The Rich Fool
I have a friend by the name of Chris. He’s a retired defense industries scientist who has written a book about the share-market. He has written two follow up books on similar themes and is now in demand as a lecturer.
I bought his original book as a good-natured gesture of support for him, and promptly found that beyond the foreword it was completely incomprehensible. It seemed to be written in ancient Egyptology. I have encouraged him to write a fourth book to explain what the other three were about.
The book is about accumulating money, and over the course of history there have been many such proposals. John D. Rockefeller had one very concise formula: Get up early, work hard, and discover oil.
Another writer said: Back horses rather than shares, because you know at least one of the horses will win.
Bookshops are littered with books on making money, and there is nothing wrong with making ethical profits. You may remember John Wesley’s adage: Make all you can, save all you can, and give away all you can.
His way of thinking takes us to Jesus’ encounter with the would-be beneficiary of an estate. I would observe that there is nothing like a deceased estate for testing out the character of people; for seeing what makes them tick; what their real values are like.
So with our Scripture in Luke 12:16, Jesus is actually interrupted. One of the tests of the skills of speakers is sometimes seen in how they handle interruptions.
You may remember the story about Robert Menzies on the Post Office steps in Perth. A heckler called out, ‘Come on Bob, tell us all you know, it won’t take very long.’
Menzies replied, ‘I’ll tell you all we both know and it won’t take any longer.’
If you look at Luke 12, you see that Jesus was interrupted while in full flight giving an extended session of teaching. In the midst of it someone calls out the words of verse 13. He wants to embroil Jesus in a family dispute over money. In those days the elder son inherited two-thirds of the estate, the younger son one-third. He thinks the proportions are unfair.
Or there is some other complication where the older brother, clearly a friend of the older brother in the prodigal son parable, will not share anything.
Jesus sees the issues as much deeper than an accounting matter. He perceives greed in the situation. His creative genius, allied with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit leads him to come up with a parable.
In it we hear of a successful farmer. Now, few farmers will ever give away any hint of being successful, no matter how well they have done. One example is the farmer who won the lotto, and when asked what he would do with his great wealth replied, ‘Oh, I’ll just keep working away on my farm until it’s all gone.’
We have a farmer in Luke whose success with earthly things has got in the way of another kind of success. Truth be told, when we hear this story we find ourselves rather envious of this financially successful man. Yet, Jesus concluded the story by saying that this man was a fool.
But what did this man do wrong? To answer that question we must understand that this is not strictly a parable about money, it is a parable about wealth. It is a parable about values and what is most important in life. Wealth that lasts and blesses forever.
Jesus shows us four things that this man did that made him a fool.
First, he was a fool because he had full barns, but an empty heart. There is no parable like this one, which is so full of personal pronouns. ‘I’ appears six times. ‘My’ appears four times.
A schoolboy was once asked what parts of speech ‘my’ and ‘mine’ are. He answered, ‘aggressive pronouns’.
Harry Emerson Fosdick stated the urgency long ago in a verse of his hymn God of Grace and God of Glory, that ‘Rich in things and poor in soul: Grant us wisdom, grant us courage lest we miss your kingdom’s goal; lest we miss your kingdom’s goal.’
Like the Israelites Hosea writes of, they had received much, but they thought only of themselves and not of their generous God.
Second, the rich fool was aggressively self-centred. He didn’t appreciate what he already had. The farmer is already rich before the abundant crop comes in. He already had barn enough to store the crop, but here’s the problem, the harvest was so good he couldn’t store it all. ‘What to do?’ he asks himself. ‘Should I give it away, or sell it at the market?’ Neither. He decides to build bigger barns and to keep it all for himself.
He is not thankful for the riches he already has. He wants more to ensure his security and the pleasures of tomorrow. We call this greed. To clutch our wealth as if it is an end in itself is the sin of the Barn Builder.
Sir Fred Catherwood said in the Evangelicals Now Magazine that, ‘Greed is the logical result of the belief that there is no life after death. We grab what we can while we can however we can and then hold on to it hard.’
We store what we do not need, when Jesus warns us to beware of greed.
Third, this man was a fool because he forgot what his real business in life was: To love God and his neighbor.
Jesus did not condemn the man for eating, drinking or being merry, nor even for being rich. He was called foolish because he did not recognize that his wealth had brought him some happiness and that it could do the same for others if it were not locked up in those bigger barns.
His sin was not that he had become wealthy, but that he wanted to hoard all his wealth. His sin was not that he ate, drank and was merry, but that he was withholding the means for others to do the same. He had become a bottleneck in the flow of blessings to others. He had neither gratitude to God, nor compassion towards his neighbours in need.
The story condemns the refusal to share the wealth we do not need.
When John Wesley was at Oxford he had an income of 30 pounds a year. He lived on 28 pounds and gave 2 pounds away. When his income increased to 60 pounds, 90 pounds, 120 pounds a year, he still lived on 28 pounds and gave the balance away. When the Accountant-General demanded a tax return from him, his reply was, ‘I have two silver teaspoons at London and two at Bristol… I shall not buy any more, while so many around me want bread.’
Fourth, this man was a fool because he forgot about the nature of time.
Leo Tolstoy once wrote a story about a successful peasant farmer who was not satisfied with his lot. He wanted more of everything. One day he received a novel offer. For 1000 rubles, he could buy all the land he could walk around in a day. The only catch in the deal was that he had to be back at his starting point by sundown. Early the next morning he started out walking at a fast pace. By midday he was very tired, but he kept going, covering more and more ground. Well into the afternoon he realized that his greed had taken him far from the starting point. He quickened his pace and as the sun began to sink low in the sky, he began to run, knowing that if he did not make it back by sundown the opportunity to become an even bigger landholder would be lost. As the sun began to sink below the horizon he came within sight of the finish line. Gasping for breath, his heart pounding, he called upon every bit of strength left in his body and staggered across the line just before the sun disappeared. He immediately collapsed, blood streaming from his mouth. In a few minutes he was dead.
Afterwards, he did receive some land, but it was not much over six feet long and three feet wide.
The name of Tolstoy’s story was: How Much Land Does a Man Need?
What matters in the end is what we have done with what we have: abundant or little.
Now let me tell you about a very real temptation a preacher faces with this text. It’s a temptation concerning phase one of a building program which is proposed to expand the kitchen, bring the toilets inside, and create some more meeting space.
I thought surely Lord this is a great opportunity to have your people think in these terms when applying this parable. But the Lord was not happy with that approach to the text. He reminded me that this is about wealth and not money, about eternity and just temporality, about an attitude of generosity rather than a specific project.
He’s a tough Lord sometimes. He seemed to say, ‘Have your people looked at their hearts ahead of their finances? Do they have my eternal life, my eternal wealth in their hearts?’
He says to me, ‘Lift your congregation beyond stocks and warrants, and get-rich schemes. Create a congregation that love me first and then overflow in generosity of spirit, of speech, and of encouragement, and the rest will follow.’
By George Robert Iles