Thought for the day
If any lesson were to be learned from times of recession, surely it would resemble today’s Gospel. Riches are precarious; material security is unstable; dreams of untroubled longevity are soon dispelled by “events.” Paradoxically, our experience of life as fickle can take us in quite opposite directions. We might be tempted to plunge ourselves into more enjoyment of the present moment, as St Paul caustically observes: “let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (1Corinthians 15:32 NET) The road less travelled is to become “rich towards God.” It still means enjoying and living the present moment, but in a completely different, deeper and ultimately more lasting way.
God of wisdom, help us to see through all that is false yet enticing; be our guide on the path of life. Amen.
Luke 12:13 Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” 14 But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” 15 And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” 16 Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17 And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ 18 Then he said, ‘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. 19 And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 20 But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21 So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
The Parable of the Rich Fool is found only in Luke’s Gospel and reflects the author’s intense interest in our attitudes to money and possessions. The whole section 12:13-40 should be read for a full picture. A few statistics can serve to illustrate this interest of Luke:
Poor/poverty: 5-5-10+0 (=Matthew—Mark—Luke+Acts)
- Rich: 3-2-11+0
- Land: 3-4-9+8
To be rich: 0-0-2+0
Kind of writing
The excerpt begins with a very short anecdote, which provides the occasion for the parable. The parable itself lacks the destabilising effect of the authentic Jesus tradition, so there is no real puzzle or paradox to figure out. In it’s place, we have a wisdom teaching. The best commentary on the text will be further citations from Luke, as we shall see, where the same theme recurs.
Old Testament background
Lord, let me know my end, and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is. You have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing in your sight. Surely everyone stands as a mere breath. Surely everyone goes about like a shadow. Surely for nothing they are in turmoil; they heap up, and do not know who will gather. (Psalms 39:4–6)
I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me — and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish? Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. So I turned and gave my heart up to despair concerning all the toil of my labours under the sun, because sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity. (Ecclesiastes 2:18–23)
New Testament foreground
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” (Luke 4:16–19)
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’” (Luke 16:19–31)
When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” But when he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich (Luke 18:22–24).
I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others. For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich. And in this matter I am giving my advice: it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something—now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means. For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has—not according to what one does not have. I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written, “The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.” (2 Corinthians 8:8–15)
Verse 13 Another example of two brothers / sons / characters in contrast or turmoil. It was expected that a respected teacher would be able to interpret inheritance laws. The man acts like Martha, who tried to get Jesus to intervene or rather interfere. The real problem lies in the attitude to the inheritance.
Verse 14 Friend (lit. “man”) can be positive or negative (Luke 5:20; 12:14; 22:58, 60), depending on the context. It feels bit negative here.
Verse 15 The verses which follow sustain this teaching: He said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest (Luke 12:22–27)
Verse 16 The flourishing is quickly described to get to the main point.
Verse 17 Nothing exceeds like excess. The preening self-satisfaction rings alarm bells. It reminds one of the proverb “pride comes before a fall.”
Verse 18 Cf. the story of the rich man and Lazarus, cited above, where the same confidence in the permanence of riches led Dives astray.
Verse 19 The sheer complacency here is the problem. Cf. Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it. (Luke 17:33) Cf. So I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 8:15) A similar thought is dismissed by Paul: If with merely human hopes I fought with wild animals at Ephesus, what would I have gained by it? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (1Corinthians 15:32)
Verse 20 Fools ignore God and reality: Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is no one who does good. (Psalms 14:1) When we look at the wise, they die; fool and dolt perish together and leave their wealth to others. (Psalms 49:10)
Verse 21 To be “rich towards God” echoes a significant Pauline usage: The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:10–11) For through the law I died to the law so that I may live to God. I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So the life I now live in the body, I live because of the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:19–21 NET)
Pointers for prayer
1. “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions”, said Jesus. What have you found by experience to be more important in life than possessions? What brought this home to you?
2. “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed”. Perhaps you have seen how greed can lead to trouble in public life, in family life, and in the personal life of individuals. What has helped you to guard against greed? What benefits have you experienced when you were less greedy?
3. The message of the parable could be summed up in saying, “If you want to give God a laugh, tell him your plans”. Life takes many twists and turns we do not anticipate. When have you found that have had to change your plans because of unexpected circumstances? What has helped you to be flexible and resourceful at such times?
O God, the giver of every gift that endures, only by your grace can we rightly understand the wonder of life and why it is given.
By the word of your Son challenge our foolishness, confront our greed, and shape our lives to the wisdom of the Gospel.
We make our prayer through our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.