Reflection on Luke 12:
G. Gibbs, PhD
“Be on your guard against all
kinds of greed.” The Greek word that is translated by our word
“greed” is built on a Greek root meaning “too much.” It is not
only a matter of having lots of stuff, but of having too much
for one’s good, for the good of others, for the good of the
human community., even for the good of earth’s ecosystem.“Abundance”
is not the issue. What we do or do not do with our abundance
“Eco-justice” is a concept that
searches for equitable balance between the various needs of
both land and labor. That balance is implicitly at issue in
this parable of the rich fool.
To be sure, in antiquity there
was no possibility that humanity could greatly maim or even
destroy the ecosystem entire. Consequently the ecological imbalances
that we face could not be directly addressed either within the
biblical canon, or within its surrounding ancient literature.
Nonetheless the warning against “greed,” against lusting for
“too much,” sets a standard for human behavior that needs no
translation to be ecologically relevant.
As Kevin Phillips (see his books
Wealth and Democracy, and The Politics of Rich and
Poor) and others have shown, there is a huge and growing
gap between the most wealthy 1% of American population and the
remaining 99%, especially the bottom quartile of the population.
What a reversal of the shepherd image envisioned by Jesus, the
shepherd who gave special attention to the bottom one, the lost
one, and even though he had 99 sheep, he kept looking for the
lost one sheep! Here the opposite is the case. Present economic
and tax policies favor the rich 1% at the expense of all others.
The parable is Jesus’ answer to a question about inheritance.
In direct contradiction to this parable’s wisdom, we now have
demagogic rhetoric about “the death tax,” and tax policies that
favor transmission of enormous wealth within a family for generations—no
matter what the social consequences, no matter how much greed
The consequences for flora and
fauna, and for the ecosystem upon which they depend, have been
severe, and they continue to move toward unmitigated disaster.
How we treat one another is in fact how we treat the world
around us. The problem is us, our priorities, our valuing
consumption and immediate gratification without regard to long-term
consequences, our refusal to count the human and ecological
costs of greed.
So where is the gospel in Jesus’
parable? The good news is that Jesus both sees realistically
our futile quests for security in things, and sees beyond them
to more enduring reality being enacted here and now. “Real”
reality transforms our priorities, frees us from obsession with
acquisitions, and sets our vision on “life” (12:15). True reality
makes us, as the Greek word order puts it, want to have a “toward
God wealth” (12:21, eis theon plouton). We make our wealth
move “toward God,” serve God’s purposes rather than “store up
treasures for [our]selves.”
We have heard the diminutive
expression that someone was “merely human,” or that a certain
action was “only human.” That turns reality upside down, however.
What is truly human we see in Jesus, who fulfilled God’s intention
for all humanity (Romans 5:12-21, etc.). The futile search for
security in military might, in economic power, in domination
over other nations and religions and cultures has nothing to
do with reality; indeed, all that is a frontal attack on “real”
enduring reality. The former will all pass away, for it
is insubstantial and represents “non-being,” lack of full reality.
The “good news” of this parable
is that God wants to deliver us from idolatry of abundance,
and liberate us for liberal living for others, including caring
for the world around us. If greed is foolishness, being “rich
toward God” is freedom, liberation, liberality, even liberal
living (the Latin liber, which is the root of these words,
means “free”). In this, as in other matters, the Christian faith
both shakes the foundations of rich foolishness and bottom line
thinking, and on the other hand, builds enduring habitats for
humanity while preserving the eco-justice that God built into
the good creation.