Monday, July 25, 2016

Broken Triangles


For the second time in three weeks, Jesus is asked to enter a sibling conflict. First it was Martha, saying to Jesus, "Tell my sister Mary to help me!" in Luke 10. Now, in Luke 12, it's a man from the crowd saying, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me." Maybe Luke was a middle child who watched his older and younger brothers bicker over who loved their mother more. Or maybe he was a clinical psychologist who understood family dynamics. Or maybe he was a casual student of human nature who noticed how the oldest rivalry in human history brought Cain and Abel back to life throughout the centuries. Whatever the reason, Luke understood how siblings work, and he uses that relationship to show us about putting the kingdom first.

We don't know who the stranger in the crowd is except by his request: "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me." It's dangerous to develop a case-study on one sentence, but such is the work of the preacher. Was his request legally sound? Was this other brother holding on to too much of the family estate? Was there a piece of land that the older brother refused to sell so that the proceeds could be split? Or was this an appeal to a higher moral plane? In Jewish law, the oldest male sibling received a double-portion of the inheritance. That's just the way it was. Was this man a younger brother who wanted Jesus to undo centuries of tradition and convince his older brother to divide the estate evenly? Had he heard of Jesus' conflict with the Pharisees and scribes and his appeal to an egalitarian society, hoping to use Jesus' teachings to leverage a larger inheritance from his brother?

We don't know. The Greek word that the man uses in his request that the inheritance be split or divided is "μερίσασθαι," a form of "μερίζω," which doesn't imply anything about evenly or justly. It's just a request that it be divided and distributed. More importantly, however, I'll suggest that the preacher should focus less on the circumstance behind the request and more on the nature of Jesus' response, which is to say that the preacher should avoid the question of the inheritance altogether.

Luke isn't presenting a treatise on inheritance law. He's not proffering a new teaching on the godly distribution of estates. This isn't about money except that money has become the currency for the conflict between the siblings, which is, itself, an indication of misplaced priorities. In other word, the nature of the request itself is the problem: "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me." And what is Jesus' response? "Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?" In other words, "That's not my business. You figure it out."

Perhaps it's because we've seen it for the second time in three weeks, but there is something about this triangulation that sticks out to me. Why is the brother asking Jesus to fix the problem? Has he approached his brother directly? Surely there are other official ways for estate disputes to be settled. Although a religious teacher, Jesus was not an arbitrator of this nature. This isn't a legal request. It's an instinctive, emotional, I-want-you-on-my-side request. In the same way that Martha's attempt to get Jesus to tell her sister to help her around the house, the request itself demonstrates that the petitioner's heart is in the wrong place. So Jesus steps back and says, "Man, you've got it all wrong. Why are you letting this hook you so badly?"

Later this week, I'll write about the explanatory parable that follows, but for now I want to stick with the sibling issue. How often do preachers sit in a room with siblings, planning the funeral of their parent while the unspoken conflict and rivalry between them rages below the surface? It happens...all...the...time. No one really cares whether the gospel reading at the funeral is from John 11 or John 14, but suddenly that matters more than anything. Of course, it's not really about the money, but it becomes about money and the house and the stuff  because that's the only way we can measure that a dead woman loved me more than you. We're really just fighting over mama's love and acceptance, but how much sense does it make to fight over resources that have no limit? One's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. We aren't just ruining those relationships when we make love a quantifiable and comparable thing. When we try to quantify love, we're also ruining life itself.

May God's continual mercy continue to cleanse us and defend us from such misplaced pursuits. Life and love are far too beautiful to fight over.

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