The Stuff of Life: A Big Old Problem

Luke 12:13-21 (The Message)

Someone out of the crowd said, "Teacher, order my brother to give me a fair share of the family inheritance."
     He replied, "Mister, what makes you think it's any of my business to be a judge or mediator for you?"
     Speaking to the people, he went on, "Take care! Protect yourself against the least bit of greed. Life is not defined by what you have, even when you have a lot."
     Then he told them this story: "The farm of a certain rich man produced a terrific crop. He talked to himself: 'What can I do? My barn isn't big enough for this harvest.' Then he said, 'Here's what I'll do: I'll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. Then I'll gather in all my grain and goods, and I'll say to myself, Self, you've done well! You've got it made and can now retire. Take it easy and have the time of your life!'
     "Just then God showed up and said, 'Fool! Tonight you die. And your barnful of goods—who gets it?'
     "That's what happens when you fill your barn with Self and not with God."

Notes from Gail O’Day, NIB

As suggestive as this parable is, it does not specifically answer the crucial question: What was the rich man’s folly? Actually, his follies are many and allow the parable to be viewed from several angles of moral reflection.

1. Preoccupation with Possessions. Until the voice of God interrupts the fool’s reverie, there is nothing in the story but the man and his possessions. His goods and prosperity have become the sole pursuit of his life, until finally the poverty of his abundance is exposed. Thus the parable plunges the hearer into a searching reflection on the meaning of life. We may declare, “Whoever has the most toys when he dies wins,” but the parable exposes the emptiness of such a materialistic life-style.

2. Security in Self-sufficiency. The parable sketches the figure of a man who does not need anyone else. He can provide for himself, and his provisions will take care of him for many years. He needs the security of the love of neither family nor faithful friends. He does not feel the need of a community of support or the security of God’s love. In an extreme case, the parable allows us to see the ultimate extension of the common, prideful inclination to think that we can make it on our own and that we don’t need anyone else.

3. The Grasp of Greed. Greed is the moral antithesis of generosity. The thought of what he might be able to do for those in need never enters the rich fool’s mind. His innermost thoughts reveal that he has no sense of responsibility to use his abundance for the welfare of persons less fortunate than he. Greed has eaten away any compassion he may once have had.

4. The Hollowness of Hedonism. The rich fool revels in his prosperity because he envisions that because of it he can “eat, drink, and be merry.” His daydream is to spend his future indulging his whims and desires. The greatest good he can imagine is a life of maximizing his own pleasure. Leisure, recreation, freedom from the demands of work—the rich man’s vision of the future sounds uncomfortably like one that most of us have for our retirement years. Are we really planning prudently? What gives our life meaning now, and what will give it meaning then?

5. Practical Atheism. This is Peter Rhea Jones’s provocative term for the rich fool’s approach to life. The rich fool may protest that he has always believed in God, but when it comes to managing his life, dealing with possessions and planning for the future, he lives as though there were no God. The parable, therefore, probes our basic commitments. What difference should our faith in God make in the practical matters of life?

A televised interview with a man who had lost his house and all his possessions to a raging brush fire driven by Santa Anna winds in California provides a striking contrast to the rich fool. Recalling that his brother had recently mused that they should be careful not to allow their possessions to possess them, this man who had just seen everything he owned but the shirt on his back go up in smoke announced to the reporter with a note of unexpected triumph: “I am a free man now!”