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Luke 12.13-21
Proper 13 - Year C

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For an inductive, small group study approach to the parable, check out "Penny Wise, Pound Foolish" at


This text, as well as the Gospels for the two following Sundays, comes in a section of Luke (12:1-13:9) where exhortations and warnings are given by Jesus in preparation for the coming judgment. The verses immediately preceding our text (vv. 1-12) and following (vv. 22-31) are not included in the Revised Common Lectionary. One should take a look at them to better understand our text.

Culpepper (Luke, New Interpreter's Bible) writes of the transition from vv. 1-12 to vv. 13-21 with:

Continuing the theme of this larger section, the next verses shift from confession of Jesus to forsaking the security of material possessions. Those who confess Jesus look to God for their security, not to their own ability to accumulate possessions and lay up wealth for the future. [p. 255]

Our text is connected with the verses that follows by the sense of possessions (desiring more than what is needed) and by the word psyche (v. 19 twice, v. 20, v. 22, v. 23). This word is translated "soul" or "life" in these verses. I frequently use the word "self" for psyche. Psyche is that mysterious thing that makes me me or you you. It is everything that makes a pile of organic materials come to life as an individual -- life force, soul, spirit, breath, personality, etc. As I said, I frequently combine all this into the word "self".

Related to this, our text is an illustration of what Jesus had said at the beginning of this entire section: "Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed form the housetops" (12:2-3). Most of our parable is "hearing" the inner thoughts of the rich man -- what is in his psyche -- what is his true "self".


I have seen how an inheritance can divide families. Although it usually isn't the inheritance that's divisive, but greed -- the desire to have more than what one had been given. Why the man asks Jesus to divide the property is left unsaid. It may be possible that a similar problem existed in Luke's community. We know from Acts that "possessions" were held in common and "distributed" to those in need (4:35). We know that problems developed with the daily distribution of food (6:1) when some felt that others received more than their fair share.

The request from the man leads Jesus to teach about greed and security. The concern of both seems to be, "Where is life found?" Earlier a lawyer had asked Jesus about inheriting eternal life (10:25). Later, nearly the same question is asked by a wealthy ruler (18:18). Green (The Gospel of Luke) writes: "As in 10:25-37, then 'life" is a metaphor for salvation. Those who would enjoy it must beware of one of its chief adversaries -- namely possessions." [p. 489]

Usually, if churches are talking about money, it's because they don't have enough of it. Often when people talk about money, it's because they would like to have more of it. That's the opposite of why the Bible usually talks about money. When the Bible talks about money, it's usually because somebody has or wants too much of it. That's the case in our Gospel Lesson.

The key verse is 15, so I will offer a more detailed translation of that verse.

horate & phylassesthe present tense imperatives = continual action = "continually watch out (for)" & "continually guard yourself from"

Perhaps like alcoholics and their desire for alcohol, we are never cured of our greediness. We are always in recovery -- always in need to watch out for and to guard ourselves from this evil power in our lives.

pleonexias -- (definitions from Lowe & Nida's Greek-English Lexicon)

  1. "A strong desire to acquire more and more material possessions or to possess more things than other people have, all irrespective of need." The word is usually translated with greed, avarice, or covetousness.

  2. "taking advantage of someone, usually as the result of a motivation of greed." The word is usually translated with exploitation.

This is the only instance of any word from the pleone- word group in Luke. While the second definition doesn't fit this context, I think that we also need to be aware of "using" other people for our own desires.

If greed is a desire to get more -- then there is never a point where a greedy person has enough. Greed can never be satisfied. It is always looking to get more.

Note also that Paul, using related words, calls greed "idolatry": (Ep 5:5, Co 3:5)

During all the furor over "The Church and Human Sexuality" draft from the ELCA, in our adult study class, I suggested that what may be just as needed is a statement on "The Church and Human Greed." What would such a statement say? There certainly are more biblical texts about greed than about human sexuality (especially homosexuality). Some relevant texts and brief comments on human greed.

TEXTS DEALING WITH GREED (pleonexia & pleonektes)

Pleonexia (and related words) carry the basic meaning of "more". The verb means "to increase, grow, or become more". That which "increases" may be negative, such as sins; or positive, such as love. The nouns are only used in a negative sense: "the desire to acquire more and more material possessions" or "to possess more things than others have, all irrespective of need".

When pleonexia is used in the Septuagint it is always for the Hebrew word betsac which carries the idea of "unjust, illegal, dishonest or evil gain". It similar to the "plunder" one gains through violence.


BIBLICAL "CURES" FOR GREED -- rather than "getting" we need to be "giving".


perisseuein -- "to have in abundance" -- usually implying more than one needs. The word occurs in three other verses in Luke.

ton hyparchonton -- an idiom meaning "possessions". Luke has a special interest in "possessions". Nearly always when this idiom is used, one is giving away or using possessions for others. (Similar to the "cures" for greed listed above.) Verses in Luke/Acts where the phrase occurs:

For Luke, I don't think that a person could be a faithful follower of Jesus and keep an abundance of possessions for one's self. For those who had possessions, they were to be given away and used for the common good.

From the verses on greed above, Luke offers a very simple cure for greed -- give up all your possessions. Greed with its emphasis on getting more and more is incompatible with the willingness to give away everything. What does this mean to our people today? How do we preach it? How do we live it? [Reducing the pastor's salary is not something I would suggest, but I've known places where this has been done.]

Richard Jensen (Preaching Luke's Gospel) offers the following homiletical direction:

This week's text and the verses that follow it are downright un-American! What to do? We can avoid the hard word, the counter-cultural word. Doing so, however, is an outright betrayal of Luke's portrait of Jesus. We can preach the topic head-on, make it our own, give it all the gusto we have. In this approach we risk alienating people not only from Jesus but from us! A better approach might be to tell the stories as they are. Put the hard words where they belong -- on the lips of Mary [from the Magnificat] and Jesus. The words do not need our explanation. They are crystal clear. Let the Bible speak for itself. Acknowledge that these are words you struggle with as well. Pray that the Holy Spirit apply this word to the manifold needs of human hearts. [p. 135]


Brandon Scott in Hear Then the Parables, titles the parable "How to Mismanage a Miracle." He relates the surplus and storing of food to the Joseph story in Egypt. In that case, the food during the time of plenty was stored so that it might feed all the people during the future famine. In the parable the "miracle" harvest is stored for the owner's own enjoyment not for the community. An abundant crop was a sign of God's favor.

The rich man expresses a clear Epicurean thought in v. 19 with a major exception. He only remembers the good part of the philosophy and ignores the negative. The Epicureans sought to live the good life of eating and drinking now, "for tomorrow we die." The same thought is expressed in Isaiah 22:13b: "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die" (quoted in 1 Cor 15:32). This man thinks he can live the good life now, because he thinks his future is safe and secure in his new storage bins. He gives no thought to death.

A similar picture of this type of man is presented in Sirach 11:18-19:

One becomes rich through diligence and self-denial,
and the reward allotted to him is this:
when he says, "I have found rest,
and now I shall feast on my goods!"
he does not know how long it will be
until he leaves them to others and dies.

God speaks in v. 20 and doesn't call the man sinful or evil, just foolish (aphron {lit. perhaps = "not thinking"} related to the Greek word for "merry" = euphraino, v. 19, lit. perhaps = "happy thinking"). The man did nothing wrong in acquiring his wealth. It would have been seen as a blessing from God!

Green (The Gospel of Luke) comments:

This farmer has sought to secure himself and his future without reference to God. This is the force of the label given him by God, "fool," used in the LXX to signify a person who rebels against God or whose practices deny God [footnote: See e.g., Prov 14:1; Jer 4:22] -- a usage that coheres with the representation of "greed" (v. 15) as a form of idolatry. He did not consider that his life was on loan from God. Failing to account for the will of God in his stratagems, he likewise failed to account for the peril to life constituted by the abundance of possessions (v. 15) and for the responsibility that attends the possession of wealth. He thus appears as one of several exemplars of the wealthy over whom "woe" is pronounced in the Gospel of Luke (cf. 6:24). Such persons are not simply those with possessions, but more particularly those whose dispositions are not toward the needs of those around them, whose possessions have become a source of security apart form God, and, thus, whose possessions deny them any claim to life. [p. 491]

He also notes that the Greek word, apaiteo used in v. 20 ("demand back") can refer to the collection of a loan. Interestingly, the only other use of this word in the NT is Luke 6:30 where believers are not to ask for their goods back.

God asks, "The things you have prepared, whose will they be?" After his death, his goods will be distributed to others (a divided inheritance?) -- precisely what the man was unwilling to do (but should have done) during his lifetime -- shared his plenty with those in need.

Who (or what) are the "they" that demand (back) the man's psyche (v. 20)? Culpepper (Luke, The Interpreter's Bible) offers these interpretations:

Probably the verb should be understood as a plural used in place of a divine passive: God will demand the man's soul. But lurking as an alternative is the possibility that the antecedent is none other than the man's goods themselves. His possessions will take his life from him. [p. 256]

Can one become addicted to possessions or materialism? That is, can our possessions possess us? (Surely, I don't spend too much time in front of my computer or spent too much time thinking about a new computer. Although my wife might disagree with me <g>) Is "Greed" a power (a god?) that can take over one's life? Enough is never enough. There is always more to get.

Looking more closely at v. 21, the problem with this man was not thesaurizo the "storing up of his treasure," but heautos = "for himself." Paul uses the "store up" word ("save" in NRSV) in a positive sense in 1C 16:2. There the "storing up" of funds is for the needy in Jerusalem, not for themselves.

This verse does not present a both/and scenario. It is either/or. The either/or issue is not possessions but one's inner thoughts. As Culpepper concludes: "Therefore, the story exposes our own inner commitments as clearly as it exposes the thoughts of the rich fool. It holds up a mirror before us and asks us to take a good look at our own inner lives and listen to our own inner voices." [p. 256]

How does one become "rich towards God"? In Luke/Acts this verb [plouteo] only occurs here and Lu 1:53 "God has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty." This may imply that being rich towards God is approaching God as hungry, needy, people -- letting God give us what we need rather than trying to secure it on our own.

Both the nouns "rich" and "treasure" occur in the story of the rich ruler. The way to have "treasure" in heaven (contrasted with "for oneself") is to "sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor" (18:22).

A similar statement is made in 12:33: "Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys."


Together these texts deal with "life" (psych vv. 19 twice & v. 20). In the first story, desiring and striving to get more does not lead to life. It created animosity between brothers -- destroying relationships. The parable illustrates v. 15, a man has more than enough; he no longer needs to strive to get more; he's living the "easy life," but even that is not really living.

Perhaps a distinction could be made between "existing" on earth and really living. Having more than enough food or finances makes existing easy, but it doesn't necessarily bring "life". According to Luke, "life" or "being rich towards God" comes in giving away possessions, relying on God rather than self, looking to the future, rather than just the present.

A few years ago I heard a report on public radio. A survey had been taken to discover if money can bring happiness and if more money brought more happiness. The finding of the researchers was that money does bring happiness to a point. They found that, on average, throughout the U.S. people who were earning less than $50,000/year were less happy than those earning more. However, those earning $75,000 or $100,000 or $200,000 a year were not any happier than those earning $50,000. A sufficient amount of money does bring happiness, but more money doesn't bring more happiness.

Another distinction I've read in a couple of different sources is that dissatisfaction and satisfaction are not opposites. Removing dissatisfactions does not necessarily make something satisfying. For instance, receiving a wage increase at a dissatisfying job may make the job less dissatisfying -- one continues to put up with it because the wages are good, but the increase in pay doesn't make the job any more satisfying. Adding a larger sanctuary or more Sunday school classrooms or a larger parking lot may remove some dissatisfactions concerning over-crowding in a congregation, but they won't make the worship or classes any more satisfying. It may be that having more than enough money can reduce a lot of the dissatisfying aspects of our lives, but it doesn't make our living more satisfying.

Some years ago, a member gave me the following story, by Florence Ferrier about a social worker in poverty-stricken Appalachia. It's called "We Ain't Poor!

The Sheldons were a large family in severe financial distress after a series of misfortunes. The help they received was not adequate, yet they managed their meager income with ingenuity -- and without complaint.

One fall day I visited the Sheldons in the ramshackle rented house they lived in at the edge of the woods. Despite a painful physical handicap, Mr. Sheldon had shot and butchered a bear which strayed into their yard once too often. The meat had been processed into all the big canning jars they could find or swap for. There would be meat in their diet even during the worst of the winter when their fuel costs were high.

Mr. Sheldon offered me a jar of bear meat. I hesitated to accept it, but the giver met my unspoken resistance firmly. "Now you just have to take this. We want you to have it. We don't have much, that's a fact; but we ain't poor!"

I couldn't resist asking, "What's the difference?" His answer proved unforgettable.

"When you can give something away, even when you don't have much, then you ain't poor. When you don't feel easy giving something away even if you got more'n you need, then you're poor, whether you know it or not."

I accepted and enjoyed their gift and treasured that lesson in living. In time, I saw it as a spiritual lesson, too. Knowing that all we have is provided by the Father, it seems ungracious to doubt that our needs will be met without our clinging to every morsel.

When I feel myself resisting an urge to share what's mine -- or when I see someone sharing freely from the little he has -- I remember Mr. Sheldon saying, "We ain't poor!"

Culpepper ends his commentary on this section with suggestions about the rich man's follies. I present them with my own brief comments. (He has slightly longer comments.)

  1. "Preoccupation with Possessions." We may declare, "Whoever has the most toys when he dies wins," but the parable exposes the emptiness of such a materialistic life-style.

  2. "Security in Self-sufficiency." The rich man needs no one else. He assumes that he can take care of himself.

  3. "The Grasp of Greed." Possessions (or the desire for more possessions) can possess one's life.

  4. "The Hallowness of Hedonism." How many of us dream of the day when we can be freed from our work and "eat, drink, and be merry?" That life, which we may think is "really living," appears to be less than living in this parable.

  5. "Practical Atheism." The rich fool may protest that he has always believed in God, but when it comes to managing his life, dealing with possessions and planning for the future, he lives as though there were no God. The parable, therefore, probes our basic commitments. What difference should our faith in God make of the practical matters of life?

Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 1000 D St., Marysville, CA 95901