The Parable of the Rich Fool
James Boswell in his biography of Samuel Johnson (a famous English writer) says, “he remembers the one day he went fishing with his father. He called it the most significant day of his life with his dad. Later he got hold of his father’s diary and read the entry, quote: “Went fishing with Sam, day wasted.”
Why did he think the day was wasted? Maybe it was because he wasn’t at work making more money, getting ahead in his career.
Jesus tells us a parable about a man like that. He is called “the rich fool.”
The Passage: Luke 12:13-21
In chapter 11 Jesus is condemning the religious leaders for their hypocrisy (vs. 42-43) and for rejecting and killing God’s messengers (47).
In 12:1 Jesus warns the disciples of the leaven of the Pharisees. He defines it as hypocrisy. They placed all their emphasis on externals – on the physical – on the temporal. He condemns them elsewhere for being white-washed tombs (Mat 23:27) because their insides are rotten, but they have covered up the rottenness with nice looking rituals and rules. But, 12:2 says there is nothing covered up that will not be revealed…
In chapter 11 Jesus talked about how the Jewish religious leaders always killed God’s messengers. In 12:4 Jesus teaches his disciples not to be afraid of those who kill the body, which is a physical and temporal issue. Instead, they should be afraid of God who has power over their souls and can send them to hell (12:5). That is a spiritual issue. It is an eternal issue. Then he reminds them that there will be a final accounting in the after-life (12:8-9).
He also tells them not to be anxious for their life when these prophet killers drag them before the courts because the Holy Spirit will guide them.
In vs. 13 Some guy in the crowd says, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” I recently heard someone teach on this parable and he said that this guy comes out of left field with his question – that it was totally unrelated to the context. I disagree. I think it is very related to the context.
What does this question reveal to us? It shows that he has not been paying attention because he worried about a physical temporal thing. Far from being out of context. The man’s question illustrates the very thing that Jesus was speaking about.
The law of primogeniture says (Num 27:1-11Deut 21:15) that the first born gets a double portion. If you had two brothers, you divided the estate three ways and the oldest got two parts. So guess which son this is. He is the youngest son.
If he is asking this, what does that tell us about his father? His dad has just died. That will set us up for a very significant part of the parable.
This shows that he is greedy. From here on we will refer to him as the greedy brother.
The greedy brother is not following the ideal of living in harmony with his brother. Ps 133:1 says, “How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!” I would assume this man knew the Scriptures but did not care. The greedy brother treasured riches more than his relationship with his brother. He did not love people.
In vs. 14 what is Jesus’ response? He says, “Man, who appointed me a judge or arbiter over you?”
The irony is that when Jesus says, “Who made me a judge over you?” it seems to imply that it wasn’t His job, but in reality it was going to be soon. Jesus is asking probing questions to see if the people understand who He really is.
The word arbiter can also be translated “divider.” Jesus could also be saying I am not going to contribute to the division between you and your brother. Although the greedy brother doesn’t care about Psalm 133:1, Jesus remembers. He came to promote relationships.
vs. 15. gives us a big clue as to what the point of the parable is. Jesus condemns greed and warns that even if the man gets a larger share of the inheritance, it will not bring life.
People don’t believe this. They think that if they can only get enough material things these things will produce the abundant life.
Do riches bring the abundant life? Listen to what Andrew Carnegie had to say:
“Millionaires who laugh,” said Andrew Carnegie, “are rare. “You may have all the money in the world, and yet be a lonely, sorrowing man.”
Sir Earnest Cassel said, “The light has gone out of my life. I live in this beautiful house, which I have furnished with all the luxury and wonder of art; but, believe me, I no longer value my millions. I sit here for hours every night longing for my beloved daughter.”
And Christina Onassis said, “Happiness is not based on money and the greatest proof of that is our family.”
Do you believe these stories? Or do you think it would be different for you if you had lots of money?
The Problem Which Prompts The Parable
Jesus is dealing with the problem of greed and seeking life on earth in temporal possessions.
Biographical – There is a comparison and contrast going on between the two characters in the parable and two characters outside the parable.
Characters In the Parable
The Rich man
At first he appears to be a good man who has many riches. He is content with them and going to enjoy them. He is the ultimate couch potato. Why is Christ telling a story about a rich man to a bunch of poor people and to a greedy brother? I think He is setting them up with this story.
God is the judge. He thinks the man is a fool. Until verse 20 the rich man doesn’t appear to be too bad. Then we get God’s opinion of him. The problem is not that he has lots of riches. It is his attitude. He thinks this is all there is to life and he is content.
Characters outside the parable:
The Greedy brother
He is a greedy man, and wants riches. His attitude is that more money will bring him life.
The Particulars Of The Parable
Vs 16 – Why is Jesus telling this parable about the rich man who had no greed to a greedy man?
Jesus builds up the rich man as a good guy, a content man – something that is very rare. This guy is just the opposite of the greedy man. What do we learn? Both thought that life consisted in stuff. Selfishness and self-satisfaction are two opposite pulls that are both out of balance to God. They are opposite sides of the same coin.
The man in the parable was already rich. He already had enough for himself. But this year, he had a bumper crop. Isn’t this the way it always is? The rich get richer and the poor get poorer? One gets the impression that the rich man didn’t really work very hard for this. Why does Jesus want us to get that impression? If you get something that you didn’t work for, what is it? It is a gift. Who was this gift from? It was a gift from God. Remember that.
So, what does he do with the surplus? Verse 17 says “The rich man began reasoning to himself” This is significant because in that culture everyone went to the city gates to discuss everything. This man doesn’t do that. We get the impression that he has no friends, no relationship with anyone.
He says, “What shall I do, since I have no place to store my crops? This is what I will do: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.”
Notice the emphasis on “I” and “my” as he reasons with himself. He did not understand that his prosperity was a gift from God. He forgot that he was a steward and thought that he owned it all.
In vs. 19 he assumes that he will live for a long time, and will enjoy his stuff.
But in vs. 20. God enters the scene and says, “You fool” the word for fool is a[frwn. This may be a play on words with the word for “merry” in the preceding verse which is eujfraivnou. “The rich man who thinks that his eujforew (many things) will produce eujfrwn (the good life), is in reality a[frwn (without mind, spirit and emotions).” (Kenneth Bailey, p. 67.) He is without life. He is stupid.
God goes on to say, “your soul is required of you.” The word “required” has the idea of paying back a loan. This emphasizes the idea that the man was just a steward of his stuff and not the owner.
Then God says, “now who will own what you have prepared?”
What is the connection between the greedy guy’s question and the parable?
The greedy guy’s question was concerning his inheritance (because his father had died) and the parable ends with a question of inheritance (because the rich man died). “Who will own what you have prepared?”
We know what will happen. We see it happening with the greedy man. The kids are going to fight over it. It reminds me of Howard Hughes. When he died, there was no will and people fought over his inheritance for years.
In vs. 21 Jesus says, “So is the man who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”
There is a major reversal in the parable – the rich man ends up being poor to God. Notice the poetic justice. Why does Jesus tell a bunch of poor people about a rich man? How does a rich man story go over? Poor people want bad things to happen to rich people, because they are jealous. Some politicians get elected by playing on that emotion. They say they will tax the rich and give to the poor. To the poor people this is poetic justice. To the rich, this is a tragedy.
Notice how this parable even fits in the context of Jesus’ speech to the multitude. 12:11 don’t be anxious… 12:22 don’t be anxious…. He is telling them not to be anxious about temporal things. The greedy man’s question fit right into the context of Jesus’ lesson. It’s almost like it was staged. It certainly shows that the greedy man wasn’t paying any attention to what was being said.
Verse 23. There is more to life than food and clothing, things, stuff…. Verses 15 and 23 introduce and conclude the parable with the same thought. Man’s life does not consist of stuff. That is the answer to the materialism of our day.
Because we cannot take our material possessions with us, we should concentrate on storing up eternal treasures in heaven.
The Relation To The Kingdom Program Of God
Christ is going to be the judge in the kingdom. What started the whole parable? The question by the greedy man. He wanted Jesus to be the judge. Jesus says, “Who made me judge over you?” As if Jesus isn’t the one who is judge. Remember what Jesus said in 12:4 and 5. Don’t fear the one who kills the body, but fear the one who can cast you into hell. That of course is God. But God is going to hand all judgment over to Christ. But that is not yet known. Luke is hinting at it and will reveal it later.
If God is the king and we are the sons, then we are heirs of the kingdom and if we own the kingdom, then barns, grain and goods are such trivial matters. We don’t need to worry about earthly inheritances. That is the right perspective. It is so ironic that we lust for acres while here on the earth and God has kingdoms waiting for us in the future (cf. vs31). What a stupid investment to leave God out of my life and devote my time on earth to build up the very thing that God is going to use for asphalt in heaven – gold. Streets of gold. Get it in perspective. The asphalt of heaven.
Don’t put your emphasis on material possessions because they don’t last. Like the guy who was walking back from the funeral and someone asked him, “How much did the guy leave behind?” And the man smartly replied, “Everything.”
Greed is wrong, but at the opposite pole, so is self-sufficiency or self-satisfaction.
If you define life in terms of money, you leave God out of the definition and you end up bankrupt. What counts is your relationship with God. Remember Jesus said in 12:9 just before the parable, “He who denies Me before men shall be denied before the angels of God.”
The rich man made at least four mistakes:
1. The rich man made the mistake of thinking he was the owner of his stuff when he was just a steward. We are just stewards of our stuff.
2. He was worried about the present and forgot about eternity.
3. He was concerned only for the physical and forgot about spiritual things.
4. He treasured stuff more than people. He lived an isolated life
This parable tells us how to define life. Most people define life in terms of material possessions, physical fitness or the future. This parable speaks loudly to our generation. Have you been defining life in your career, your house, your stock portfolio, in terms of what you can do physically, or the assumption that you will live much longer? What is going to happen when you lose one or more of those things? What happens when you get laid off? What happens when the stock market crashes? What happens when you get some disease which takes away your physical ability. What happens when you find out you only have six months to live? If you define life in these things, you will be devastated.
Having possessions is not wrong, it is putting your security in them that is wrong. The rich man is not condemned for being rich. He is condemned for being self-centered, for not using his surplus to help others, for leaving God out of his life.
In 12:24-30 Jesus compares them to the birds and the flowers and shows them that since they are more valuable than the birds and flowers, that certainly their heavenly Father will take care of them. It is the Gentiles – the godless – that seek life in stuff.
So, they are to seek His kingdom and then all the stuff that they need will be added. The rich man got all the stuff and stopped seeking.
Vs 33 says we should store up treasure in heaven. How do we do that? by investing in people. People are the only things we can take with us to heaven. So, investing in people is what counts.
In vs. 34 Jesus says “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Whenever you invest your time or money, it moves the heart toward that thing. When you invest in stuff it darkens or hardens the heart. When you come across the choice between stuff, (like CD players, computers, business, etc.) or spending time with people and you choose stuff, you are rejecting people. Or if you invest in people, then you will reject stuff. Jesus says in the parallel passage in the Sermon on the Mount that you will love one and hate the other.
So the question is, what do you choose? What do you treasure?
I think one of the things that impressed me in this parable is the lack of love and relationship in the lives of the greedy brother and the rich man. They chose stuff instead of God or people. In the story I told at the beginning, we saw a father who chose stuff over his son. And we saw where his heart was.
Let me tell you another story:
Bill Butterfield says, “There is something magical about a birthday when you are a kid.” Remember the feeling? In one day, you gain a whole year on your friends. You go to bed 5 one day and the next you are 6. It is a special day and should be carefully planned. These sentiments came through loud and clear with my son Jesse. Formerly 5, now solidly 6. He wanted a birthday party at a certain place with certain friends with a certain menu with a certain type of birthday cake and certainly gifts. Jesse is not the type of kid to spout out a list of gifts a mile long. He always knows exactly what he wants and not only that, exactly where to find it. You see, Jesse has Toys-R-Us memorized. If asked where the Parcheesi game was, he would say it is with the games on aisle 12 between PacMan and Payday.
Wanting to make this a special birthday and wanting to get him exactly what he wanted, I asked him what he wanted for his birthday. However, I did not get the answer I expected. Instead, I was given a lesson in love.
“Dad, I would like a ball to play with for my birthday.” was Jesse’s carefully planned reply.
“Great!” I responded, “What kind of ball would you like?”
I think I’d like either a football or a soccer ball.
“Ok.” I agreed, but pressed him further. “Which one would you like more?” A football or soccer ball?”
“Well,” he mused slowly. I should have known by his pause that it was coming.
“Well…., if you had some time to play ball with me this next year, I’d really like a football for you and me to throw around in the back yard. But if you are going to be real busy this next year, maybe you’d better just get me a soccer ball because I can play soccer with the rest of the kids in the neighborhood.
He paused again……, The silence was deafening….. “Ok buddy, … Uh….I’ll make a choice, … uh…and surprise you for your birthday. How does that sound?”
“Great Daddy,…..I love you.”
I grabbed my wife and went into another room to relay the conversation that had just transpired. It was as I was retelling the story that my son’s message came through. He wasn’t longing for gifts. He was longing for the giver. It took an almost 6 year old to remind me that relationships are more important than things.
By the way, the oddest thing occurred on my son’s 6th birthday. It’s a moment we will never forget. A grown man and a little boy embracing and sobbing tears of joy over a dumb old football.
Long for the giver and not the gifts. Don’t invest in stuff. Invest in people.