By Ched Myers
*Originally posted on the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, July 31, 2016 (Luke 12:13-21)
In Luke’s gospel, the deep memory of Sabbath Economics is shown in Jesus’ wilderness feedings of the poor (Lk 9:12-17), and told in the central petition of the Lord’s Prayer:
“Give us today enough bread” (Lk 11:3).
But nowhere is the old vision more clearly asserted than in Jesus’ teaching in Luke 12:13-34.
The first part of this sequence (12:13-21, our gospel lection for this coming Sunday) is a meditation on the lethal power of greed, in which Jesus denounces the artificial abundance of the rich and the artificial scarcity of the poor, using the negative object lesson of a farmer who can’t hoard enough. The second section (12:22-34, frustratingly omitted from the lectionary) offers two positive object lessons from nature as indicative of the promise of divinely underwritten sufficiency. Both sections conclude with parallel proverbs about “treasure” (12:21, 34), the whole unit representing a catechism in the cosmology of grace.
The sequence begins with a dispute over inheritance (Gk klēronomia, literally a “distribution of properties,” 12:13f). Israelite custom stipulated that an estate could be divided on the demand of a single son (see Dt 21:17). Rabbis often played the role of legal arbiter, and Jesus’ reputation as a champion of the underdog may have motivated the man’s approach for help with a “just settlement.” But Jesus, aware that inheritance laws functioned to pass on class privilege from generation to generation (as they do still today), instead uses the conflict as an opportunity to address deeper issues.
“Guard yourselves against every form of greed” he begins (12:15a). Greed is here understood not as a moral category, but as a predatory force. Pleonexia is related to the Greek verbs pleonazō (“to have too much” or “grow too big,” see 2 Cor 8:15) and pleonekteō (“to take advantage of or defraud,” see 2 Cor 2:11, 7:2; 12:17f; I Thes 4:6). It represents the sin of “taking too much,” in the parlance of Exodus 16, and is tantamount to idolatry in Colossians 3:5 and Ephesians 5:5. Pleonexia was universally condemned in antiquity as one of the three greatest sins (see Mk 7:22; Rom 1:29; I Cor 5:10f; Eph 4:19).
Jesus next offers a proverb (12:15b) that we could well translate: “We are not what we own. The Greek huparchonton is analogous to the English “be-longings,” and is used often by Luke. Such possessions characterize large estate holders (12:44; 16:1), and are that which the “strong man” seeks to protect (11:21), which is why disciples ultimately must “renounce” them (14:33). Most importantly, Zacchaeus distributes half of his huparchonton to the poor at the culmination of Luke’s gospel (19:8), and they are what is redistributed by the Pentecost community (Acts 4:32). Rather than “belonging to our belongings,” we should use “stuff” to build community.
To illustrate this point, Jesus offers a story about a rich farmer, probably a well-known folk tale (12:16-21). It is the first of three sobering Lukan parables about “rich men” (the other two are found in Luke 16:1-13 and 19-31, where they bookend Jesus’ teaching on Mammon; see also the object lessons of 18:18-30 and 19:1-10). Luke’s concern in these unflattering portraits is both to critique “Affluenza” and to assert an alternative to ruling class cosmology.
Jesus alludes to this alternative worldview at the outset of his parable: “The land of a rich man brought forth great fruit.” The land is the protagonist in this story; abundance results from its work, not the farmer’s. Next comes the wealthy landowner’s “internal dialogue,” which is a parody of wrong thinking—despite the fact that it sounds exactly like most financial counseling today! It is structured as a rhetorical triplet in order to emphasize the folly of his singular concern to store and consume his agricultural surplus privately (his “barns” will soon be contrasted with the “barn-less” raven in 12:24). Note the proliferation of the first person singular:
What shall I do? I have nowhere to store my crops.
I shall do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and my goods; And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take it easy, eat, drink and enjoy yourself!”
The last verb (euphrainou, to make merry in a feast) is later used to describe the decadent Dives who “feasted every day” while Lazarus starved at his gate (16:19). Right: “The Parable of the Rich Man,” Rembrandt van Rijn, 1627.
This farmer sees his prosperity as an entitlement, but it was widely understood in antiquity that inordinate wealth was built on the backs of others. Large estates resulted from the expropriation of smallholders land through debt default. In Jesus’ view, therefore, the farmer’s bumper crop should have occasioned redistribution to those in need—as reparation!
Instead, he purposes to lay his surplus up “for many years” (12:19), suggesting that he may be stockpiling grain against future lean times, when prices would be driven up and profits greater. While this may seem like a no-brainer to our market logic, the rich man’s “bigger barns” strategy is suspect in light of the “instructions” of Exodus 16 not to accumulate the gift, but to keep it circulating. This parable is, in other words, a classic illustration of pleonexia.
The punch line comes sharply: God calls the farmer a “fool” (12:20f), revealing this as a midrash on two Hebrew Bible texts. The Psalmist speaks of the “practical atheism” of those who live in contempt of the Divine economy and of the poor: “Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God’… those who eat up my people as they eat bread” (Ps 14:1,4). And Jeremiah declares: “Like the partridge hatching what it did not lay, so are all who amass wealth unjustly; in mid-life it will leave them, and at their end they will prove to be fools” (Jer 17:11).
The parable ends ironically with the very question with which the sequence began in the dispute over inheritance: “These things you have prepared: whose will they be?” (Lk 12:20). Jesus’ conclusion makes explicit the contrast between what Wendell Berry calls “the two economies”: “So it is with those who ‘treasure up’ for themselves, and consequently are not ‘rich’ in the sight of God” (12:21). The “Great Economy” of nature precedes us and will survive us. Private accumulation is thus a desperate, but ultimately short-term, hedge against the inevitable economic redistribution that comes with mortality. Conversely, the divine Commonwealth is the only thing that endures, and thus the only “treasure” of actual value. This negative object lesson suggests that ownership paradigms must be shifted from “mine” to “ours.”
This section is followed by Jesus’ counsel “not to be anxious” (12:22ff), and the ensuing positive object lessons offered by birds and flower. These assertions are, to our modern North American ears, simplistic, extreme and/or naïve, and cut diametrically across sacred assumptions about our entitlement to re-engineer nature and secure economic security through market dominance. This is doubtless why the lectionary omits the second part of the teaching (if you want to see my comments, go here).
Yet what if Jesus means exactly what he says? To take him seriously means we must confront the three primary pathologies of our modern economic culture—anxiety, addiction and alienation. Luke 12:13-34 may be a “text of terror” for us, but it just might be a key to our liberation.