Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me (Luke 12:13)
I was struck by the recent headline in one of our national newspapers entitled “Mother left son £300,000 home so he could look after her parrots”. Some of you may have read it too. The defender was the sole recipient of his parents’ estate after his mother changed her will in 2019 removing her three stepchildren. Their father and mother had previously made wills in 2017 splitting all their wealth between their son and their three stepchildren. The defender who has been branded as “pretentious” is being sued by his step-siblings who are trying to force him to split the inheritance he received four ways.
We can, I expect, identify with the unnamed man in the crowd who cries out to Jesus “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me”. Although we are not told the exact details, his request does seem reasonable.
How many families have been torn apart by disputes over the terms of a will? I used to come across this as lawyer. Some never spoke to their siblings again. Others resorted to court action especially where there was a large inheritance, a fine country house or an impressive art collection. Often there were issues when a re-marriage had occurred but the deceased had never got round to altering their original will or other children come along.
The theologian, Jane Williams comments that “The rich man has already decided upon what is important. He has lived his life by that decision. The “judgement” then is one that he has already made. This is what Jesus wants his listeners to understand. We decide now, day by day, what to value, what to give our heart to. These brothers, fighting over their inheritance, have to come to the Judge of all the earth. They have a chance, now, to listen to Jesus and to choose between the kingdom or allowing the squabble about money to distract them”.
The success of the rich man could be applauded as the faithful application of his God-given capabilities. He has benefited from both the provision of God and his own skilful means. Surely he may be permitted to save up a bit for himself and to celebrate with a feast? Jesus though, is not telling this story to criticise prudent resource management or the celebration of the good things of life. Instead Jesus, I think, presents the rich man as a type of person who chooses inordinate self-concern over and above the kingdom of God.
Richard Floyd, a pastor from Atlanta, Georgia comments that “As the rich man celebrates the abundance of his land nowhere does he make mention of others: his family, his friends, his neighbours, his workers, aliens and strangers. He is supremely isolated. He refuses to participate gratefully and graciously in what God has generously given. It is ironic that, by isolating himself from others in a bid for absolute control, he has in fact lost control and has no one to pass on his abundance”.
Earlier in Luke’s Gospel a lawyer stood up and asked Jesus “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”. He said “what is written in the law? How do you read? And he answered “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself”. And Jesus said to him, “You have answered right, do this and you shall live”.