Deborah Beach Giordano
© August 1, 2016
Luke 12:13–21 ~ as told by Deborah
A man in the crowd called out, “Teacher, tell my brother to share the family inheritance with me.”
Jesus answered, “Friend, who set me a judge or arbitrator over you?
“Be careful,” he said, “Be on your guard against every sort of greed; because life isn’t about how much you have, but what you have.”
Then he told them a parable: “A rich man made a bundle in the stock market. ‘Hmmm,’ he thought to himself, ‘What should I do with all this money?’ Then he said, ‘I know: I’ll tear down my house and build a great big one with a five-car garage and a wine cellar and put the rest of the money in an off-shore account. I’ll never have to worry again; I’ll say to myself, “You’re all set: relax, eat, drink, and be merry.”’
“But God said to him, ‘Foolish man! You’re going to die tonight — and all that stuff you’ve collected, whose will it be?’
“That’s how it goes for those who stockpile earthly treasures for themselves but give no thought to God.”
“No way. I won’t stand for it. You’re not going to get everything you want — just like you always do and always have for the last fifty years!” The speaker’s eyes glinted with angry tears as she spit out those words. All of us sitting around the table fell silent.
We’d been in discussion for well over an hour and everyone was beginning to grow tired. My co-mediator stood to open a window and all of the participants startled, apparently thinking that he was going to walk out. Instead Phil suggested a ten minute break “so we can all freshen up a bit,” which meant he wanted to have a private conversation with me.
While some families come to a relatively quick agreement on sharing property and disposing of valuables, others turn against one another like piranha when it comes to dividing an estate, spending hours biting and sniping at one another; reopening old wounds and inflicting new ones. This was one of the latter.
As the parties paced across the lawn outside the building — scrupulously avoiding contact with one another, Phil and I debated whether to continue. While it had been a tense meeting, this was the first flash of open hostility.
“This is never going to end if they’ve don’t stop arguing and start talking,” Phil stretched his arms over his head and sighed, “I think it’s time for a ‘Come to Jesus,’ speech.”
He wasn’t suggesting a religious awakening, but a wake-up call. If, after a reasonable amount of time, the parties seem unwilling or unable to resolve the issue, we will stop the mediation. The next step for them is litigation. Phil was saying it was time for the “It’s now or never” speech.
Hearing his words I wondered aloud if things would be different if we didn’t work in a secular setting. What if brought spirituality into these things; what if we began our mediations with a moment of prayer or a meditation on what kind of agreement would honor the memory of the deceased.
Phil nearly spit out his coffee, “Her ‘memory’ is the problem! Why do you think these people are like this? Because,” he continued, “their mother played favorites; she set them against one another: now they’re all trying to get even.”
He was right: we had to repeatedly squelch recitations of who had visited mom the most, done the most for her, given her the most, or taken the most from her. These well-into-middle-aged siblings were still caught up in rivalries begun a half a century earlier.
When Fair isn’t Enough
Every proposed solution one of the parties made was instantly dismissed as unfair or unworkable by one or more of the others. The only consensus of the evening came when they all joined together in attacking us mediators for suggesting that the assets be divided equally between them.
As far as these children were concerned, “equal” wasn’t fair. But what they wanted was something we simply could not give them: payment for their suffering.
However the inheritance was divided, none would be satisfied. Even assuming that a single one managed to get everything that remained, he or she would still be unhappy, each would still feel angry, they would all feel betrayed.
What they wanted was lost to them forever: kindness and affection, an acknowledgement of who they were and what they had given — and what they needed. The house and all its contents would not fill the empty space in hearts that still yearned for a mother’s love.
We gathered around the table again and Phil gave the “Come to Jesus” speech. The participants were unmoved, each convinced of the rightness of his claim to more than the others, none able to see beyond the pain of the past.
It was one of our few unsuccessful mediations.
The Lord Christ was right; mediating an inheritance has nothing to do with Him. If the situation has come to the point of dispute, then the holiness has seeped out; all that remains is bitterness, anger, and sorrow. That is the inheritance.
This unfortunate family gave ample proof that people can spend years building collections of things — but never giving any thought to building up what matters. The woman had studied fine porcelain, learning what gave it value — while breaking the hearts of her children. She had amassed lots of stuff, but given no thought to love — and so, at the end, there was none left to her children.
They had received their inheritance: distrust and dislike of one another, and an obsession with things.
Another Form of Greed
Which brings us to another point in Jesus’ warning about greed. We know to beware of the ordinary temptations: the desire for accumulation; for cars, cabin cruisers, champagne and caviar — all of the aspects of “the good life” that money can buy — but there are other forms that greed can take.
A desperate desire for approval, or attention, or affection can drag us down and lead us to do (almost) anything. Just as the adult children in our mediation anxiously fought over the crumbs of their mother’s life, we will fight, lie, cheat, and even kill to fill a yearning that can never be eased. We can come to believe that if only our efforts were recognized, our good works rewarded, our love requited, it would be enough. Then, we would be at peace; then we could say to ourselves, “you’re all set: relax, eat, drink, and be merry.” We can be emotionally greedy.
“Be careful,” Jesus said, “Be on your guard against every sort of greed; because life isn’t about how much you have, but what you have.”
When we seek satisfaction through things, or people, or prestige, we have succumbed to greed. It is the grasping for more and still more — and never having enough: that is how we can recognize it for what it is.
That which we desire — the longing we are so often tempted to fill with stuff — is the divine whisper to our soul: “to be holy.” It is not a demand for sacrifice or suffering, but an invitation to kindness, to compassion; a call to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. Others cannot do it for us — not other things nor other people; only we can respond.
Only we can answer God’s call.
Virtual hugs and real-time blessings,
This Week’s Suggested Spiritual Exercise: What inheritance will you leave?