If that were a serious question, we would know the answer: God! As we say in the Nicene Creed, Jesus “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” The one who will judge all people surely has the right to intervene in a minor inheritance dispute!
And yet Jesus refuses to take sides in this case. What is going on?
The man is asking Jesus for more than a legal decision. He is trying to draw Jesus into a family dispute.
We do not know the backstory, but obviously the two brothers are not getting along. My guess is, their disagreements started long before this particular situation. Now the man in our reading is trying to get Jesus on his side. The dispute about inheritance may be real, but bringing it up here is a way to involve Jesus, to get Jesus to support him against his brother.
We all have experienced this kind of thing. Here is an example from my life. As a young man, I had a very close friend, and we did everything together. Then Carrie and I started dating. And suddenly, unsurprisingly, everything got complicated with my friend. My friend and I had trouble just making simple plans for the evening.
As I look back at that time, I can see clearly enough that my friend felt left out as Carrie increasingly took his place as my closest friend. But that was hard to talk about, so we avoided it. Instead, he and I argued about a whole series of petty things that did not really matter to either of us.
And we tried to bring in other people. I talked to everyone who would listen about what was going on. I asked them what was wrong with my former buddy. But I was not looking for answers. I was looking for allies.
If I had met Jesus at that time in my life, I would have done my best to suck him in to my problems, just like the man in our gospel reading does. I can easily imagine saying to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my friend to stop acting like a jerk” about whatever issue we were currently fighting about.
But Jesus does not play game, not in our gospel reading, not ever. Jesus would have said to me exactly what he says to the man in our reading. “Who made me a judge or arbitrator over the two of you?” That is, “Do not try to put your problems on me. You have to work out your disagreements yourself and with him.”
In our gospel reading, Jesus says one more thing to the person trying to “triangle” him in. “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
Jesus is telling this man, “Forget about your brother for a minute. Your brother may be greedy, but there is nothing you can do about that. Your job is to work on your own issues, not to figure out what is wrong with him. So focus on your part of the problem. Address the beam in your own eye, not the speck in his.”
That is a message I needed to hear all those years ago. I do not know if my friend had the emotional maturity to work out our troubles with me. But that was his issue, not mine. My task was to work on my own emotional maturity. My task was to do my best to fix my problems, not his.
Triangles—that is, a person in conflict with someone else trying to bring in a third party—triangles are a universal feature of human relationships. We are all involved in triangles. We all seek out allies. We all allow ourselves to be sucked in to disputes that do not really involve us. We all focus on the problems of others rather than addressing our own issues.
This is true for our personal relationships. And it is true more broadly. It is always tempting to wonder why “those people”—however we define “them”—will not do right. Why do they think what they think, or do what they do? “We” can then bond over why “they” couldn’t be more like “us.”
One of the most obvious places we can see this dynamic over the last few weeks is in politics. At least during the campaign season, neither side is inclined to acknowledge that the other side may well have some wisdom. Both sides spend a lot of time on what is wrong with their opponent.
We, the voters, reward that behavior with our votes. And we, ordinary Americans, mimic that behavior in our conversations about people with whom we disagree.
In our gospel reading, Jesus is showing us a better way. In our gospel reading, Jesus refuses to take sides in a dispute that does not involve him. Jesus refuses to act as judge or arbitrator. Instead, Jesus pushes the man who wants him to settle the dispute to deal with his own issues himself.
What would it be like, if the next time a friend of yours began to demonize a whole group of people—liberals or conservatives, Democrats or Republicans—what would happen if you responded, “Friend, who set us to be a judge or arbitrator over them?”
Or bring it closer to home. What would it be like if you said the same thing the next time a friend starts to complain to you about someone else you both know? “Who made us a judge or arbitrator over him or her?”
Or bring it still closer to home. What would happen if you asked yourself the same question, the next time you are inclined to complain about someone else? What if you paused to ask yourself, “who made me a judge or arbitrator over that person?”
Instead of focusing on other people, in our lives or in our nation, who are not doing right, what would it be like to ask ourselves, “What is my task in this moment? What is God inviting me to do and to be in relation to this other person? What can I learn from people with whom I disagree? How can I use this situation as an opportunity for growth?”
Dealing with our own issues is hard work! It is easier to focus on other people’s problems. But that is not our task.
As Paul says in Colossians, our task is to “get rid of all such things [as] anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language” in ourselves, not in others. Our task is to “clothe ourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator,” not to clothe others with the new self.
If we could focus on ourselves, on our own room for growth, we might also remember a little more clearly that in the renewal to which God invites us, “there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free.” In the renewal to which God invites us, we are all brothers and sisters, and “Christ is all and in all!”
And so on this morning, I give thanks to God for the renewal that Christ brings, for the invitation to growth, and for the grace that makes growth possible. And I give thanks to God in the name of Jesus Christ, the one who renews all of creation. Amen.