Sunday, July 24, 2022

Inheritance, Greed, and Living Toward God

Below is a rough translation and some initial comments regarding Luke 12:13-21, the gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary for Sunday. There are many uncomfortable questions that this conversation and parable raise, most of which are at the level of interpretation rather than translation. It should be an exciting week for text study groups and sermonizing. 

13 Εἶπεν δέ τις ἐκ τοῦ ὄχλου αὐτῷ, Διδάσκαλε, εἰπὲ τῷ ἀδελφῷ μου μερίσασθαι μετ' ἐμοῦ τὴν κληρονομίαν. 
Yet a certain one out of the crowd said to him, “Teacher, speak to my brother to divide with me the inheritance.”  
Εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
εἰπὲ: AAImpv 2s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
μερίσασθαι: AMInf, μερίζω, 1) to divide  1a) to separate into parts, cut into pieces
1. The word “teacher” is in the vocative case, meaning that it is a direct address and not the subject or object of a particular verb, preposition, or participle. I believe the word ‘vocative’ is rooted in the Latin word ‘vocare,’ which means ‘call.’ But, I’m not a Latinist, so maybe I’m not remembering well.
2. This is the first of three vocative addresses in this pericope: “Teacher” in v.13; “Man” in v.14; and “Fool” in v.20. So, a sermon could begin, “A teacher, a man, and a fool walk into a bar ...” 
EDIT: However, as "Father Anonymous" has pointed out in the comments, the wealthy man's self-address as "Soul" can be yet another use of the vocative. A Teacher, a man, a soul, and a fool walk into a bar. The barkeepers says, "What is this, some sort of joke?" 

14ὁ δὲ εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Ἄνθρωπε, τίς με κατέστησεν κριτὴν ἢμεριστὴν ἐφ' ὑμᾶς; 
Yet he said to him, “Man, who set me a judge or a divider over you?”  
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
κατέστησεν: AAI 3s, καθίστημι, 1) to set, place, put  1a) to set one over a thing (in charge of it)  1b) to appoint one to administer an office
1. The word I am translating as “divider” (ἢμεριστὴν) has the same root (μερι) as the verb “divide” (μερίσασθαι) in v.13.
2. Before we get too “Don’t bother Jesus with those kinds of issues” here, we need to remember how much attention the OT law gives to inheritance and how much inheritance matters in Jesus’ parables. Generational wealth could serve as either a blessing or a snare. With inheritance as a fundamental part of enabling or ensuring livelihood in ancient cultures, I think we need to let what follows indicate why it is that Jesus is not willing to take on the role of the arbiter in this matter. Or, as one comment below points out, maybe Jesus' parable is directed to the brother who refuses to share. 

15 εἶπεν δὲ πρὸς αὐτούς, Ὁρᾶτε καὶ φυλάσσεσθε ἀπὸ πάσης πλεονεξίας, ὅτι οὐκ ἐν τῷ περισσεύειν τινὶ ἡ ζωὴ αὐτοῦ ἐστιν ἐκ τῶν ὑπαρχόντων αὐτῷ. 
Yet he said to them, “Watch and guard for all greediness, because not in the abounding to someone his life is out of his havings.”
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
Ὁρᾶτε: PAImpv 2p, ὁράω, 1) to see with the eyes  2) to see with the mind, to perceive,
φυλάσσεσθε: PMImpv 2p, φυλάσσω, 1) to guard   1a) to watch, keep watch
περισσεύειν: PAInf, περισσεύω, 1) to exceed a fixed number of measure, to be left over and  above a certain number or measure 
ἐστιν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present 
ὑπαρχόντων: PAPart gpn, ὑπάρχω, 1) to begin below, to make a beginning 
1. This is terribly awkward as a rough translation and I would never leave it in this form for public reading. Refined translations have phrases like the “abundance of possessions” (NRSV and NIV), which is readable, but it is surprising to see that “abundance” is a present active infinitive verb and “possessions” is a present active participle – not nouns. To me, this is the kind of verse that calls for long, meditative translation and would be worth every minute of it.

16 Εἶπεν δὲ παραβολὴν πρὸς αὐτοὺς λέγων, Ἀνθρώπου τινὸς πλουσίου εὐφόρησεν ἡ  χώρα. 
Then he said a parable to them saying, “The region of a certain man rich man produced well.”  
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
λέγων: PAPart nsm, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak  
εὐφόρησεν: AAI 3s, εὐφορέω, 1) to be fertile, bring forth plentifully
1. Like v.15 above, Jesus has shifted his audience from the man who asked the initial question to “them,” presumably the crowd itself. If the comment regarding “greed” in v.15 and this parable are directly related to the request that Jesus arbitrate an inheritance dispute, the use of “them” may indicate that the problem is not limited to the man and his brother, but is more systemic and general.
2. Many translations say “the ground,” but χώρα is consistently translated as “country” or “land” or “region” throughout the gospels. (It is the word in the parable of the younger son – also an inheritance story – when he goes to a ‘far away country.’)
3. If Isaiah’s words still have any effect, this “successful” man seems immediately guilty of “joining field to field” (Is. 5:8) in accumulating so much land. With his land producing well, the rich are getting richer. Such a situation could be advantageous to many, if it were a generous fiefdom. My sense is that under the Roman Empire, such fiefdoms were rarely generous and usually oppressive to the landless workers.

17καὶ διελογίζετο ἐν ἑαυτῷ λέγων, Τί ποιήσω, ὅτι οὐκ ἔχω ποῦ συνάξω τοὺς καρπούς  μου; 
And he was reasoning in himself saying, “What shall I do, because I do not have where I shall gather together my fruit?”
διελογίζετο: IMI 3s, διαλογίζομαι, 1) to bring together different reasons, to reckon up the  reasons, to reason, revolve in one's mind, deliberate 
λέγων: PAPart nsm, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak  
ποιήσω: FAI 1s, ποιέω, 1) to make, to do  
ἔχω: PAI 1s, ἔχω, 1) to have, i.e. to hold
συνάξω: FAI 1s, συνάγω, 1) to gather together, to gather 
1. This reminds me of the description of Hezekiah in II Chronicles 32:23-33.
2. It’s too bad that the lectionary pericope ends before v.24: “Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds!”(NIV)

18καὶ εἶπεν, Τοῦτο ποιήσωκαθελῶ μου τὰς ἀποθήκας καὶ μείζονας οἰκοδομήσω, καὶ  συνάξω ἐκεῖ πάντα τὸν σῖτον καὶ τὰ ἀγαθά μου, 
And he said, “This I will do; I will demolish my silos and I will build larger ones, and I will gather together there all my grain and my goods,  
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
ποιήσω: FAI is, ποιέω, 1) to make 
καθελῶ: FAI 1s, καθαιρέω, 1) to take down  ... 2) to pull down, demolish
οἰκοδομήσω: FAI 1s, οἰκοδομέω, 1) to build a house, erect a building
συνάξω: FAI 1s, συνάγω, 1) to gather together, to gather 
1. I want to use “silo” to translate ἀποθήκας, although the Greek root for “silo” is actually σιρός, because when I hear ‘barn’ I think cattle and equipment, rather than grain storage. I would use ‘storehouse,’ but both ἀποθήκας (barn) and ταμεῖον (storehouse) are used in v.24.

19καὶ ἐρῶ τῇ ψυχῇ μου, Ψυχή,ἔχεις πολλὰ ἀγαθὰ κείμενα εἰς ἔτη πολλά: ἀναπαύουφάγεπίεεὐφραίνου
and I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up into many  years; rest yourself, eat, drink, be glad.”
ἐρῶ: FAI 1s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
ἔχεις: PAI 2s, ἔχω, 1) to have, i.e. to hold
κείμενα: PMPart apn, κεῖμαι, 1) to lie  1a) of an infant  1b) of one buried  1c) of things that quietly cover some spot  1c1) of a city situated on a hill  1d) of things put or set in any place, in ref. to which we often  use "to stand"
ἀναπαύου: PMImpv 2s, ἀναπαύω, 1) to cause or permit one to cease from any movement or labor  in order to recover and collect his strength  2) to give rest, refresh, to give one's self rest, take rest
φάγε: AAImpv 2s, ἐσθίω, 1) to eat  2) to eat (consume) a thing 
πίε: AAImpv 2s, πίνω, 1) to drink
εὐφραίνου: PPImpv 2s, εὐφραίνω, 1) to gladden, make joyful  1a) to be glad, to be merry, to rejoice  1b) to rejoice in, be delighted with a thing
1. After dialoging with himself in v.18, the man now speaks about what he will say to his soul.  
2. I have “rest yourself” because ἀναπαύου is in the middle voice and “be glad” because εὐφραίνου is in the passive voice. All four of the verbs in the last clause are imperatives.

20 εἶπεν δὲ αὐτῷ ὁ θεός,  Ἄφρων, ταύτῃ τῇ νυκτὶ τὴν ψυχήν σου ἀπαιτοῦσιν ἀπὸ σοῦ: ἃ  δὲ ἡτοίμασας, τίνι ἔσται;
But God said to him, “Fool, this night they are demanding your soul from you; yet the things which you prepared will be whose?”
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
ἀπαιτοῦσιν: PAI 3p, ἀπαιτέω, 1) to ask back, demand back, exact something due
ἡτοίμασας: AAI 2s, ἑτοιμάζω, 1) to make ready, prepare
ἔσται: FMI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present 
1. Generally, I try to leave δὲ as neutral as possible (with ‘yet’), until the context determines whether it should be ‘then,’ or ‘and,’ or ‘but.’ In this case, it indicates a contrary thought, so I am using ‘but.’
2. identifies “Fool” ( Ἄφρων) as nominative, but identifies it as vocative, corresponding with “Man” (Ἄνθρωπε) in v. 14. I think the vocative is correct. The word is a-phron. “Phron” is the root of the word “phronesis,” which is often used for ‘wisdom,’ or ‘practical reason,’ in philosophy, so a-phron would indicate a lack of wisdom. As a noun, ‘fool’ works, but the other word for fool is moros, from which we get the English moron. Young’s Literal Translation has this “Unthinking one” which is probably closer to the word but much less effective. Ἄφρων is similar to the LXX translation in I Samuel 25:25 when Abigail tells David that her husband's name is "Nabal" and he is aptly named because he is foolish.
3. The point of Ἄφρων seems to be the contrast between the man’s internal reasoning (διελογίζετο ἐν ἑαυτῷ, v.17) and God’s appraisal of his conclusions. I cannot help but to think about the economist Gary Becker's Nobel winning work on "economic ways of looking at human behavior." This parable would suggest that God looks at our exalted wisdom and calls it foolishness. 
4. “They are demanding”: Many translations make this verb passive with “your soul” as the subject. The verb is active and it is plural, hence “they.” In addition “your soul” is accusative, so the object of the verb, not its subject. The question then is, “They who?”

21οὕτως ὁ θησαυρίζων ἑαυτῷ καὶ μὴ εἰς θεὸν πλουτῶν
So the one who gathers to himself and is not rich unto God.  
θησαυρίζων: PAPart nsm, θησαυρίζω, 1) to gather and lay up, to heap up, store up
πλουτῶν: PAPart nsm, πλουτέω, 1) to be rich, to have abundance
1. This sounds like an aphorism because it has 2 participles but lacks a main verb.
2. Is the alternative to ‘gathering to oneself’ to give to God or to share with others? Or, are those the same thing?  
3. One question I hear is: Is all that money that I put into retirement – required by my denomination’s pension plan – an example of wise investment or an example of greedy hoarding that lacks faith in God’s continued provision?
4. Or, is this text about someone who is obscenely wealthy, perhaps even oppressively so, ergo one whose storage is at the expense of others’ present needs?
5. This story begins with a man asking Jesus to arbitrate an inheritance dispute with his brother – a fairly common dispute among agrarian peoples even today. Jesus hears it as a question of greed (v.15). In fact, Luke often adds a commentary of what a parable by Jesus means and in this case he frames the parable with two summaries, v.15 and 21. 


  1. D. Mark Davis: glad you are back...i often use your outside the box translations in my sermons...keep up the God work! and thank you.
    Bethany Carpenter, United Methodist pastor in Melrose, NM...

  2. Thanks, Bethany. Feel free to roll your eyes when making reference to my translations. Then you can give people something to think about and distance yourself from it at the same time!

  3. Mark, thank you for your translation. With regard to your awkward translation of verse 15, it may be helpful to note to things.

    1. οὐκ ἐν τῷ περισσεύειν is in an emphatic position in the sentence. Thus Jesus is giving a certain prominence to the "abundance" that the man has.

    2. Even though they are separated from each other ἐκ τῶν ὑπαρχόντων αὐτῷ is an ablative of source which modifies ἐν τῷ περισσεύειν--ie., the source of the man's wealth is his posessions.

    Taken together the half verse could be paraphrased "The life of anyone is NOT--I repeat, NOT--in the ABUNDANCE that flows from his possessions." The emphasis falls on the "not" and the abundance.

    Rev. Michael A. Weber, United Reformed Church, Clifton, NJ

  4. Thank you, Michael. This is quite helpful.

  5. Hey Mark,
    Good stuff here and enjoyed connecting with you last week. I am no Greek scholar, but isn't the word for "be glad" "euphroino" from the same root "phron" in "Fool!" a-phron. The rich man says, "I will have good (eu) thoughts." God says, "Not (a) thinking!"

    I think this is important, especially with the opening of the brother concerned about getting his fair share. After some of the ideas we were wrestling with last week, this rich man (and perhaps the brother) has no concept of belonging to God and to the community. The rich man is all about MY crops, MY barns, My good thoughts. Nowhere is there any reference to anyone else, not even his family. He is totally self centered. And so he is literally "Thought-less" not thinking about anyone other than himself. That is why while he may have stored up treasures for himself he is impoverished towards God.

    Howard Chapman
    FPC Marion IA

    1. Hi Howard,
      This is an excellent point. I'll have to study this etymology more, but the connection is wonderfully suggestive. Good to hear from you and thanks for all that you contributed to making Synod School such a great experience.

  6. Mark, I enjoy your translation work. It really opens up the text for me and sends me spinning into the exegesis and sermon prep. I love it

    Without the Greek, we miss so much. Thank you.

  7. Anything to add on the word translated as greediness"? (v.15)

    1. Hi David,
      I am actually preaching a series on creation stories right now, so I have not given any additional energy to this text beyond what you see here. I do need to spend more time on the meaning of greediness here, given how pivotal it is for this text.

    2. By the way, David, what did you come up with this week?

    3. Thanks, Mark. Love the work you are doing here. I worked around the contrast between ALL KINDS OF GREED and being RICH TOWARD GOD with the basic question being if life/vitality does not consist in the abundance of good, in what does it consist?

      I took the wealthy farmer and the man in the crowd to get at the ALL KINDS of greed -- one wealthy and one desiring wealth -- to get much closer to home than our culture's morality plays (films like "Wall Street" and "Confessions of a Shopaholic"). The wise understand that even middle class virtues like saving and standing up for what is owed us -- these can become forms of greed that alienate us from others. I suggested that the man in the crowd is very close to our experience of fighting over money at home, work, in politics, and even the church. (And on occasion interrupting God to fight for us.) In striving for wealth, control, and for what we think is rightfully ours we end up impoverished, which then opens up onto the question of what a good or rich life looks be rich toward God/God's kingdom, which takes a multitude of forms, but in our culture is likely to mean the giving of time -- giving up on trying to control time and sharing ourselves with others....illustration and out.

      Being an occasional preacher -- I couldn't help trying to do too much with this amazing text. Thanks again for your help and conversation!

    4. I've got one, although it's not really exegesis, just a hint toward a possible sermon. "Pleonexia," greed, is etymologically pleon [much] + exia [appetite]. The opposite, almost, is a word that many of us use in English: anorexia, the disease of having no appetite.

  8. Thank you for your thoughts, Mark

    On reading the passage in English, I an struck by how a comment from one who wants to possess becomes a parable about one who already possesses and wants more; or , it becomes a story about one who has a lot in contrast with one who doesn't.

    Thus, what I'm wondering is while Jesus does not answer the request to tell the brother... does he tell a story against the brother and in favour of the one who has asked his help. Recognising other inheritance stories, in the Gospels, and while not knowing the legitimacy or credibility of the claim against the brother, could this be a parable in favour of the 'disinherited' within the community?

    If this is a possibility, then the story could become one of also challenging the socio-economic structures that allow the rich to get richer, especially at the price of making the poor become poorer through disinheritance and dispossession.

    The issues then may not simply be about the wealth of the rich man/ fool but about how he became so rich and his selfish lack of concern about anything or anyone (including God) other than himself.

    Potentially challenging issues for me as a Christian living in western Europe where I need to reflect on how the socio-economic system I participate disinherits/ dispossesses others in the world!!

    Just a thought...

    1. Excellent input, Fred. I like your suggestion that Jesus might be, in fact, arbitrating the dispute, by calling out the brother's greediness. As a brother, he is certainly entitled to some of the inheritance. The implication of the story is that at least one of them is overreaching and not appreciating his given abundance.

      Your question about living in an economic system that clearly uber-rewards some and punishes others is a perfect response to this story, I think.

  9. Thank you very much for this provocative translation!!

    For what it is worth, I keep thinking that Isaiah 22:13 ("let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die") is an intertext with v. 19. The situations are superficially different - the folks in Isaiah facing famine and disaster, the rich farmer's just the opposite - but his turns out to be just as dire in the end. The element of not considering God's involvement in the situation is common to the two contexts, too.

    1. Hi Heather,

      Thank you for pointing this echo out. You comments about the similarities and differences are very helpful.
      Thanks again, MD

    2. Here's another one: in Genesis 41, when Joseph interprets Pharaoh's dreams about the cows and the corns, he advises Pharaoh to appoint someone "phronimon kai suneton" to oversee the project of gathering the abundant yields of the next seven years as insurance against the famine years to come ... in which case the bigger barns were neither greedy nor foolish ... but of course Joseph was presumably rich towards God. Also "phron." Paradigmatically so. [The Bible is so awesome.]

  10. Nice work, as always.

    Is it possible that psuche in v. 19 is also a vocative? (I think it's the same form in vocative and nominative). If so, we have a handy structure of two vocatives outside the parable and two inside it, as well as an easy sermon title: "O Teacher, O Man, O Soul, O Fool."

  11. I wonder whether Jesus is dismissive of the man's request as it is often claimed. He refers to the requester as 'man' (human - not 'male'), and then asks 'who has made me judge and arbitrator'? Is the answer 'God'?? In other words, in asking me, do you realise who you are asking and what authority he has? At the end of the story, it is God who speaks as arbitrator and judge on the greedy one.

    1. Does Acts 7:35 help? The question there seems too similar to this one is Luke to be coin-incidental?

  12. "the question is who are 'they'?" I wonder if it is our things. The things that will own us if we let them, rather than letting ourselves and our soul be owned by God.

    It is a slippery slope, owning things or them owning us.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. I agree. The things are 'they', and 'they' own his soul, but this is not the inheritance that Jesus offers. This ties in with the question posed to Jesus about inheritance, and this is what the judge and divider aka Jesus has to say.


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