The Parable of the Rich Fool
The Parable of the Rich Fool
(Read Luke 12:1-13)
A long time ago, before there were Republicans and Democrats, a Constitution, a Bill of Rights, or a Declaration of Independence, there was Rome. Rome was originally a republic, but it eventually unraveled due to a long series of civil wars.
Near the end of the republic, a young man by the name of Octavian rose to prominence. The great Roman statesman and orator, Cicero, said, "Octavian is a talented young man who should be praised, honored, and eliminated." In the years after Cicero said that, Octavian destroyed his enemies (including Cicero), transformed Rome into an empire, and assumed the title of Caesar Augustus.
The empire Augustus ruled was huge, spanning from Scotland in the north to Egypt in the south and from Spain in the west to Persia in the east. Augustus had a standing army of half a million men and millions of citizens who required government assistance, so in the twenty-fifth year of his reign, he decided to raise taxes which required a census of the empire. When Augustus issued his decree for the census, a Jewish couple had to migrate south from their home in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea where the wife, Mary, gave birth to their infant son, Jesus. When that decree was issued, everyone knew who Caesar was and no one knew who Jesus was.
Now, 2000 years later, few outside of history departments in colleges and universities know who Augustus was although Jesus is worshipped by millions of people around the world. One of the main reasons that happened was because the early church eventually infiltrated and then over time displaced the empire. It did so because those first Christians had the Holy Spirit living in them, and they had his example to guide them. They lived out the truth of what Jesus taught, like what's recorded in Luke 12.
The context of Jesus' interaction
Luke says that Jesus was preaching to a huge multitude, a crowd of many thousands. Jesus was talking to the crowd about issues like heaven and hell, judgment and forgiveness, and fear and faithfulness.
In the middle of Jesus' message, a man elbowed his way to the front of the crowd just like people do when they want to see a celebrity or when they have an agenda to promote; he interrupted Jesus with a demand (see Luke 12:13). We're not given background information or details about the man's request, but he was obviously involved in a legal dispute with his brother over the estate that their father had left them. For the man, the sun would never shine, flowers would never bloom, and birds would never sing until he got the stuff from his brother that the man thought was his.
I know that most of us don't like to think that Jesus ever got upset with people except the Sadducees and Pharisees, but the language and intense tone of Jesus' rebuke in the original text indicates that he was really ticked off (see Luke 12:14).
Jesus was upset because he knew the man was in a bad place. From Jesus' perspective, the man was caught up in a destructive sin that was crippling the man morally and spiritually. The man was standing right next to the Son of God, but all the man could think about was stuff. Jesus turned to those who close by, I'm assuming those close by were the disciples and the crowd close enough to hear, and names the sin.
The definition and danger of greed
Greed is often defined as the desire to have more and more of what you already have enough of. One writer that I like defines greed this way: Greed is "the assumption that it's all there for my consumption."
Maybe a more simple definition of greed is that it is "an intense desire to get more and more stuff." Most of us never think of ourselves as greedy, do we? I don't think I'm greedy, and I would bet that you don't think of yourself as greedy either. But given what Jesus says in the passage, would it be wise to do some self-evaluation and spiritual inventory? Is it possible that all of us might be more influenced by the spirit of greed than we realize? Let me give us something to meditate on for a moment.
Did you know that in the 1970s there were few storage units in the United States but now there are more storage units than all the MacDonalds, Subways, and Starbucks stores combined? There are far more storage units in the US than there are post offices. There are 10,000 storage units worldwide but over 53,000 in the US. It's the fastest growing segment of the commercial real estate market, and it generates 24 billion dollars a year in revenue.
Most of us are not part of what politicians call the one percent, but, relatively speaking, most of us in this room have a lot of stuff. Does that mean we're greedy?
I'm a pastor and a professor and in my experience, though it may not be your experience, what I've observed over the years is that most of us in the church world think only rich people are greedy. Now there's an element of that kind of thinking that's spread into our political discourse and popular culture as well, but that misrepresents the overall teaching of the Scriptures. The Bible never teaches that riches and wealth in and of themselves are wrong.
By the standards of their era and culture, Abraham, Job, David, and especially Solomon were all incredibly affluent. Throughout church history, numerous wealthy people used their physical and material resources to advance the work of God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Two of the godliest men I know are very affluent. I don't think God is opposed to people making money and earning money. But for every verse in the Bible that speaks about prosperity, there are five to ten more that warn us about greed. Rich people are not the only ones who need to pay attention to that.
There's no indication in this passage that the man who interrupted Jesus is rich, but it's clear that he's greedy. That means we would all do well to do a little self-evaluation and spiritual inventory because greed is rooted in the silly idea that if we just have more and more stuff our lives will be better. That mentality is dangerous because it can blind us to the eternal things of God and the valuable things in life. Jesus knew that, so to reinforce his point, he tells a story.
(Read Luke 12:16-19)
The story of the farmer who is successful, industrious, and a visionary
We don't know the name of the rich farmer, but it's obvious that he was really successful. It doesn't matter what industry or occupation you're in, you don't become that successful unless you work hard and are pretty visionary in your thinking.
If the farmer had lived in our high-tech, computer-driven culture, Jesus might have described the man as a software genius. The farmer came up with a brilliant idea, got some venture capital to start his company and put in many long hours developing and then creatively marketing his product. Before he realized it, profits were at 30 percent a year and growing. Wall Street loved his firm, and the company's stock soared and split and then soared and split some more.
Since things were going so well, he decided to expand his company's business by developing some new products and then targeting some new markets both locally and globally. He was making so much money he couldn't fill his IRAs, 401Ks, and his investment portfolio fast enough.
But, let's pause and look at his priorities (what he values):
- Harvest large crops (building a successful career)
- Build bigger barns (expanding the business)
- Achieve financial security (having at least $1 million)
- Eat (what he wants)
- Drink (what he wants)
- Be merry (all the time)
I know that some people might think, "Scott, I'm not sure there's anything wrong with this picture. After all, the guy's really sharp; he's working hard, and things are going really well." At one level I would agree; from one angle things were going exceptionally well for the man until one night it all changed. Let's tease this out; Jesus says the man was foolish because the man was poor towards God.
(Read Luke 12:20-21)
Late one evening, after kissing his wife good night, the man went up to his study because his mind was racing, and he couldn't sleep. He wanted to review the new business plan for the coming year. Suddenly, without any warning, he felt a sharp pain in his chest; all those years of stress, too much meat, and too many cigars caught up with him. His arteries had hardened, the blood couldn't get through, and his heart skipped a beat and then another and then it shut down. They found him in the morning, dead at this desk.
At his funeral, everyone in the neighborhood and community talked about how successful he was. People remarked about his work ethic and reminisced about his marketing genius and how visionary he was. They took his casket out to the gravesite, buried it, and put up the gravestone with the dates of his life and a statement about how successful, hardworking, and visionary he was, and then they went home. That night, the Angel of the Lord showed up and wrote one word across the man's tombstone: Aphron, the Greek word meaning "fool" or "stupid."
Jesus doesn't call the man evil or wicked or horrible. He calls him foolish because his life was built on the foolish idea that if he just had more stuff it would all be good. That seemed to be working for a while but then the man made one big mistake: He died! Have you seen the latest statistics on death? They're frightening! When we die we leave all our stuff behind.
Perhaps you've heard of Hearst Castle in California; William Randolph Hearst stuffed it with ancient statutes, medieval tapestries, and some of the greatest art of all time. The house has 72,000 square feet, and thousands of people go through it each year. Everyone has the same response, "Wow, he sure had a lot of stuff." And guess what? We know this: He left it all behind.
Jesus tells this story to make a similar point. That's why he says in verse 21, "This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich towards God."
Christian writer and philosopher Dallas Willard said that Jesus is the smartest guy who ever lived and one of the main reasons that's true is because Jesus always directs us away from what would harm us and to who and what's best for us. Jesus does that because he loves us, and that's exactly what he does here.
God calls us to center our lives in his kingdom
(Read Luke 12:22-24, 27-28, 31)
Jesus simply tells us that our Father will care for us, he'll provide, and since he'll provide, we should center our lives in the grace of his kingdom, his rule and reign.
Let's be clear: Jesus isn't against clothes, cars, computers, or any of the other things that we use daily. He's not saying don't ever think about money, don't go out to dinner, or don't buy new furniture. He's not saying you shouldn't save for retirement or go on a family vacation. Jesus is not saying it's God first, family second, job third, church fourth, and money and possessions fifth. He's telling us that life is like a wheel and at the hub should be God and his kingdom.
As we live with God at the center, his power and presence will flow out of us into all the areas of marriage, family, friendships, work, recreation, and how we view and manage our stuff. As we center our lives more in Christ, we'll automatically live out one of the core values of his kingdom, the value that is generosity (see verses 32-33).
(Read Luke 12:32-34)
The early church was incredibly generous with its time, its energy, and its material resources because the church knew what Jesus had done for them, and they believed what he said about centering their lives in his kingdom. They shared their resources inside and outside of the church. They helped the needy and took care of orphans and widows and tended to the sick, and as they did that, they won more people to Christianity.
In the early fourth century there was an emperor who came to power; he was known as Julian the Apostate. He hated Christianity and wanted to revert the empire back to paganism. That goal was nearly impossible to accomplish because by that time the church was so widespread and so generous that it was touching most of the people in the empire. At one point Julian became so frustrated, that in a rare moment of honesty he said, "Those Christians not only feed their own poor but they feed ours as well."
The early church realized that storing up stuff on earth is silly because it all gets left behind, so they centered their lives in God's kingdom and gave generously to all in need. That's the call of God on us as well.
Scott Wenig is associate professor of applied theology at Denver Seminary in Denver, Colorado, and author of Straightening the Altars.