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Politics of Scripture

Living into the Beloved Community

13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” 14 But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” 15 And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” 16 Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17 And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ 18 Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 20 But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21 So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

Luke 12:13-21

One of the critiques of the academic world is that academics can become too siloed in our own disciplines. Among other things, this Political Theology blog works to break down these silos—bringing fields such as theology, biblical studies, politics, and ethics into conversation with one another. At an even more basic level, though, American society—within and beyond the academy—lives into and continues to build up a siloed lifestyle that supports the individual and individual ideologies, wealth, rights, and world view above all else. 

Here it is necessary to offer a caveat. I support individual rights. Like too many, I share in the communal outrage and lament over the blows to the individual rights of women that the Supreme Court has endorsed over the past weeks and the danger of additional loss of rights that such a precedent sets. Nevertheless, my understanding of both Scripture and nature tells me that such individual rights are lived out in community and therefore must be balanced with communal wellbeing. Human beings are not meant to live in silos completely apart from one another, but rather, are meant to live in relationship with each other.

It is these relationships that are at the core of Luke’s gospel text in this week’s lectionary. Jesus tells a parable about a solitary man who builds up silos to store his wealth (Lk 12:16-21) to illustrate the ridiculousness of such a cloistered existence. When the wealthy man in Jesus’ story feels he has finally stored away enough goods, he prepares to “relax, eat, drink, [and] be merry” (Lk 12:19). These are activities, most of which would have been enjoyed in the company of others in Jesus’ first-century world, as you might imagine them today. Yet, when the wealthy man prepares to embark on these activities, he does not address his family, friends, or even his servants. Rather, he speaks, literally, to himself (Lk 12:19, “Soul/Self”). So, it seems, that this fictional individual was engaged in the solitary act of accumulation to such a point that when he is ready to enjoy his life in community, he has no community left to surround him. 

The tragedy of the wealthy man’s plight has already been made, though Jesus emphasizes the loss by indicating that that very night the same man will die—presumably alone (Lk 12:20). While a twenty-first century individualist mindset might immediately hear in the rhetorical question, “And the thing you have prepared, whose will they be?” a lament at the wealthy man’s inability to enjoy his wealth before he died, it is likely that for Jesus’ first-century audience, the greater tragedy was that this fictional man lacked anyone with whom to share his life and livelihood. 

Death is a natural end that came all too quickly in the first-century world. Since the wealthy man has lived long enough to accrue so much, one can assume that he lived a relatively long life and so his death itself is not a moment of extreme tragedy, except that he does not seem to have any inheritors of either his property or his name to carry on his memory. 

The tragedy of Jesus’ parable, at its core, is the lack of community to surround the wealthy man, no matter how productive he may have been. To this end, Jesus doesn’t even directly critique the act of storing up wealth, but rather, “those who store up treasures for themselves” (Lk 12:21, emphasis added). In Jesus’ first-century Jewish world view, individual rights existed and were valued, but they were valued within the context of community. Individuals did not live for themselves alone, but for and within the well-being of the community as a whole. Within such a community, both wealth and tradition were regularly shared. 

Often the first half of this parable is misinterpreted, along with the parable of the prodigal son (Lk 15:11-32), under the presumption that first-century Jewish households typically operated under a single child inheritance structure, in which the eldest son inherited everything, and younger children and daughters were left with nothing. This is not an accurate portrait. It misses the communitarian function of first-century Judaism (and the first-century Mediterranean more generally), in which households functioned together across generational lines. Thus, while the eldest son might inherit the Roman title of pater familias (“head of the household”) upon his father’s passing, the family land and inheritance would remain shared among the male (and, in some cases, female) children. The inheritance benefited each of the children, while remaining undivided. 

The call of Jesus’ interlocutor to tell his “brother to divide the family inheritance” (Lk 12:13) is not therefore about correcting a perceived injustice, in which the younger son received nothing (or even a lesser amount) and the elder son received everything. Nor is the elder son in Jesus’ parable later in Luke concerned that his brother received a portion of what ought to be his. Rather, in both cases, the concern is about the division or unity of the property. Even after the property has been divided, the elder son in Jesus’ parable complains to his father that his brother “has devoured your property” (Lk 15:30). In the Luke 12 text, the act of “division” is emphasized by the repetition of the root μερίζω both in the initial request and in Jesus’ response, in which he refuses to be a judge or arbitrator (μεριστὴν, literally “divider” v. 14).

Division is a natural consequence of individualism. It was not unheard of in the first-century world; but it was far from the ideal. The desire to live apart, to separate mine from yours, creates the need to divide. But Jesus isn’t interested in division. Embedded in the ideals of the community in which he was raised and towards which the Hebrew Scriptures point, Jesus is interested in life together—in breaking down or refusing to help build the silos that would keep us apart. 

In the contemporary world, another word for that kind of community building that requires relying upon and supporting one another, even and especially across differences, is fusion. For some time, the Rev. William J. Barber II has been building a moral fusion movement across the United States of America, taking a national stage in the Poor People’s Campaign March on Washington, D.C. on June 18, 2022. Moral Fusion. As Barber defines it, it is an ethical commitment to well-being that transcends party politics and religious factionalism, building long-term relationships around a shared moral core that uplifts the beloved community espoused by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The King center defines beloved community as “a global vision in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth.” In such wealth, it is possible to imagine a future in which whole communities are able to eat, drink, and be merry together.

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