GREED AND SELFISHNESS:
Wanting to Have Everything for Self
“Yea, they are greedy dogs which can never have enough, and they are shepherds that cannot understand: they all look to their own way, every one for his gain, from his quarter.”—Isaiah 56:11.
Having more than enough is not enough for a greedy person but contentment gives rest to him who understands that there is more to life than the pursuit of possessions.
Jesus Refuses to Arbitrate Between Feuding Brothers
If one is already wealthy and still restlessly pursues wealth, it is a proof that material possessions do not fulfil. We can have our life full of things without being fulfilled, for it is one thing to be full and it is another to be fulfilled. Material possessions cannot be enough. One of the human traits is that of finding pleasure in accumulating wealth around himself. The bane of man is that he accumulates money he will never use; amasses land he will never cultivate; buys things he will never utilise, etc.
“He that loveth silver shall not be satisfied with silver; nor he that loveth abundance with increase: this is also vanity … and what good is there to the owners thereof, saving the beholding of them with their eyes?” —Ecclesiastes 5:10-11.
If only we could accept the counsel of the One who created the things we run through life chasing, life would be a lot easier to live and bear. We had already mentioned about a man who had come to Jesus complaining that his brother had declined to share the inheritance with him. Let me revisit this case and highlight some issues about the matter. The man wanted the Lord Jesus to prevail upon his brother to share the inheritance (Luke 12:13-15). Refusing to arbitrate between them, Jesus spoke to them generally and parabolically so that both of them could decide what to do based on what each understood from the parable.
Before He went parabolic, Jesus told them blatantly: “Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth” (Lk. 12:15).
The story of the two brothers is one of the cases in the Bible that leave me scratching my head. The man seemed to have had a noble request—or didn’t he? I would have expected Jesus to tell the brother who refused to share to stop being selfish, but He didn’t. On the surface, Jesus seemed to have compounded the problem for the man who sought help more than helping him. Did Jesus mean to make him leave the inheritance to the ‘greedy’ brother?
Jesus definitely knew something about the two brothers that we are not told. Why did He generalise instead of being specific? Was He speaking to the man who reported his brother, or was He speaking to the brother who refused to share? Assuming that the reported brother was present, the following might have been the reason Jesus chose to talk to both of them:
i) The man might have been already wealthy enough that it was not necessary to feud for more wealth. If this was the case, the man was following up the inheritance because of an insatiable desire to have more, hence covetousness. Perhaps his brother was not doing as well as him even after refusing to let him share part of the inheritance. If that was not the case, Jesus’ answer implies that it is wrong to be driven by the spirit of covetousness even if he was pursuing his right. The Lord must have taken the opportunity to challenge him to deal with the vice of covetousness.
ii) Another possibility was that Jesus must have been maintaining His radical teaching where He said, “And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also” (Matt. 5:40). In other words, He was discouraging His followers from feuding over material things.
iii) We are not told why the brother didn’t want to share. If it was sheer greed, though Jesus’ answer sounds like He was discouraging the one who reported his brother from feuding over wealth, He equally never spared the one who wouldn’t share.
We read at the beginning of Luke chapter12 that there was a great crowd at the place. When the man reported his brother, he actually interrupted the Lord as He was teaching the crowd. Jesus used the occasion not only to teach the crowd about the folly of feuding over material things but also the imprudence of thinking that abundance secures the future. His warning after the parable, “So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God” (v. 21) is a confirmation that he was not just addressing the two brothers but everybody.
It is not clear if the brother who wouldn’t share was also present among the crowd. It can also be possible that the brother who reported the case had wanted Jesus to go find the brother and advise him. But even if he was not at the place and Jesus never went to meet him, it is possible that he heard what Jesus said from people who were present.
Whatever the case, there are two possible ways by which the two brothers would interpret what Jesus was saying. Their interpretation would be influenced by two questions:
i) What does it mean to me?
ii) What does it mean to my brother?
Depending on how selfish each one of them was, they might have shunned the question: what does Jesus teaching mean to me? Instead, they might have settled for: what does Jesus teaching mean to by brother? Because there was greed and covetousness in the picture, there was a call for repentance. One can only repent when one hears what the Lord tells him as a person and not what He is telling others.
If neither of them repented, the following is likely to have been the interpretation of what Jesus was telling them, directing the interpretation to each other:
The brother who won’t share: You heard what Jesus said, that your life does not consist of the abundance of your possessions. So stop covetousness; stop feuding with me over the inheritance! It will not make your life better.
The brother who wanted a share of the inheritance: You heard what Jesus said, that your life does not consist of the abundance of your possessions. So stop greed; stop keeping the inheritance for yourself! It will not make your life better.
If on the other hand each of the two brothers personalised what Jesus was saying, they would repent and the following would be the interpretation each is likely to come up with:
The brother who won’t share: I heard what Jesus said, that my life does not consist of the abundance of my possessions. Therefore, I have to stop greed and feuding with my brother over the inheritance! It will not make my life better. I will give my brother his share.
The brother who wanted a share of the inheritance: I heard what Jesus said that my life does not consist of the abundance of my possessions. Therefore, I must stop covetousness and feuding with my brother over the inheritance. He can keep the inheritance; I will keep my focus on spiritual matters. That is what will make my life better.
If the interpretation where each one of them is preoccupied by what Jesus told his brother prevailed, the two brothers would continue feuding. If on the other hand each one was concerned with what Jesus told him as a person, their interpretation would lead to repentance and the end of the feud. A good steward must be one who reminds himself of what the Lord Jesus told him personally and not waiting for others to ‘force’ him to consider what the Lord said.