Historical Cultural Context
Bible readers are very familiar with stories of enmity between brothers in ancient Mediterranean families: Jacob and Esau (Gn 27); Joseph and his eleven brothers (Gn 37). Inheritance was often a key cause of the enmity.
The brothers praised in Psalm 133:1 for living together in unity illustrate the situation where a father died and did not specify a division of the inheritance.
According to Roman law, a division of inheritance was required only if both parties wanted it. Judaic law allowed the division on the petition of a single son (see Lk 15:12), but it was shameful because it effectively expressed the wish that the father were already dead.
Jesus The Mediator
In today’s story Jesus is invited to be a mediator, a very difficult but highly honorable role in this culture. Conflicts can easily escalate to blood feuds that no one wants.
The key role of the mediator is to head off the blood feuds. The role is honored and advocated in the Matthean Beatitudes (Mt 5:9) “Truly worthy of esteem, truly honorable are the peacemakers for they will be considered God-like.”
Ideally the mediator is a kinsperson at least five links removed from the disputing parties. Above all, the mediator should be a person who, because of personality, status, respect, wealth, influence, or other characteristics, can create in the litigants a willingness to conform with his decision.
Jesus responds to the honorable invitation in two ways. First, he adopts the customary role of cultural humility. Paying and receiving compliments is dangerous in this culture. Jesus protects himself against envy and the evil eye by his feigned humility: “Friend, who set me to be judge or arbitrator over you?”
Second, Jesus gives the real reason for his refusal. He suspected he was being drawn into a conflict driven by greed.
The Parable And Greed
In Jesus’ parable about the man with the bumper crop, God is not pleased with his plan to “save for the future” in bigger barns. God calls this man a fool! The man deserves God’s judgment.
The man is clearly a landowner, a minuscule minority in Jesus’ world. He appears to live on his land and share in the work of the land. When he realizes the magnitude of his crops, he plans to tear down his barns and build bigger ones.
But his “future planning” is condemned by God and even by the words of the fool himself. “You have ample goods laid up for many years,” said the fool. “Relax, eat, drink, and be merry” (Lk 12:19).
He stores for future lean years, but not simply for his own pleasure. When the village smallholders have to come to him and borrow grain, he will charge an exorbitant price in hopes of confiscating even more land for himself.
What should the fool have done? The same anyone else in that position should have done: distribute the surplus to others, immediately.
The lucky landowner was in a good position to become a “patron” to select even more clients, or simply to be beneficent.
He might have done what Jesus praised the shrewd steward for doing (Lk 16:1-9): using surplus wealth as a means to gain friends so that when the wealth is gone, the friends will remain and repay the kindnesses, as this culture expects.
Our ancestors never fail to challenge us.
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible
**From Saint Louis University