Column: Bible speaks to us in different ways at different times

by Father Mike Stubbs

Having grown up with three brothers, I know that we can expect a certain amount of sibling rivalry in some situations. It should not surprise us, then, that we can find examples of brotherly disagreement in the Bible.

The self-righteous older brother downgrades the prodigal son in the
parable of the same name, Lk 15:11- 32. Joseph is sold into slavery by his brothers, Genesis 37-50. And in Sunday’s Gospel reading, Lk 12:13-21, we encounter a man involved in a dispute with his brother over their inheritance. He tries to have Jesus intervene in the quarrel. But Jesus resists the attempt. Instead of taking sides with either brother, Jesus criticizes them both for the excessive importance they have placed upon material wealth.

And to prove his point, as he often does, Jesus tells a parable.

It is a simple story. A man produces an abundant harvest. He decides to build additional barns to store the surplus grain. But the same night he makes that decision, God reveals to him in a dream that he will die. His stored-up wealth will not benefit him at all.

It is useful to compare this parable and its setup to another story in the Bible, the story of Joseph and his brothers, Genesis 37-50. There are some interesting parallels.

The setup for the Gospel parable involves two brothers arguing over their inheritance. The story of Joseph and his brothers begins with their jealousy of Joseph. The rich man in the Gospel parable decides to build barns to store the surplus grain. Joseph similarly stores grain during the seven years of plenty, in preparation for the seven years of famine that would follow. Joseph takes this action in response to a dream.

Similarly, a dream reveals to the rich man in the Gospel parable the futility of his action. The themes of sibling rivalry, storage of surplus grain and the message received through a dream mark both stories.

Despite these similarities, the Gospel parable and the story of Joseph and his brothers appear to go in opposite directions. The one condemns the storing up of excess wealth as the result of misplaced values, while the other praises the prudence of planning for the future under God’s guidance.

At the same time, the two stories — the Gospel parable and the story of Joseph and his brothers — do not con- flict with each other. They simply· focus upon different issues. The one is concerned about obsessing over material possessions, to the exclusion of spiritual riches. The other is concerned about listening to God’s instructions and obeying them, even when they are spoken to us in a dream.

The apparent contradictions between these stories — and other stories in the Bible — do not mean that we need to choose between them. They all have their place. That is the richness of Scripture. At a certain moment in our life, one story may speak more clearly and directly to us than the others. A person deeply immersed in the consumerism of our society may hear the parable about the rich man in a different way than a person oblivious to material wealth, as say, a child might.

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