The Rich Fool

Luke 12:13-21 (Contemplate Rembrandt’s painting the Rich Fool….)

Today I want to take a little time to dig into the parable Jesus confronts us with…. The story of the Rich Fool. 

The parable begins with a question in just the same way as the Good Samaritan parable.  The question is posed by a fellow whose father has died.  The family farm has been left to the two sons, and a dispute has arisen again because the two boys don’t see eye to eye.  The older son has no desire to break up the farm, but the younger one want’s his inheritance now.  It’s not an uncommon issue and one way to solve it was to get a rabbi on your side to push your case.  The younger son wants justice.  Jewish law was clear that if there was division over an inheritance then it should be split with both parties getting an equal share, but for whatever reason the older son is holding out.  Jesus however isn’t playing ball either.  He can sense there is a broken relationship here and responds that he hasn’t come to bring division between people but to be a reconciler.  “Man, who made me a judge or divider over you!”

Jesus then shares a word of wisdom.   “Take heed, and beware of every kind of insatiable desire, for life for a person does not consist in the surpluses of his possessions.”    It’s a bit of confrontational truth telling that most of us would shy away from.  Jesus is saying basically that the presenting inheritance stuff is just the pimple on the surface.  There’s something deeper going on.  Jesus is addressing the issue of the questioners heart and not the issue of his bank account.    The word ‘life’ is an important one.  Jesus often talks about finding life.    People are often filled with insatiable desires  and one of those is the desire to acquire more possessions.  They may think more possessions will give them a better quality of life but actually once you have a certain minimum more possessions just clog up your life.  If Jesus were addressing us today he might add with the natural resources of the earth being depleted we need to get a hold on our consumptive lifestyles because it’s literally screwing up the life of the earth.  If everyone on this earth lived the sort of lifestyle you and I live the earth is doomed.

He follows up with a parable.  “There was a certain rich man whose land brought forth plenty.”  The man was obviously wealthy, and the crop is a bumper one.  He has plenty, but he now has a whole lot more.  He doesn’t need it but life and good fortune has been good to him, so what to do with it is the obvious question?

The parable continues.  “And he discussed with himself, saying what should  do for I have no place to store my crops.”  I wonder what you notice?  He discussed with himself …. In communal middle eastern culture which is a very communal culture where everything is discussed with family and friends that is a particularly telling statement.  Where is his family and where are his friends?   We’ve all seen it many times….wealth especially excess wealth isolates.  The more wealth we have the more distance there is between us and our neighbours.   It seems he is a lonely isolated man whose big issue in life is finding somewhere to store ‘my’ crops.  There is no sense that these crops are a gift from God.

And he said I will do this:  I will pull down my barns and build larger ones.  And I will store all my grain and my goods”.  My barns, my grain, my goods….the word my is a telling one.  The Christian ideal that everything we have is a gift, and we are trustees of everything we ‘own’,  is simply absent. 

What follows is rather sad.  “And I will say to my soul, Soul! You have ample goods laid up for many years.  Relax, eat, drink, sit back and enjoy yourself.”   He is isolated.  Where are the family and friends?  It’s such a sad speech.  The use of the word soul is interesting.  Some English translations simply have him saying to himself, but there is a deeper conversation going on here.    This man thinks that good food, a fine house and other trappings of wealth will give him peace.   He is mistaken for into this little internal conversation thunders God.

But God said to him, Fool.  This night your life is required of you, and what you have prepared, whose will these things be?”   Your life is required of you uses words that are commonly used for the return of a loan.   It’s as if our lives are a loan from God and at some point the loan will be called in and some account expected of how we have put the gifts to use.  But there is no accusation.  There is no why have you not helped your community more, or what have you done for others.  There is simply the confronting truth that this man faces a sad reality.  He plans alone, he builds alone, he indulges alone, and he dies alone, and we are all left pondering how things could have been different if he had seen his wealth as a gift to be used to serve God and bring life to his community.

And that’s hammered home in the final words of wisdom.  “So is he who stores up treasures for himself, and is not gathering riches for God.”   I wonder if you have ever thought of your life as gathering riches for God.  It’s an odd way of putting things.  Other translations talk of storing up treasures for self but not being rich towards God.  I don’t think God has a bank account that we are supposed to put wealth into, but doesn’t this mean we are supposed to commit our wealth to doing the things that honour God.  When the Bill and Melinda gates Foundation commits to the education of women and girls to help overcome poverty and help third world communities take responsibility for themselves God is honoured.  When you and I make a decision to use our wealth to help promote a better future for the earth God is enriched.   Just putting it in the bank to guard against a rainy day, or storing it up so the kids have a good inheritance….I’m not so sure that is enriching God. 

Jesus refuses to lay it out black and white, and so must I.  What he is saying is that we have to look beyond self and selfish need and security.   Eugene Peterson translates this last verse of wisdom and advice which sum up the rich fool’s predicament as “That’s what happens when you fill your barn with Self and not with God.”  This word self appears often in our scriptures.  If you want to be a flowerer of mine you need to leave self behind.   What Jesus is talking about is the outer self.   We have an outer self the self that wants the biggest bit of cake, the self that wants a bigger bank balance, the self that likes to impress others, the self that feeds on the adulation of others.  It’s the ego self that is grasping, greedy, and shallow.  It’s the me and mine self.  But deeper within us is another self.  The true self, the God infused self.   This true self is found in each of us, because each of us is God infused.  The story invites us to resist the ‘me and my’ self the ego self,  and instead nurture the growth of the true self speaking into and directing our lives.  That true self will tell us that life is a gift.  We are simply trustees of all we have including our wealth and our very lives. 

We live in a ‘me and mine’ world, and it’s not easy to resist this world.  The good news is that I see amongst you signs of resistance.  Selfless acts, consideration of others, concern for the common good.  But we all need to adopt religious practices that continue to re-orientate ourselves.   Listening to the stories of Jesus is a good place to start.  Chewing them over like we’ve been doing today.  Coming to communion where we break bread together and reinforce the truth that life is not about me but we.  It speaks of the death of the outer ego self and the nurturing of a the true self that is treasured by God.  Simple practices that nurture thankfulness as we sit down to eat reminding us that food is a gift or  spending time at the end of the day to be thankful for all that has been in the day.  Practices like meditation and prayer that take our focus away from self and allow allows the true deeper self to whisper into our lives.  Practices like acts of generosity and kindness that offer things to others without seeking anything in return.   These things help re-orientate our hearts in the way Jesus was seeking.

How are you/I, we gathering riches for God.  That’s a good question Jesus asks.