“Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me” [Luke 12:13-21].
It's an old story – a family conflict over inheritance, something we’ve all seen happen so many times. What better advertisement for Jesus’ famous advice to give everything away – now!
Perhaps that someone in the crowd who wanted Jesus to take his side in his family’s quarrel may well have had a good case. Who knows? That’s a concern for a lawyer – a role Jesus refused to play. “Friend,” Jesus replied, “who appointed me as your judge and arbitrator?”
Jesus certainly made judgments about many things. But in this instance he looked beyond the immediate case at hand – to the bigger problem of what wealth (and our obsessive preoccupation with wealth) does to us. So Jesus warned: “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.”
The problem with that, as we all know of course, is that possessions are important. Possessin at least some things – sufficient food, some sort of shelter – having at least some things really is important, if we just want to survive. And possessing more things, while maybe not so necessary, certainly seems to make life a lot easier. Jesus didn’t deny that, but, like Qoheleth, the teacher in the book of Ecclesiastes [Ecclesiastes 1:2; 2:21-23], Jesus understood how limited – and limiting – wealth’s benefits can actually be. For time too is limited. When we’ve only a limited amount of time, the length of which we cannot know for certain, what we actually do with that time, how we choose to live, the objectives we pursue, the priorities we express in the way we choose to live, all these become important questions – questions that concern who we really are, regardless of what or how much we have.
Greed (which Saint Paul equated with idolatry) - and its equally corrupting cousin, envy – can totally take over a person, leading to a seemingly obsessive need to compare oneself with others and a compulsive desire to acquire and acquire and acquire. There’s always that bigger house or cooler car or the latest model phone or whatever!
And yet it’s always a race against time – a race one can only lose.
“You fool,” Jesus says, “the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?”
Life is like a race that someone else always wins. Even the inheritors will lose the race in the end. Either it’s all maybe just one long meaningless vanity (as Qoheleth warned). Or it has some purpose beyond its apparent end. But, in that case, what we get to take with us will not be what we have (or, rather, at that point, what we had), but rather who we are, who we have become by the way we have chosen to live.
As Christians, our lives are shaped by the reality of the risen Christ, who is already (as Saint Paul tells us) seated at the right hand of God. Shaped by and focused on that reality, we can begin to look at our lives, already in the here and now, with a perspective that the greedy man in the parable obviously lacked – not just a resigned fatalistic acceptance of life’s limits, like what we heard from Qoheleth, but a freedom to face life and live it fully, based not on what we have, but on who we can become in Christ.