Questions From Readers
▪ In Jesus’ illustration about a rich man who was not rich toward God, who were the “they” that demanded the man’s soul?
Jesus was not referring to any group of humans or angels. In Luke 12:20 he used an indefinite “they” simply as a way of expressing what was going to happen to the man.
This illustration is found at Luke 12:16-21. The rich man in it was not satisfied with his adequate material things. He continued to concentrate on his business so as to increase his wealth. Jesus concluded: “But God said to [the rich man], ‘Unreasonable one, this night they are demanding your soul from you. Who, then, is to have the things you stored up?’ So it goes with the man that lays up treasure for himself but is not rich toward God.”
Some translations use a passive rendering, such as: “This very night your soul is required of you.” (New American Standard Bible) “This very night the demand will be made for your soul.” (The Jerusalem Bible) “This very night your life is being demanded.” (The Twentieth Century New Testament) “This night your soul is to be called for.” (Byington) However, Hebrew (in which Jesus spoke) and Greek (in which Luke wrote) employ an indefinite third person form. The Greek text at Luke 12:20 literally says “to this the night the soul of you they are asking from you.” The verb is in the third person plural. Hence, rather than needlessly changing it to a passive form (as in the examples above), the New World Translation and others use renderings such as “they are demanding.”
We do well, though, not to allow grammatical technicalities to obscure Jesus’ clear admonition about materialism. He was not specifying how the rich man would die. The point was that by some means the man was going to lose his soul, or life, that night. But how did he stand with God? Any of us could become absorbed in improving our material situation and similarly miss out on being rich toward God. The business world fosters a spirit of ‘ever more.’ Even people whose companies make substantial profits from sales in the millions of dollars, pounds, marks, and so forth, may be tempted to seek more—more employees, more sales, more profits, more luxuries, more in the bank. Jesus’ question is as valid today as when he first posed it: “Who, then, is to have the things you stored up?”—Luke 12:20.