Columnist invites readers to play Scripture scholar themselves

by Father Mike Stubbs

Once, when I was scheduled to officiate at a funeral, the family asked me if I would mind reading the will of the deceased after the service.

Evidently, they anticipated a dispute in the family over the inheritance and wanted an impartial person to arbitrate. I declined.

Sunday’s Gospel reading, Lk 12:13-21, reminds me of this incident. Jesus is similarly approached by a man engaged in a conflict with his brother over their inheritance.

Jesus responds: “Friend, who appointed me as your judge and arbitrator?” He then proceeds to tell a parable to the crowd about a rich man who dies suddenly, after looking forward to living in luxury for many years: “You have so many good things stored up for many years, rest, eat, drink, be merry!”

After the Gospel parable, a line follows which is somewhat ambiguous: “Thus will it be for all who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich in what matters to God.”

There are two possible interpretations of this line. First of all, it could refer to those who are poor in spiritual treasures, while rich in material wealth. The translation used in our Gospel reading supports this view: “not rich in what matters to God.”

But an alternative and equally possible translation would read: “But is not rich toward God.” That would suggest a rich man who does not use his material wealth in order to serve God, but rather to fulfill his own selfish desires.

Either interpretation would continue themes found elsewhere in Luke’s Gospel, which emphasizes the superiority of spiritual treasure over material wealth, but also underlines the responsibility of the rich to share their wealth with the poor — in other words, to use it to do God’s will.

Can we resolve the dilemma by simply asking what Jesus said? Unfortunately not. The Gospel text does not include quotation marks.

In fact, the original text does not contain any punctuation. There is nothing to indicate that Jesus actually said these words. They could just as easily be editorial comment on the part of Luke the Evangelist.

They seek to supply a moral to the story, which is clearly a cautionary tale. But what is it warning us about? The constant possibility of unexpected death? The unfortunate fact about material wealth, that when you die, you can’t take it with you?

Maybe all of these. You decide. I am not going to arbitrate.

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