Someone from the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” He responded, “Man, who appointed me your judge or executor?” And he told them, “Watch out! Protect yourself from every form of greed. No one’s life is based on an abundance of possessions.”
Luke 12: 13-15
Luke’s context for this question that is posed to Jesus as “Teacher” and so as arbiter of the law is a discourse on courage and fear. Jesus has been teaching that when we live in the Spirit that we need not be fearful about the contingency and finitude of human life. As the Holy Spirit will teach us what to say at critical moments (Luke 12: 12), so a life lived moment to moment in the Spirit’s direction will know that ultimately, in the words of Julian of Norwich, “all will be well.” Jesus is in the midst of teaching the crowd to relativize their concerns and anxieties about their material well being.
This helps us to understand his quite strong reaction to the person in the crowd who asks him, as “teacher” to arbitrate his dispute with his brother. Jesus addressed the questioner with a title (anthrope) that shows his frustration and anger. Luke has here represented for us what must be among the greatest of Jesus’ interior sufferings: the obtuseness of those to whom he is speaking. Jesus has been teaching about the depth dimension of human life, and the question that arises reflects our preoccupation with its surface. Jesus is speaking about the eternal, and our concern, if not obsession, remains with that which is passing away.
Jesus is pointing out that our ever-present tendency to greed and acquisitiveness is born of fear and anxiety. The more fearful we are the more we attempt to secure our lives by acquiring more and more possessions, and the more we acquire the more our fear and anxiety grows.
Perhaps an overly simplified example can help us to recognize this truth. Modern technology allows us to access much more information and to work and communicate much more effectively than ever before. Yet, when we initially discover that a virus or malware of some kind has infected our computer or mobile devices we experience a powerful sense of fear and anxiety. What will happen if our data is lost, or worst if our identity and personal information is stolen or compromised? At such a moment, the birds of the air and the lilies of the field cease to exist for us. The world and life are reduced to this immediate threat and danger.
The cure for such threats and fears, we are convinced, lies in newer and more secure technologies, our variant of building bigger barns to store more and more grain. In our anxious form of living we lose touch with the fact that all of what we do and accumulate is as dust before the reality of God’s life, creation, and will. “This very night your life will be demanded of you. These things you have prepared, whose will they be?” (Luke 12: 20)
We must, as Jesus says, “Watch out! Protect yourself from every form of greed.” because our greed and acquisitiveness has the power to make us terminally forgetful of what is truly important. When our life is built on the sand of those things that are passing away, the shifting nature of its foundation makes us persistently fearful and anxious. Yet, if we practice disciplining our greed and developing a true sense of simplicity and sharing, we find ourselves becoming increasingly a part of God’s world and sharing its life with all others. Greed separates and isolates us. Voluntary poverty and sharing connects and unites us.
St. John of the Cross writes of the joy and carefreeness we know when we are detached from possessions and of the anxiety in which possessiveness entraps us.
Those, then whose joy is unpossessive of things rejoice in them all as though they possessed them all; those others, beholding them with a possessive mind, lose all the delight of them all in general. The former, as St. Paul states, though they have nothing in their heart, possess everything with greater liberty (2 Cor, 6:10); the others, insofar as they possess things with attachment, neither have nor possess anything. Rather, their heart is held by things and they suffer as a captive. As many as are the joys they long to uncover in creatures, so many will necessarily be the straits and afflictions of their attached and possessed heart.
Cares do not molest the detached, neither in prayer nor outside it, and thus, losing no time, such people easily store up an abundance of spiritual good. Yet those who are attached spend all their time going to and fro about the snare to which their heart is tied, and even with effort they can hardly free themselves for a short while from this snare of thinking about and finding joy in the object to which their heart is attached.
At the first movement of joy toward things, the spiritual person ought to curb it, remembering the principle we are here following: There is nothing worthy of a person’s joy save the service of God and the procurement of God’s honor and glory in all things. One should seek this alone in the use of things, turning away from vanity and concern of one’s own delight and consolation.
The Ascent of Mount Carmel, III, 20, 3