Sunday Sermon – July 31, 2016

Daniel P. Strandlund

St. John’s Episcopal Church

July 31st, 2016

Proper 13

Luke 12:13-21


The Get Along Shirt


Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me. (12:13)


The first thing I’m going to do is demonstrate that this man in the crowd has a legitimate legal case he’s bringing to Jesus.  Because his case is legitimate, the fact that Jesus dismisses him is problematic.  So, the second thing I’m going to do is explore why it is Jesus’ seems to dismiss him so entirely.  I’ll conclude with some reflections on what our inheritance at St. John’s might look like here and now.


First observation: for Jewish people in Jesus’ day, the land is everything.  This is not simply because this society is agrarian and dependent upon the land for sustenance.  The land has deep theological and cultural significance.  The land is fundamental to the promise God makes to Abraham (Gen. 15:18-21), and then makes again to Isaac (Gen. 26:3), and then again to Jacob (Gen. 28:13).  God reminds Moses and the Israelites of the land he is promising them as they wander in the wilderness (Ex. 23:31).  And if that weren’t enough, the entire second half of the book of Joshua”twelve full chapters”is concerned only with how the Promised Land is divided up between the tribes of Israel.  Incidentally, this also makes these twelve chapters some of the least interesting chapters in the entire Bible, but that’s just my opinion.


First conclusion: because of the reasons just discussed, the case this man in the crowd brings to Jesus is probably about inheritance of land.[1]  Neither the family China, nor their father’s library, nor the antique furniture is as important as the land itself, and so a dispute about land inheritance is most likely to drive someone to seek legal help.  (The relevant portions of the Torah, both about land importance and inheritance, are in Lev. 25:25-34, Deut. 21:15-17 and Num. 27:1-11 and 36:7-9.)  Furthermore, the parable Jesus tells is about how the land of a rich man produces abundantly (Luke 12:16).  This kind of parable makes the most sense as a response if land itself is in question.  So, it’s reasonable to conclude that this particular dispute is about land.


Second observation: the Torah contains specific laws about how inheritance is split between brothers.  (Deut. 21:15-17.)  The rule is this: the older brother gets 2/3 of the property, and the younger brother gets 1/3.  This law honors the right of the firstborn, which was significant in the ancient world (Ex. 13:2), while also guaranteeing that a younger son isn’t left without means for sustaining his own family.  Most important, by focusing on the order in which sons are born, the Torah ensures that fathers can’t just pick their favorite and give everything to him.  If you’re wondering, if a man had no sons, his daughters inherited everything (Numbers 27:1-11).


Second conclusion: based on those details, it’s reasonable to conclude that this man in the crowd is either a younger son arguing against an older son, or that he is a less-favored son arguing against Mom and Dad’s favorite.  We can’t be sure which, and it might be that both are true.  We can only be reasonably sure that within his family system, this man is in a position of less power than his brother.  Otherwise, he has no reason to expect the law to be on his side or to look to anyone outside the family who might have additional authority.


Now the twist: whatever the details of this particular dispute between siblings, Jesus clearly doesn’t care.   The NRSV gives Jesus’ response as this: Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?  But the tone is actually way more condescending.  Man, who made me executor of your family’s estate?  Needless to say, this is troubling.  This man in the crowd likely has a legitimate grievance.  Furthermore, this grievance is about land, which is of the utmost practical and symbolic importance.  And Jesus responds as though it’s of little consequence.


I bring all of this up to say this: it’s tempting to read this man as petty and money-grubbing and to write him off because Jesus appears to.  But it’s likely that this man has every reason to believe that his case is entirely legitimate under the law.  Moreover, his entire cultural and religious upbringing has told him that not only is his case legitimate, but it’s also important.  (Land is everything, remember?)


So, it doesn’t make sense for Jesus to dismiss this man entirely simply in order to teach the crowd about greed.  That would be unkind and unjust because this man cannot help thinking with the categories of his surroundings.  Moreover, it would alienate him from the crowd of Jesus’ followers while also not reconciling him to his brother.  It would leave him thinking that Jesus is no kind of advocate for what is right.  None of that fits with the character of Jesus, the Son of a God who so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son to the end that all that believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life (John 3:16).  If this is an outright dismissal from Jesus, then Jesus has put a stumbling block in the way of this man’s salvation.  That cannot be, so we must look for a less obvious solution.


I suggest that Jesus’ dismissal of this man’s specific case is an active and deliberate part of Jesus’ bringing him into God’s kingdom.  This appears contrary for all the reasons just stated”unless, of course, this man’s brother is standing there in the crowd with him.


Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me (Luke 12:13).


This man wants Jesus to do this now because the brothers are in the midst of the dispute at this very moment.  This man isn’t simply asking for confirmation of his opinion, which he then takes back home to his brother’s house.  The two are standing there, fuming and angry and bitter as only siblings can be.  They’ve probably fought about all kinds of things at all different points of their lives.  Fighting is familiar to them, and it’s likely become easier than loving each other.


If we understand this scene from Luke in this way, then Jesus’ parable isn’t so much dismissing this man so much as he is dismissing the conflict to which he and his brother are clinging.  Jesus warns against those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God (Luke 12:21).


What does it mean to store up treasures for ourselves instead of being rich toward God?  In the case of these two brothers, part of what it means is fighting tooth and nail for that extra 40 acres but losing your brother in the process.  What’s the point of keeping the family homestead if you alienate all the family who would enjoy it with you?  This is an inheritance dispute, which means the father of these two men has died.  And yet here the two boys are, falling asunder like Cain and Abel all over again.  Jesus’ parable gives these brothers space in which one might repent and the other might forgive.  That’s important: Jesus isn’t advocating unity at all costs.  One of them, the one who doesn’t speak, is in the wrong here.


What I’m going to say next is not based on details in the text itself, but simply my imagination and my hopes for these two brothers if my interpretation thus far has been accurate.


My first hope is that the brother who is in the wrong”the older or more favored one”I hope that brother realizes that he’s being petty, unfair, and greedy. I hope that he realizes that he is subverting the commandment of God revealed to him and his people in Deuteronomy.  I hope that, for a time, he feels the pangs of remorse.


My second hope is that this younger or less favored brother, the one who speaks to Jesus”I hope he hears Jesus’ parable and looks within himself and sees that in seeking out the authority of Jesus, chances are that he did not only want the dispute settled, but that he also wanted to beat his brother.  He wanted his brother to eat crow.  He didn’t simply want the best outcome; he wanted to win while watching his brother lose.  I hope he hears Jesus’ parable and sees within himself that he is not innocent of his brother’s sins.  Only then will he be able to forgive his brother without clinging to a toxic sense of moral superiority.


I’ll conclude with this.


I heard of a mother one time whose children would not stop fighting.  She devised what is one of the truly great innovations in the history of parenthood.  She called it the Get Along Shirt.


The Get Along Shirt was just a big white tee shirt with the words Get Along written on it.  When her children wouldn’t stop fighting, she would make them stand side by side, and then she would put the Get Along shirt on them.  They both had to wear it at the same time, until they started getting along.


Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.  Jesus effectively makes these two brothers stand next to each other and wear his parable as though it were the Get Along Shirt.


We’re in an election year, which means that we’re being tempted night and day not to seek the common good, or to ensure that the generations after us will have this good land to inherit.  We’re not even being tempted to have informed opinions.  Instead, we’re being tempted to ensure that our brothers lose.  We’re being tempted to gloat over every shortcoming we see in the opposition’s candidate, and we’re being tempted to identify the platform or image of a political party as God’s own truth.


Now I’m not going to stand up here and pretend like I think that in this election both sides are equally good or equally corrupt or equally consonant with what I understand to be Christian values.  I don’t think they’re equal, just like I don’t think both of these brothers in our passage are equally in the wrong.  And if I’m honest, I’m not really open to having my mind changed.  I expect most of us feel that way about politics.  (More about that in a second.)  But come November, we’re going to vote, and one group is going to win and the others are going to lose.  Whichever way the ballots fall, as a community of faith we will still stand under the judgment of a crucified Lord.  Life’s going to continue, and the Church is still going to be God’s Get Along Shirt.


That shirt will be more comfortable if we practice two things between now and then.  There are probably more than this, but these are the ones I’m trying.  First, for all of us, pray that the same mind that was in Christ Jesus might be in you and your community (Phil. 2:5).  How we vote should informed by our beliefs.  It’s perfectly healthy to ask God’s guidance in that, particularly if you’re one of the many this go around who are just depressed about the whole business generally.  I for one realized a few days ago that I had already made up my mind about who I was going to vote for, and not once did I ask God to give me wisdom in making that decision.  Not a single time.  By not praying about this decision, I’m saying that I’m not open to having my mind changed, even by God.  You’d think a preacher would know better.


Second, practice appreciative inquiry.  This means deliberately seeking out someone who sees things differently than you do, and asking them why.  Once they tell you, actively look for the good in it, and tell them what you find in their thoughts that is good.  Usually there’s a value there which you share but maybe prioritize differently.  The point is actively looking for the good in someone else without any guarantee that they’ll reciprocate.  This seems to me to be pretty consistently how God reaches out to us.


These two practices are particularly important for us here at St. John’s.  In general, we have a reputation for being well-educated, well-connected, and influential.  We have power in this city and in this diocese.  Social collateral.  This is our inheritance.  It usually amounts to our being able to say what we think and expect people to listen to us.  Or, it amounts to the luxury of being non-political, which is the same thing as saying that we assume that no amount of voting can change anything significant about our lives.  But what if this city knew that here at this church, despite our influence and connections and educations, we don’t put the cart before the horse and assume at the get-go that God thinks all the same things we think.  What if this city knew that the people of St. John’s go out of their way to find good things in opinions that are contrary to our own?


What if we were like two brothers stepping forward from the crowd to say to Jesus, Lord, look, this is our inheritance.  How we might use it for the disinherited?  The Episcopal Church has a long history of being a refuge for people fleeing other denominations for one reason or another.  Or people who for whatever reason have been away from the faith entirely for a while.  We have room for them here.  This big beautiful church here on Madison Avenue is the land we’ve inherited.  It’s our family home place.  But because our Father is in heaven, it’s only our family home place to the extent that we go out of our way to make room for others.  God’s Get Along Shirt”this big, beautiful awkward Church”is big enough for everyone, so long as everyone is willing to be just a little uncomfortable.

[1] The parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15 is interesting to consider alongside this one.  If it is true that inheritance frequently involved dividing up land amongst sons, then we have two possibilities to consider with the prodigal: first, the prodigal son sells his share of the land before going off and squandering his wealth; and second, by demanding his wealth before his father’s death, he is excluded from inheriting land and inherits wealth of different kinds.  But a third possibility needs attention. There’s nothing in Luke 15 itself to suggest the younger son receives land, specifically.  Perhaps it simply wasn’t the case that a younger son would receive land as part of his inheritance, in which case my working hypothesis, that land would be divided amongst surviving sons, is incorrect.  However, given that the twelve tribes of Israel are each descended from one of Jacob’s sons, the guiding mythos of Israel itself seems to be that that younger sons can and do inherit.