The dispute and the parable appears only in Luke among the gospels, situated within the ongoing travel narrative as Jesus and the disciples move ever forward towards Jerusalem.
Although the inheritance in question (v.13) is not specifically mentioned as land, given the parable’s setting (v.16) one might safely assume land was the issue. Perhaps a word or two on land and inheritance. For the OT laws of inheritance, see Num. 27:1–11; 36:7–9; Deut. 21:16–17 – shown at the end of this document.
The bêt-āb was the basic unit of Israel’s system of land tenure, each having its own naḥălâ (inheritance) of land, and therewith intended to be economically self-sufficient. The intention of Israel’s land tenure system, namely that ownership of land should be as widely spread as possible with broad equality over the network of economically viable family units, was embodied in and protected by the principle of inalienability. This was the rule that the land should remain in the family to which it had been apportioned, and could not be sold permanently outside the family. It was a rule tenaciously adhered to through Israel’s history, as far as the evidence points. The whole OT gives us no single example of an Israelite voluntarily selling land outside his family. Recorded land transfers were either kinship redemption (Jeremiah 32, Ruth), sale by non-Israelites (2 Samuel 24; 1 Kgs 16:24), or non-voluntary mortgage of land for debt (Neh 5:3). Nor is there any inscriptional evidence from Palestine of Israelite sale and purchase of land, even though there are abundant records of such transactions from Canaanite and surrounding societies. The only legal method by which land in the OT period “changed hands” was by inheritance within the family. Even Ahab recognized this, when faced with Naboth’s stand on this principle (1 Kings 21). The means used to circumvent it and the forcible confiscation of Naboth’s family land show the grim fulfillment of Samuel’s prediction as to what monarchy would entail for the previously economically autonomous families of Israel. [ABD 2:763]
The Question of Inheritance. One of Jesus’ hearers was having trouble with his brother about the proper division of an inheritance. Jewish laws of succession covered most cases (cf. Deut. 21:17), but there was sometimes room for doubt and in this case the man who spoke up felt that an injustice was being done. His brother was clearly in possession and he wanted Jesus to persuade him to quit his claims. He does not ask Jesus to decide on the merits of two claims: he asks for a decision in his own favor. He seems to be acting unilaterally for nothing indicates that the brother had agreed to have Jesus try the case. The man is taking Jesus as a typical rabbi, for the rabbis customarily gave decisions on disputed points of law.
Jesus is interrupted in his instruction of the disciples. Besides being rude, the interruption betrays an insensitivity to what Jesus has just said about matters of essential importance. Jesus sees behind the question the very greed he warned the Pharisees about (11:39–42).
Jesus’ admonition in 12:15, “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions,” provides a commentary on the previously narrated request for arbitration, warning against the danger of the possession of material wealth, even when it is inherited. Life is defined not by objects, but by relationships, especially to God and his will. Several OT passages state the same perspective: Job 31:24–25; Ps. 49; Eccles. 2:1–11, and Sir. 11:18–19.
Jesus refuses to be recruited as the arbitrator in a dispute over the division of family holdings, addressing instead the dispositions out of which he apparently perceives the man’s dispute to have arisen. He uses the opportunity to tell a parable about the trap of possessions.