READ : Luke 12:13-21
How can we possibly learn to avoid greed, how can we curb our appetite for accumulation, when we live in a materialistic society that does everything to encourage it?
One day as Jesus was teaching his disciples, someone in the crowd that was pressing in to listen shouted out a request. “Teacher,” the man said, “make my brother share his inheritance with me.” “You know,” Jesus responded, “I’m not really interested in settling your family disputes.” Then he added a warning to the whole crowd: “Watch out for greed. The quality of your life isn’t measured by how much you own.” And to drive his point home, Jesus told a story.
The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. He thought to himself, What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops. Then he said, This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry. But 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 ? This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God.
I remember reading this story the parable of the rich fool at our Words of Hope staff devotions one day. Afterwards several of us continued to discuss it. The consensus was that what happened to this guy didn’t seem quite right. Why was Jesus so hard on him? What did he do that was so wrong? After all, he was only doing the smart thing, the same thing we would want to do in his place. He saved his profits, and reinvested them in the family farm. He recapitalized his business (in modern terms); he invested in new infrastructure. That’s not the sort of thing we usually condemn people for. On the contrary, we praise and admire such! We hold men like this rich farmer up as models to be imitated. This man was frugal, disciplined, successful. In fact, he was the exact opposite of the prodigal son, the selfish boy who squandered his father’s property in extravagant living. So why the harsh judgment on him? Why does God condemn him as a fool?
Maybe it will help us catch the flavor of this parable if we recast it in terms that are more contemporary and familiar to our own experience. Let’s imagine a man who just sold his business for a very hefty sum. “What will I do now?” he asks himself. “I know,” he answers. “I’ll invest my profits conservatively tax-free bonds, blue chip stocks, real estate. There’s a beautiful place down in Arizona on a golf course that I’ve had my eye on. I think I’ll pick that up.” “And I’ll say to myself, ‘You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry” (v.19). But God said to him, “You fool! Did you just feel that twinge in your chest? You aren’t even going to make it to the hospital!”
So why is this man judged? First, let’s be clear about the nature of the judgment. I don’t think it was his death. Jesus gives no indication that death was a punishment which God inflicted upon this man for his folly. No, death was simply what God in his providence had ordained was to happen in that particular life on that particular day. It was simply the man’s time. The rich man wasn’t going to die that night for being a fool; rather, he was a fool because he was going to die that night. God’s judgment upon the man was to confirm his nature in a one-word summary of his life: Fool!
In this story Jesus is reminding us of how fragile and brief our life is in this world. He’s pointing out the temporary nature of earthly pleasures, the impermanence of worldly possessions. In one of his books the late theologian Francis Schaeffer told how as a boy he used to have to walk past the city dump each day on his way to and from school. The sight of all the things that ended up there made a deep impression on him things most people devote their lives to accumulating. Have you ever stopped to think about this truth? All the stuff we prize so much houses, cars, furniture, clothes, machines, books it’s all going to end up in a landfill some day. And so will we!
A fool is somebody who can’t or won’t recognize that truth. A fool doesn’t see the emptiness and stupidity of living for what doesn’t last, for things we cannot keep. Notice the irony of the question God asks the rich fool: “This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” One answer to that question is suggested by the context of the parable. Remember that man in the crowd who demanded, “Lord, make my brother share the inheritance!” So back to the question: “Whose will all these things be?” As likely as not they’ll be your family’s to fight over. All our work in amassing an estate for the benefit of our family can turn out to be counter-productive. The wealth we so carefully gather and so jealously protect ends up ruining our children or grandchildren, and poisoning their relationships with one another. When Frank Woolworth, the founder of the F. W. Woolworth chain, died in 1919, he left an unbelievable fortune at the time of $65 million, but his biographer summarized his life this way: “Unlike other wealthy men of his time, he left nothing to charity. His entire fortune went to his family, resulting in a legacy of conflict, scandal, and wasted lives.” That’s just a more roundabout way of saying, “You fool!”
I think we can sharpen the diagnosis even more. In biblical terms a fool is someone who is blind; to be more specific yet, someone who is short-sighted. The word used in this parable is aphron, which is the negative form of the Greek adjective phronimos. Phronimos means to be sensible, prudent, shrewd. Being wise or foolish in the biblical sense has nothing to do with your intelligence or education. But wisdom has everything to do with being able to look and plan ahead. The wise person is the one who is far-sighted, who can see the consequences of present actions and act accordingly. Notice how that rich farmer talks. It is all “me, my, I; my crops, my barns, my plans.” Never a word about God, never a thought of eternity. He doesn’t see past the end of his nose or the end of his earthly life. This is why he’s such a fool. The great John Newton describes this attitude perfectly in one of his letters:
A fool has no sound judgment; he is governed wholly by appearances, and would prefer a fine coat to the title of a large estate. He pays no regard to consequences. . . . A fool cannot reason, therefore arguments are lost upon him. . . . Are these the characteristics of a fool? Then there is no fool like the sinner who prefers the toys of earth to the happiness of heaven. He is held in bondage by the foolish customs of the world, and is more afraid of the breath of man, than of the wrath of God.”
Jesus surrounded his story about the rich fool with warnings. There’s a warning against greed. Are we far-sighted enough to look past this world and its treasures? Do we understand that real life doesn’t consist in the abundance of our possessions? But yet we’re so infatuated with them. We’re bombarded every day by every television commercial, every newspaper and magazine with the message that happiness in life is determined by getting and having all the right things. We’re like alcoholics working in a brewery; the temptation to covetousness is in the very air we breathe. How can we possibly learn to avoid greed? How can we curb our appetite for accumulation, when we live in such a materialistic society that does everything to encourage it?
One suggestion is contained in Jesus’ concluding warning. Here’s the punch line of the story: “This is how it will be,” Jesus warns, “with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God.” There, I believe, is the answer. We must take care that we become “rich toward God.” That’s how to avoid the dangers of greed and selfish accumulation. That’s how we can become wise, instead of foolish.
But what does it mean to be rich toward God? How do you do that? How can we store up for ourselves treasures in heaven (Matthew 6:19-20)? By giving our treasure to God’s kingdom concerns. The only thing that can break the hold of materialism in our lives is generosity. The only way to avoid letting your money control you is by giving it away for the sake of God and the gospel. And because God obviously doesn’t need anything we have, he wants us to give it to those who do need it by meeting their spiritual and physical needs through our generous charitable contributions. As St. Ambrose commented on the rich fool, “His barns should have been the mouths of the poor and the widow and orphan.” That’s where this man should have put his surplus goods.
It’s funny, but somehow we have gotten the idea that financial giving is a sordid matter and that the church is corrupt in talking about it. But, in fact, giving to kingdom causes is a wonderfully kind and benevolent act. And the best thing we can do for ourselves and others is to encourage it. Sometimes people act like they’re doing the church a tremendous favor whenever they donate. How foolish! If we only saw things clearly enough we would realize that our charitable giving does far more for us, the donors, than for its recipients. All the really smart money is being put into the kingdom.