Last week’s post examined Jesus’ management of the conflict between Jews and Samaritans. Today’s post examines Jesus’ response to a conflict between two brothers regarding inheritance, a story recorded only in the gospel of Luke. While Jesus was preaching against the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, the need to trust in God and blasphemy against God, a man interrupted Jesus with this request.
“Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” (Luke 12:13-15)
The offender’s identity is probable because the gospel does not provide further details of the conflict between the two brothers. The Mosaic law states that the firstborn son is to inherit a double portion of his father’s possession while all other sons receive an equal share (Deut 21:16ff). Therefore, some bible commentators argue that the complaint was likely against the elder brother, who may have wished to keep all the inheritance. Others say it may have been the younger brother who desired to have an equal share of inheritance with his brother. In any case, it is clear that the younger brother approached Jesus, and no matter who the offender was, greed was the cause of the conflict. Hence, Jesus subsequently told the Parable of the Rich Fool.
Why did he come to Jesus? In the time of Jesus, it was the prerogative of rabbinical courts to deal with civil and religious disputes, and these courts existed at all levels of government (Deut 16:18; 17:8-13). The brother who met Jesus believed that Jesus, as a great teacher, could convince his brother to give him his due share of inheritance or go against the law by forcing his brother to divide the inheritance equally. However, although Jesus was considered a rabbi by many people in his day—by his disciples (Luke 7:40), by a lawyer (Luke 10:25), by a private individual (Luke 18:18), by some Pharisees (Luke 19:39), and by some Sadducees (Luke 20:21)—he was not part of the rabbinical institutions nor leadership. Jesus rightly clarified this when he told Pilate that his kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36). Since the word ‘rabbi’ means ‘master’ or ‘teacher’, many addressed Jesus with this title of respect without bothering if he was officially part of the rabbinical institution.
Jesus’ response identified two positions: judge and arbitrator. Technically, an arbitrator is different from a judge. While an arbitrator is a neutral third party who judges a dispute between two opposing parties outside the court system (arbitration), a judge decides cases within the court system (litigation). An important distinction is that while the two conflicting parties jointly choose their arbitrator, they have little or no say in selecting a judge the court appoints. More so, while a judge must necessarily be a lawyer, an arbitrator can be a lawyer or any other professional possessing considerable experience in a subject. Besides, the arbitration process is faster and less demanding than litigation.
There were two ways in which Jesus could have been legally capable of judging the case—if the competent rabbis delegated him or if he officially became a member of the group of rabbis. However, considering the divine nature of Jesus, his life and redemptive mission, and his relationship with the Jewish authorities, both situations were unrealistic. If Jesus had judged the case, he would have usurped the authority of the rabbis to deal with civil and religious disputes.
On the other hand, Jesus could fit into an arbitrator as he was well-versed in the law. Perhaps the young man approached Jesus to arbitrate the case, as going through the court system may have been more demanding. While the manner of the complaint suggested that the brother was among the crowd, the request to Jesus did not automatically make Jesus an arbitrator because it lacked the consent of the elder brother. If Jesus had gone ahead to interfere in this case, he would not only have infringed on the rights of the elder brother, but he would have intensified the conflict between the two brothers.
Lessons from Jesus
(a) Do not usurp another’s authority:
To usurp an authority means to assume or exercise the authority of another without a legal right to do so. Hence, it is illegal and has great potential in deepening conflict. This is because as authority possessed by an individual is tied to the individual’s existence, an unlawful encroachment to that authority inevitably threatens the identity of the individual in question.
(b) Focus on the essentials:
Jesus did not bother that he was interrupted. He focused on his message. One fact is that our concerns and goals are not always simultaneously the same. Jesus recognized this difference and was tolerant by listening and responding to the man’s question.
(c) Keep to the rules guiding your profession/vocation:
The main reason Christ came was not to resolve civil disputes, but ‘to give his life as a ransom for many’ (Mark 10:45), ‘to call sinners to repentance’ (Luke 5:32), ‘to give us eternal life’ (John 3:16). As the teachings and miracles of Jesus constantly threatened the Jewish leaders performed, one can imagine how Jesus’ mediation in the conflict between the two brothers would have been playing into their hands.
I am a priest of the Catholic Diocese of Okigwe, Nigeria, and an advocate of the indispensable role of religion in contemporary society. My academic background includes degrees in philosophy, theology, education, peace and conflict resolution, religion, and canon law. These studies give me a broad perspective that helps in an existential analysis of the teachings of Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church.