“The Rich Fool”

Luke 12: 13-21

“Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”

Many of us who hear this parable may wonder:  Why is the rich farmer called a fool?

One could easily argue that the rich man is a wise and responsible person.  He has a thriving business.  His land has produced so abundantly that he does not have enough storage space in his barns. So he plans to pull down his barns and build bigger ones to store all his grain and goods. Then he will have ample savings set aside for the future and will be all set to enjoy his golden years.

Isn’t this what we are encouraged to strive for?  Isn’t it wise and responsible to save for the future?  He seems to have things figured out.  He has worked hard and saved wisely.  Now he can sit back, relax, and enjoy the fruits of his labor, right?

Not exactly. There is one very important thing the rich man has not planned for — his reckoning with God.  And God said to him,

“You fool!  This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?”

The rich farmer is a fool, not because he is wealthy or because he saves for the future, but because he appears to live only for himself, and because he believes that he can secure his life with his abundant possessions.

When the rich man talks in this parable, he talks only to himself, and the only person he refers to is himself:

“What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?”  “I will do this:  I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.  And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry’”

The rich man’s land has produced abundantly, yet he expresses no sense of gratitude to God or to the workers who have helped him plant and harvest this bumper crop.  He has more grain and goods in storage than he could ever hope to use, yet seems to have no thought of sharing it with others, and no thought of what God might require of him. He is blind to the fact that his life is not his own to secure, that his life belongs to God, and that God can demand it back at any time.

There once was a stingy elderly man who had been diagnosed with a terminal illness; he was determined to prove wrong the saying, “You can’t take it with you.”

After much thought and consideration, he finally figured out how to take at least some of his money with him when he died.  He instructed his wife to go to the bank and withdraw enough money to fill two pillow cases.  He then directed her to take the bags of money to the attic and leave them directly above his bed.

His plan was this:  When he passed away, he would reach out and grab the two pillow cases on his way up to heaven.

Several weeks after the funeral, his wife was up in the attic cleaning and she came upon the two forgotten pillow cases stuffed with cash.

“Oh, that darned old fool,” she exclaimed. “I knew he should have had me put the money in the basement.”

Regarding material possessions, we know that “you can’t take it with you” to the next world, but that doesn’t stop us from storing up treasures for the rest of our time in this world.

Moreover, in the modern American context, the rich man’s “foolishness” is almost forced upon us.  We are encouraged to be focused on the future; we are saturated with advertisements for retirement planning – to constantly be looking out for our financial security.  We find ourselves paying attention to the stock market and checking the performance of our investments.

In this parable, Jesus challenges our focus on the future (at least the earthly part of the future).  He dramatizes his prophetic worldview of the end times in the life of one individual, a rich man, who dies at the very moment of acquiring his final financial security.

Jesus forcefully asks the hearer of this parable, “And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” (V. 20)

We live in a culture of stuffed barns.  We all have way too much stuff. Many of us prior to our annual Rummage Sale went through our closets and our houses realizing that we need to clear out some of our stuff.  I was overwhelmed by all the stuff that was here for the annual rummage sale; all the rooms of the church overflowed with all kinds of stuff.  The good news was that most of the stuff was sold and given away; it was recycled, and the profit made, which was considerable, significantly over $100,000; it all goes to benefit our mission agencies.

All this talk about stuff reminds me of comedian George Carlin’s words about “stuff.”

I don’t know how you are, but I need a place to put my stuff.  You know how important that is – that’s the whole meaning of life isn’t it, trying to find a place to put your stuff. That’s all your house is: a place to keep your stuff.  If you didn’t have so much stuff, you wouldn’t need a house; it is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it.

And when you leave your house, you have to lock it up.  You wouldn’t want somebody to come by and take some of your stuff.  They always take the good stuff.  They never bother with that bad stuff you’re saving.  They are looking for the good stuff.  That’s all your house is, a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get…more stuff!

Now sometimes you have to move – you’ve got to get a bigger house, why?  Too much stuff.  You have to move all your stuff and maybe put some of your stuff in storage.  Imagine that, there is a whole industry based on keeping an eye on your stuff.

Like the rich farmer, we are tempted to think that having large amounts of money and possessions stored up will make us secure.

Sooner or later, however, we learn that no amount of wealth or property can secure our lives.  No amount of wealth can protect us from disease or from a tragic accident.  No amount of wealth can keep our relationships healthy and our families from falling apart.  In fact, wealth and property can easily drive a wedge between family members, as in the case of the brothers fighting over their inheritance at the beginning of this text.

Most importantly, no amount of wealth can secure our lives with God.

In fact, Jesus repeatedly warns that wealth can get in the way of our relationship with God. “Take care!” He says. “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions”

It is not that God doesn’t want us to save for retirement or future needs. It is not that God doesn’t want us to “eat, drink, and be merry” and enjoy what God has given us. We know from the Gospels that Jesus spent time eating and drinking with people and enjoying life. But he was also clear about where his true security lay.

It is about priorities. It is all about who is truly God in our lives.  It is about how we invest our lives and the gifts that God has given us.   It is about how our lives are fundamentally aligned: toward ourselves and our passing desires, or toward God and our neighbor, toward God’s mission to bless and redeem the world.

A seasoned pastor once said,

“I have heard many different regrets expressed by people nearing the end of life, but there is one regret I have never heard expressed.  I have never heard anyone say, ‘I wish I hadn’t given so much away.  I wish I had kept more for myself.’” Death has a way of clarifying what really matters.

The Bible is consistent in its messages to us:

We are given to, so that we might give to others;

We are blessed, so that we might be a blessing;

We are loved, so that we might love;

We are reconciled, so that we might reconcile;

We are forgiven, so that we might forgive.

The problem with greed and accumulation is that rich fools, then and now, forget that blessings are intended to be used to bless others.

Our western lifestyle of success and excess needs a theological adjustment.  The problem with the rich fool in this parable is not that he was wealthy or that he had a great harvest.  The problem is that he did not understand the spiritual reality behind all he had.

So to be practical, here are some things you can do right now:

Practice naming your blessings.

The elements of the abundant life that Jesus describes throughout the the gospels, things like relationship, community, love, purpose, they may be less tangible but they are also so much more powerful than material goods.  And each of us experiences them every day.

The joy of a good conversation;

The sense of purpose that comes from helping another;

The warmth of a loving relationship;

The feeling of community from gathering with friends or family, the awareness of how many ways we are blessed each and every day.

These things are obviously and powerfully available to us, but we are bombarded by a media universe that pushes us to tune into what is negative or what is missing rather than what is positive and right in front of us.

I invite and encourage you to begin a daily practice of noticing, naming, and giving thanks for your blessings. That might take shape in a daily moment of silent prayer of gratitude, or in writing a brief email or note of good cheer or thanksgiving to someone. Do it. Our practices shape our beliefs and attitudes, and this kind of practice will have almost immediate positive outcomes.

I also invite and encourage you to make a list of your budget categories in order to look at the amount spent on each.  Look at how your charitable giving compares with your spending on such things as eating out, cable TV, vacations, recreational activities, your cell phone bill; and the like.  Does that need to be adjusted and change?

For the next month, every time you are envious of something that somebody else has, stop and give thanks for all that you have been blessed with.

Make it a practice to go through your closets, drawers, basements, and storage lockers several times a year. If you aren’t using it, haven’t worn it, that is, if it’s just taking up space, give it away.

Our well-fed affluent lifestyle can lead us away from being “rich toward God” (v. 21).  But the message of Jesus is that we are blessed to be a blessing.

Our lives and possessions are not our own. They belong to God. We are merely stewards of them for the time God has given us on this earth. We rebel against this truth because we want to be in charge of our lives and our stuff.

Yet this truth is actually good news.  Because all that we are and all that we have belongs to God, our future is secure beyond all measure.

Listen to Jesus’ words a little later on in the 12th chapter of Luke:

“What I’m trying to do here is get you to relax, not be so preoccupied with getting so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep yourself in God-reality, God-initiative, and God-provisions. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met. Don’t be afraid of missing out. You’re my dearest friends! The Father wants to give you the very kingdom itself.

Be generous. Give to the poor. Get yourselves a bank that can’t go bankrupt, a bank in heaven far from bank robbers, safe from embezzlers, and a bank you can bank on. It’s obvious, isn’t it? The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being.”  (Luke 12: 29-34, from the Message)

Amen!