While Jesus was, in his wonted way, preaching the kingdom to a great multitude, one of the audience, taking advantage probably of some momentary pause in the discourse, broke in upon the solemn exercises with the inappropriate and incongruous demand, "Master, speak to my brother that he divide the inheritance with me."
In regard to the matter in dispute between himself and his brother, this man probably had both an honest purpose and a righteous cause. For aught that we know to the contrary, he may have been violently or fraudulently deprived of his share in the inheritance of the family. In the answer of the Lord there is not a word that calls in question the justice of his claim. The question of right and wrong as between the brothers does not constitute an element of the case as it is presented to us; it is intentionally and completely omitted. Dishonesty is a simpler affair, and can be settled in very few words. Elsewhere it is disposed of in a very brief sentence, -- "Thou shalt not steal." But here a far more subtle sin is analyzed and exposed. The lesson is not, Take heed and beware of Injustice; but, "Take heed and beware of Covetousness." The warning is directed not against the sin of obtaining wealth by unjust means, but against the sin of setting the heart upon wealth, by what means soever it may have been obtained: this reproof was doubtless a word more in season for the assembly of well-conducted Jews who listened that day to the preaching of Jesus, as it is a word more in season for the members of Christian Churches in this land, than an exhortation to beware of theft.
The appeal so inopportunely made, shows incidentally that the people had begun to look on Jesus as a prophet, and to pay great deference to his word. Had he not been already in some sense recognised as an authority, this man would not have applied to him for relief. He was well aware that Jesus of Nazareth could bring no civil constraint to bear upon his brother; it was the moral influence of the prophet's word that he counted on as the means of accomplishing his purpose: "Master, speak to my brother, that he divide the inheritance with me." He had, perhaps, observed an amazing effect produced by a word from those meek lips; he had, perhaps, himself seen wicked men subdued by it, and heard from others that it had silenced a stormy sea. He may have marked its power in healing the sick and raising the dead. Forthwith he conceived the plan of enlisting this mysterious and mighty word on his own side of a family quarrel. If that word, he thought within himself, were exerted in my behalf, it would induce my brother to give to me the half or the third of the paternal estate, which I claim as my right.
We cannot cast the first stone at this poor simpleton, who had no other use for the Redeemer's word than to gain by means of it a few more acres of the earth for himself: in every age, some men may be found who hang on the skirts of the Church for the sake of some immediate temporal benefit. Nor is it difficult to understand the phenomenon: "No man can serve two masters;" practically each chooses one, and in the main serves him faithfully. If Christ is chosen as Lord and Master, Mammon and all other things are compelled to serve: if Mammon is chosen and seated on the throne, he will not scruple to lay heaven and earth under contribution for the advancement of his designs; -- Mammon, when master, will take even the word of Christ and employ it as an instrument wherewith he may rake his rags together.
How simple and helpless is the man who has allowed wealth to become his chief good! Here is an example of ungodly simplicity. Without any apprehension of a reproof from the Lord or his disciples, the poor man betrays all: in the public assembly he unwittingly turns his own heart inside out. Instead of addressing to the preacher the question, What must I do to be saved? showing that the truth had taken effect on his conscience, he preferred a request regarding a disputed property, showing that while the words of Jesus fell on his ears, his heart was going after its covetousness. He attended to the sermon for the purpose of watching when it should be done, that he might then do a stroke of business.
We must not too complacently congratulate ourselves on our superior privileges and more reverent habits. If those who wait upon the ministry of the word in our day were as simple as this man was, some requests savouring as much of the earth as his would be preferred at the close of the solemnity. If human breasts were transparent, and the thoughts that throng them patent to the public gaze, many heads would hang down.
From this untimely and intensely earthly interruption the parable springs: thus the Lord makes the covetousness as well as the wrath of man to praise him, and restrains the remainder thereof. A fissure has been made in the mountain by some pent-up internal fire that forced its way out, and rent the rock in its outgoing; in that rent a tree may now be seen blooming and bearing fruit, while all the rest of the mountain-side is bare. "Out of the eater came forth meat; out of the strong came forth sweetness." This word of Jesus that liveth and abideth for ever is a green and fruitful tree to-day; but it was the outbursting of a scathing, scorching covetousness that formed the cavity, and supplied the soil in which the tree might grow.
"The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully," &c.
The ground was his own: no law, human or divine, challenged his right. The ground was eminently fruitful; the unconscious earth gave forth its riches, making no distinction between one who used it well and one who abused it. On the fields of the covetous man the rain fell and the sun shone: God makes his sun to shine on the evil and on the good. It is not here -- it is not now that he judges the world in righteousness. He giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not.
Mark now what effect the profusion of nature and the beneficence of God produced on the mind of this prosperous man. It set him a thinking: so far, so good. The expression in the original indicates a dialogue, and a dialogue is a discourse maintained between two. Dialogue is, indeed, the original word transferred bodily into the English language: [Greek: dielogizeto en heauto] -- he dialogued in himself: his soul and he held a conversation on the subject. This was a proper course. When riches increase it is right and necessary to hold a consultation with one's own soul regarding them: in like manner, also, when riches take themselves wings and fly away, a conversation between the same parties should take place regarding their escape.
He said, "What shall I do, I have no room where to bestow my fruits?" The process advances most hopefully: hitherto, no fault can be found with this man's conduct. So great had been his prosperity that he was at a loss for storage. His cup was not only full, but running over, and so running waste; his solicitude now turned upon the question how he might profitably dispose of the surplus. Taking it for granted, as any sensible man in the circumstances would, that something should be done, he puts the question, "What shall I do?" A right question, addressed to the proper person, himself. No other person was so well qualified to answer it, -- no other person understood the case, or possessed authority to determine it.
Listen now to the answer: "He said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater," &c. This is the turning-point, and on it the poor man turns aside into error. When God's goodness was showered upon him in such abundance, he should have opened his treasures and permitted them to flow: for this end his riches had been bestowed upon him. When rain from heaven has filled a basin on the mountain-top, the reservoir overflows, and so sends down a stream to refresh the valley below: it is for similar purposes that God in his providential government fills the cup of those who stand on the high places of the earth -- that they may distribute the blessing among those who occupy a lower place in the scale of prosperity.
But self was this man's pole star: he cared for himself, and for none besides. Self was his god; for to please himself was practically the chief end of his existence. He proposed to pull down his barns, and build a larger storehouse on the site, in order that he might be able to hoard his increasing treasures. The method that this ancient Jewish self-seeker adopted is rude and unskilful. We understand better the principles of finance, and enjoy more facilities for profitably investing our savings: but the two antagonist principles retain their respective characters under all changes of external circumstances -- the principle of selfishness and the principle of benevolence; the one gathers in, the other spreads out.
The method of reserving all for self, is as unsuccessful as it is unamiable: it cannot succeed. The man who should hoard in his own granary all the corn of Egypt, could not eat more of it than a poor labourer -- probably not so much. It is only a very small portion of their wealth that the rich can spend directly on their own personal comfort and pleasure: the remainder becomes, according to the character of the possessor, either a burden which he is compelled to bear, or a store whence he daily draws the luxury of doing good.
The dialogue proceeds: the man has something more to say to his soul: "Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years," &c. He counts on riches and time as if both were his own, and at his disposal. The big barn is not yet built; the golden grain that shall fill it has not yet been sown: and even although no accident should mar the material portion of the plan, how shall he secure the "many years" that constitute its essence on the other side? Does he keep Time under lock and key in his storehouse, that he may at pleasure draw as much as he requires? Many years! These years lie in the future, -- that is, in the unseen eternity. They are at God's right hand -- they are not within your reach. Why do you permit an uncertain element to go into the foundation of your hope?
There is, indeed, nothing strange here. It is according to law: those who are taught of the Spirit understand it well. The god of this world hath blinded the minds of them that believe not. "Thou hast goods laid up for many years! take thine ease, soul; eat, drink, and be merry!" What simplicity is here! The case is in degree extreme; the letters are written large that even indifferent scholars may be able to read the lesson; but the same spiritual malady, in some of its forms and degrees, is still epidemic in the world: those are least exposed to infection who have their treasures laid up at God's right hand.
It is a useful though a trite remark, that there is great stupidity in the proposal to lay up in a barn the portion of a soul. The soul, when it is hungry, cannot feed on musty grain. Material treasures cannot save a soul from death. The representation in the parable, however, is true to nature and fact: it would be a mistake to attribute to a miser a high appreciation of the dignity of man. Covetousness, in its more advanced stages, eats the pith out of the understanding, and leaves its victim almost fatuous.
This man, in a dialogue with his own soul, had settled matters according to his own mind. The two had agreed together that they would have a royal time on earth, and a long one. The whole business was comfortably arranged. But at this stage another interlocutor, whom they had not invited, breaks in upon the colloquy: "God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee; then, whose shall those things be which thou hast provided?" This is the writing on the wall that puts an end to Belshazzar's feast, and turns his mirth into terror.
The terms run literally, "Unwise, this night they demand from thee thy soul." Those ministering angels and providential laws, represented by the drawers of the net in another parable, to whom the Supreme Governor has committed the task of gathering gradually the generations of men from this sea of time, and casting them for judgment on the borders of eternity -- those ministering spirits, and principles pervading nature, arrive in their course this night at your door, and send the message into the midst of the merry festival, The master of this house is wanted immediately; he must arise and go, in obedience to the summons; he can neither resist nor delay. He may weep, tremble, rage; but he must go, and go on the instant. It is not the whole man, but only his soul that is wanted: his body will be left behind. But the body, though left behind, cannot claim, cannot use the goods. When the soul is summoned over into eternity, it cannot carry the hoarded treasures with itself, and the body left behind has no further use for them. A grave to rest in while it returns to dust is all that the body needs or gets; and the deserted wealth must advertise for an owner -- whose shall it be?
Our Lord Jesus has spoken these piercing words, not for the sake of the pain which they are fitted to inflict. He is the Healer of diseased humanity, and when he makes an incision he means to cure. This sharp instrument, at whose glance we wince and shrink precisely in proportion to the measure of our malady, he wields for the purpose of piercing the deadly tumour, and so saving the threatened life. "A man's life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth" (ver.15); and the man who places his life therein, loses his life. That is not his life; and if he take that for his life, he is cheated: when a merchant has given all for what seemed a goodly pearl, he has not another fortune in reserve wherewith to begin anew, if that for which he paid all his possessions turns out to be a worthless toy of glass. Our time, our life -- this is our fortune, on which we trade for the better world: if these be spent, -- be thrown away for what is not life, then life is lost.
 Der Heiland -- the Healer -- is the ordinary epithet applied to the Lord Jesus in the religious phraseology of the Germans. The term is suggestive and comforting.
Riches are truly enjoyed when they are wisely employed in doing good; but hoarded as the portion of their possessor, they burden him while they remain his, and rend him at the parting.
By way of contrast, the Lord mentions another kind of treasure, which satisfies now, and lasts for ever. Those who are "rich toward God," are rich indeed, and all besides are poor: and this wealth is, in Christ, offered free, -- offered to all.
Seeing that an evil spirit possessed this man, the Lord in mercy applied his word to cast the evil spirit out, and make room for his own indwelling. When the spirit of the world refuses to go out at his word, he sometimes interferes as Ruler in providence, and tears out the intruder by his mighty hand: the kingdom of heaven that is "within you" also suffereth violence; and He who is most mighty comes sometimes with merciful strokes to take it by force. "Even so: come, Lord Jesus."