Exegetical Exercise Luke 12 13-21

image of The Parable of the Rich Fool, Rembrandt
Yes, he’s in the dark, but if he weren’t, we’d miss out on this fabulous chiaroscuro …
The Parable of the Rich Fool, Rembrandt, 1627

Our pastor became a first-time grandfather on Sunday afternoon. Great news! It means that he’s out of town celebrating his granddaughter and helping her feel like the new world is a loving place and supporting his first-time-grandmother wife and first-time-mother daughter and first-time-father son-in-law and so on.

For me, it means that I’m knee deep in exegesis because I agreed to pinch-hit-preach on Sunday. Our plan had been to have a hymn sing on this Sunday, whenever it turned out to be, but it took us more by surprise than we’d expected, and our music director is going to be on vacation, too, so the hymn-sing idea won’t work.

The gospel text in the lectionary is Luke 12:13-21, “the parable of the rich fool.” Here’s what I’ve been thinking so far, after doing the initial reading:

The context is still the “travel narrative” – Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, has systematically sent people on ahead to prepare people along the route, and Luke has recorded a few memorable episodes of the trip (mostly things Jesus has said, stories he’s told, but also meals, with Mary and Martha, and with a Pharisee whom he insults) – and the crowds have been getting bigger and bigger. They have gotten to the point that people are trampling one another to get close to Jesus (v. 1).

Other than that the setting is vague: we don’t know if we’re on the road or at a speaking engagement or resting for the day or what, although v. 1 again gives a little weight to the “speaking engagement” scenario (“when the crowd had gathered … he began to speak first to his disciples.”)

I’m curious about the specific implications of v. 13 “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” The commentaries I’ve looked at so far have a fair amount to say about this: (a) Harper Collins Study Bible says a “Teacher” ought to be able to interpret the rules of inheritance and points to the daughters of Zelophehad in Numbers and to Dtr. 21:15-17 – the firstborn son has a double share, and is supposed to get it; (b) so presumably there is a rule or a set of rules, so why would the teacher have to tell this brother to do what he is supposed to do? Family drama? What kind of family drama? (c) so I wonder whether the question suggests someone trying to get something he is simply entitled to, or something he isn’t really entitled to legally but figures Jesus, knowing how he is, would support him receiving morally. I’m curious about what’s going on with those brothers. Somewhere someone pointed out that the word translated “inheritance” typically refers to real property.

in v. 14 Jesus’ statement seems ironic: NRSV has “Friend,” older translations say “Man”, Greek is “anthropon” – NRSV would probably have said “Mortal” if it were a different context – “who made me a judge or ‘divider’ over you?” – well, the Christians will all say, hrm, God did, right? But presumably the justice-seeking or gold-digging brother doesn’t know that …

in v. 15 is it “all kinds of” greed – so, there are different kinds of greed and we need to be watching to be on guard against all of them? Or is it “ruthless greed” that is relentlessly seeking to be first or best or most – which would rather go along with the crowds trampling one another to get a little closer to Jesus? Or is it “covetousness” – à la Calvin and the old-timers, and we know how mortally sinful that is. Anyway, this is maybe in the context of someone asking for what he believes himself to be entitled to … by God, even, if it’s in the (pre-)Mishnah. Which would imply that “just trying to get what I deserve” or “It’s the principle of the thing” might still be “greedy.”

[I don’t like thinking this way, because I don’t like the idea of giving aid and comfort to an ethos that encourages people to just get content with their deprivation and oppression, and telling people that Jesus seemed to be against pressing for what one’s entitled to, that it might be greedy, seems like it could go there. So … note to self … watch out.]

in v. 18 the rich farmer sounds like he lives in 21st century America … I need to destroy what I have so I can have something even bigger and better. He has the consumerist mentality down. (OK, not, because it’s the 1st century, but if he had a time machine, he would maybe like to visit and might fit right in …) Maybe he has been listening to some prosperity gospel preaching? (OK, that was just mean … though not necessarily mistaken.)

in v. 19 Why is he talking to his soul??

Someone (actually I think it was Left Behind and Loving It) pointed out there are three vocative speeches, but now I’m curious about the man’s speech to his “soul” and wonder whether this is or isn’t also vocative … my Greek is so awful, Idk whether I even know how to check this out, but if it were, it would really be interesting.

I’m sure the relevant intertext is Isaiah 22:13 “Let us eat and drink … for tomorrow we die.” The context there is the siege of Jerusalem under Hezekiah, and the intense preparations for it … tearing down houses, building up the wall, diverting water to create a water supply … and the usual interpretation is that it’s a bitter, fatalistic instruction given by people who are without hope … well … Jesus is no dope. If he were saying … the situation here is, actually, remarkably parallel … wouldn’t that be interesting? “Friend,” if you’re not worried, you’re not paying attention …

in v. 20 God does not call the rich farmer a “moron,” God calls him an a-phron … think phronesis and Aristotle … I have been trying to think of an English word that is not “fool”, which usually does translate “moron,” that gets at this … witless? (not a noun); nitwit? I feel like there’s a noun that’s the counterpart of “imprudent” or “impractical” and I just can’t think of it but maybe it will come to me …

anyway, the relevant background here feels like Proverbs, “whatever you get, get wisdom,” “wisdom is more precious than rubies,” wisdom leads to life, there is a way that seems good to a man but the end thereof is death, etc. Wisdom is usually associated thematically with riches and life; this guy has riches, but the wrong kind (see v. 21), and they are a dead kind of riches that end up demanding his very soul “in this night”, because he also seems to have the wrong kind of wisdom, he’s really an im-prudent rather than a prudent …

If wisdom is part of the content here, it makes sense to me that the brother who starts all of this off is asking for a (pre-)Mishnaic answer, since Torah=wisdom/instruction. In that case, maybe Jesus is implying that using God’s instruction to niggle out every last penny you’re entitled to, even when (as in the case of the rich farmer) it’s way way more than you need or can even use, is to turn wisdom into anti-wisdom. Real wisdom, the kind that is associated with real wealth (wealth toward God), would be to care for orphans and widows and keep yourself unstained by the world(ly mis-valuation that equates more and more stuff with a better and better life) – thank you James-brother-of-Jesus 1:27 for that reminder.

so … we’ll see what comes of all this.


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