cardinal Virtues (CCC 1835-38, 1866, 1876)

In this short parable, Jesus addressed the nature of true wealth. In the world's eyes, wealth is acquired through greed. In God's eyes, wealth is acquired through faith. Both are based upon habits. Some habits are vices. Others are virtues.

When people sin over and over (like the blind pursuit of wealth), they develop habits ("vices") that lead to evil. These vices (called "capital sins") are: pride, greed, envy, anger, lust, gluttony, and laziness. (1876, 1866).

However, when people turn to God over and over, they develop moral ("cardinal") virtues. These four virtues are:

a) Prudence: the ability to choose the "good" and the means to achieve it. (1835)

b) Justice: the will to give to God and others what is theirs. (1836)

c) Fortitude: the firm will to do good through all difficulties. (1837)

d) Temperance: the wisdom to say "no" to excess; temperance gives balance to life. (1838).

When we compare these vices and virtues, we can easily see why the virtues would seem like riches in the eyes of God.

Who do you know that possesses the cardinal virtues? How have they influenced your life?

So, what is really important? Dying with the most toys? Or, living a life of faith? Accumulating stuff requires greed. But living faith requires a prudent knowledge of good, a sense of justice, an unwavering commitment, and a sense of balance. At the crisis points of life (and ultimately at the point of death) which is more important? Which will carry us through?

Reflect on what you have this week. What could you live without? What do you truly need? (Hint: the ones you truly need lead you to God.) Pray God will help you guide you in the accumulation and use of your possessions.