One of the saddest and most unfortunate features of human life, is the way in which families – even the most close-knit and functional of families – can be torn apart by an argument over inheritance. The task of dealing with a will and its consequences can divide siblings, drive a wedge between generations, and can split whole families right down the middle. And the saddest irony of all is that these arguments almost invariably take place following the death of a loved one – at the very point at which family members should be pulling together for mutual support, rather than pulling apart.
And this was true even in Biblical times. The parable of the Prodigal Son begins with the younger son demanding his inheritance in advance, and ends with his elder brother deeply resentful, feeling himself unfairly treated in the events that unfold. And in this morning’s gospel a man shouts to Jesus, ‘Teacher, bid my brother divide the inheritance with me.’ The entire plot of Charles Dickens’ novel, Bleak House, revolves around a disputed inheritance in the case of Jarndyce versus Jarndyce. It really is an old, old, story.
And sadly, because my work often involves dealing with death and its consequences, over the years I have seen a great deal of it at first hand – including, I have to say, within my own extended family. There can be few things more upsetting than seeing a relative whom you know and love, even the most generous-hearted and mild-mannered of individuals, appear to undergo a bizarre kind of character transformation as a direct consequence of their discovering the content of The Will. But it is disconcertingly common.
So why is it that the issue of inheritance can unleash such powerful and destructive forces amongst us? The first and most obvious thing to note relates to the point I made a moment ago – that disputes over inheritance normally occur in the direct aftermath of the death of someone close to us, when we are already vulnerable – vulnerable because of the pain of the bereavement itself, or because, at some level, any death inevitably brings us in touch with the hard reality of our own mortality, if only at a subconscious level – a reality that we may be profoundly reluctant to face.
And the issue of inheritance can render us vulnerable in other ways, too: how much did this parent really love me? Was I loved as much as my brother or sister? How much was I valued, when compared with that very helpful next door neighbour who used to call in and do the shopping? And suppose that a close relative bequeaths half of their fortune to, say, Battersea Dogs’ Home? If needy animals matter more than I do, is that not concrete evidence of how little I really meant to that particular relative?
Whereas in fact the true story may in fact be very different from any of those scenarios. Because people often allocate their worldly goods for reasons that have nothing whatever to do with how much they loved or valued their nearest and dearest. They might choose to bequeath their wealth and possessions to the individual who most needs them; or who would value them the most, or who would make best use of them. I know of a couple who chose to leave the bulk of their estate to a charity rather than to their son, not because they didn’t love him, but because he was a young man who had no focus in life, no ambition, and little motivation, and they were firmly convinced that they would be doing him no favours whatsoever by presenting him with a large amount of money which would enable him to perpetuate his aimless and self-indulgent lifestyle.
And perhaps the most dark and difficult feature of all is that, when our defences are down, those parts of our inner life that we normally keep well-hidden – even from ourselves – can suddenly manifest themselves big time: our selfishness; our greed; our pride; our envy; our covetousness suddenly bubble to the surface. And we may then find ourselves trying to conceal such forces, by attributing false motives to everyone else – even those whom we had previously loved and trusted. And for what? For material gain. And when that happens, we are in deep mire.
In today’s gospel reading, when the man cries out to Jesus, ‘Teacher, bid my brother divide the inheritance with me’, Jesus responds with these words: ‘Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ And he then goes on to tell the parable of the rich man, who built bigger and bigger barns in which to store his abundant crops, as his wealth increased: the more he had, the more he wanted, storing it all up– until, at the end of the story, he drops dead surrounded by barns full of crops. Ultimately it was of no benefit to him whatsoever. This reminds me of the story of the stupendously wealthy man whose death was reported in the newspaper. ‘How much did he leave?’ someone enquired. To which the answer came, ‘All of it’.
A final little story for you. After my grandmother died, my dad (who did not appear to have an ounce of sentimentality in his being) presented me with a small cardboard box of her possessions, and said ‘It’s basically a pile of rubbish: take whatever you want and throw the rest out.’ At the bottom of the box I came across a small and rather battered container, which had inside my grandmother’s gold jewellery – a few rings and a locket – none of it of any value, but these things had always been very precious to her, and for me were a very special reminder of her. I desperately wanted to keep them, because they really did feel very special – but in truth I felt uneasy about doing so, because I was not entirely certain that they were really mine to have. I was pretty sure that my dad hadn’t known that her jewellery was in that box when he gave it to me, but also the locket contained photos of him and his brother as young boys, so I rather thought it should belong to him. So even though the tempting thing to do was to keep the jewellery and say nothing, or insist that because he had said I could have anything in the cardboard box, I was entitled to them, I didn’t feel comfortable doing either.
So, with a slightly heavy heart I told him about the jewellery, and asked him if he would like to have it back. His response rendered me speechless. ‘Yeah, give them back to me’, he said. ‘You never know – they might be worth a bob or two.’ I was genuinely shocked, and actually very upset that he could even think of those items in terms of their material value (which would have been miniscule, in any case). But I had no option but to hand them back, and so I resolved to try and suppress all my outrage and disappointment, and then just try and forget all about it.
Fast forward twenty years, to the death of our father. I can’t now remember the precise sequence of events, but at some point when his goods and chattels were being sorted out (some of which eventually found their way into my possession), I received a large brown envelope, which turned out to contain … yes, you’ve guessed it … my grandmother’s jewellery, including that very special golden locket. Clearly, for whatever reason, he hadn’t sold it after all.
I used to find the biblical phrase ‘cast your bread upon the waters’ rather puzzling, and I am still not entirely sure that I understand the image. But I do now feel that I know what it means. Sometimes we are called to do a very difficult but courageous thing, which is to let go of something that matters to us, even when we believe it to be rightfully or justly ours: to hand it over absolutely and definitively, and relinquish all claim over it. But the peculiar thing is that, within the bizarre and topsy-turvy economy of God, such things do have a strange habit of coming back to us in due course, often with added value. For me, in that little story about the jewellery, the ‘added value’ was the simple fact that, second time round, I was able to take possession of those gold rings and the golden locket, which so powerfully remind me of my grandmother, without any lingering sense of guilt about having them. And for me they are a much more precious gift as a result.
Where matters of inheritance are concerned we must always tread with great care. Because we are all human, and we are all vulnerable. But above all, we must protect ourselves from the seductive power of wealth and the desire for ownership, which can so easily poison and distort our lives, and ruin even our closest relationships. Because, as Jesus tells us, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’