The One About the Rich Fool (A Sermon on Luke 12:13-21)

Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?

A rabbi in this time did not make these kinds of decisions on how stuff got divided. In fact, Jewish laws already had very specific laws about how things were to be divided; it was somebody else’s decision. Right at the beginning we have something else going on here. See, an inheritance in this time was all about land. A father would die and then the land would be given to his sons. This land has been in the family probably for generations and right here and now we have these sons disputing over who gets what. There is a fractured relationship between the brothers. The one brother is not asking Jesus to make a decision about who gets what piece of land; this brother obviously has already made up his mind on what is rightfully his. He goes so far as to tell Jesus to tell his brother to do what he wants. This brother wants to use Jesus’ authority to coerce his brother to go along with his pre-made decision.

This brother is greedy. He has decided that he should get a specific amount and now wants to use Jesus to get what he wants. He has no desire to be on good terms with his brother and he could care less of what comes out of his relationship, he just wants what is rightfully his and then be on his way. However, at first you sort of want Jesus to give the brother what he wants, it’s almost as if the brother is crying out for justice; like he’s getting the short end of the stick. “Make my brother do what is right and share the pie with me too.” Jesus doesn’t give him what he wants though, instead he cuts to what is important and stumps him leaving him holding nothing but a random story. The brother thought that the finest gift that Jesus could give him was some legal decision, but the very fact that he asked this question had Jesus realizing there was something else going on here.

Jesus does not base his refusal to give a decision merely on the fact that he has no authority to do so. But he did it primarily on the grounds that possession of property is irrelevant to the life of the age to come, and that was his main concern. So instead of saying “be a good brother and share.” He does what may be unfair, and tells a story that humiliates the person asking the question. In other words, the question is flawed.

Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life (zōē) does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”

Jesus takes this opportunity to turn to everyone and teach them a little lesson. He says that a man’s life, does not consist on how much stuff you can get. Luke goes through great pains to constantly remind us of this all through his gospel. There is no happiness in possessions, there is no reward, it all fades away in comparison to what real life is about. Now there are two words in the NT uses for the word life, one is bio, its where we get the word biology and it means our physical lives. This isn’t the word that Jesus uses though, the word he uses is zōē, and it’s a special word that means a life that satisfies, or a rich life. Jesus is saying here to be careful because greed will screw things up. How much stuff you have does not give you real zōē.

Jesus is warning his listeners here. I think he is warning them, for no other reason than because we need to be warned. Greed is sneaky. Stuff is sneaky. Everything we have we are convinced we need, or that it will bring us some sort of happiness. We justify every single purchase we make. We convince ourselves that it is important that we buy or have whatever it is we want. For this reason, Jesus offers us this warning. Look out, be on your guard, REAL zōē, real life does not actually happen because of lots of cool stuff. Then he gets into the story.

And he told them this parable: “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.’

All right, let’s stop right there. In the ancient near east, you lived your entire life in community. You lived with friends, family and your pals. You existed together. You lived under the same roof, ate together and raised your kids together. The idea that you would make a life decision all by yourself is a completely foreign concept. It was always assumed that there was this group of people that you were journeying through life with. So if you produced a good crop one year, you would have been dialoguing with your friends about what to do with it.

There is a researcher named Kenneth Baily, who studies the Middle east. He talks about the city gate in the Middle East and how the men of the city would go there and discuss everything in life. They would discuss politics, religion, farming, education and raising your children. There was a joy in this culture of being with friends, discussing with friends, challenged by friends and seeking advice from friends. There was this overarching assumption that you lived in community and you would never ever make a significant decision without bringing it to the community.

Back to the story. This man was alone. Jesus tells this story where the man goes off in a soliloquy in other words he is speaking to himself. Jesus says that he “thought to himself.” This guy is all alone. You know that the word idiot comes from the idea of somebody who tried to live outside of the village. This guy was an idiot. He was alone. He was completely secluded from his community and the needs of people outside of himself.

I went to New Orleans a few years ago to work with some organizations to help do some rebuilding. We arrived in 2006, a full year after the hurricane had hit. Some of the basements were still full of water, cockroaches were everywhere and the 9th Ward, which was the poorer neighborhood of New Orleans was basically wiped out completely. This is one year later. Now back when the hurricane hit, thousands upon thousands of people were dislocated from their homes and sought refuge in nearby cities. Churches and people opened up their homes for people to stay in them to help them get back on their feet. Now, imagine you were living in one of the nearby cities and this disaster happened, and you were out sitting on your back porch, drinking your lemonade and you thought to yourself “I have two extra bedrooms, an extra car and a cupboard full of food, what should I do with all this extra stuff I have?” You wouldn’t ask that would you? Of course not! We aren’t that bad of people. We would never intentionally do that.

Unless, somehow we have managed to isolate ourselves from the real problems in our city. Unless you have organized your life in such a way that you never actually rub shoulders with anyone who has unmet needs. See right now we all live in a world where we all have similar levels of blessing and of wealth, at least we do in this room. So what ends up happening is our wealth isolates us and we can’t hear the cry of the hungry. The images we see on TV of third world children have numbed us, and the needs around us have been reduced to large numbers that don’t really do anything to us. What is one more 0 on the end of a million anymore? It doesn’t affect us at all.

We think, and this man thinks that wealth is for security and pleasure. In the Talmud there is a line that one rabbi writes

when the community is in trouble, let not a man say, “I will go to my house and I will eat and drink and all will be well with me…..But rather a man should share in the distress of the community.

There is this underlying assumption, a biblical assumption that wealth is not for individuals. It is not so we can get bigger homes, get more stuff, treat our kids even better and secure our futures. Any wealth that we have acquired is for the community. In the same way, when a community is in need, or when someone in our community is in need, and we have, we are obligated to give to them. If we don’t, that is fine, but just don’t pretend you are in community. The purpose of wealth is for the public, we can’t say well if we give it all away then we won’t be wealthy anymore, because the point was never for our own. The real issue here is the focus of our life. The fool’s focus was on preparing things for himself.

Churches and individuals rarely actually discuss or hold the community accountable for responsible, kingdom-driven decisions regarding possessions. Such discussions would lead to the reduction of hoarding and consumerism, change how we view and attain security, enable various ministries and relieve the plight of the poor. Economic decisions are not easy, but the church should not only lead the way but demonstrate by its use of money the reality of its gospel.
–Klyne Snodgrass

“Foolishness consists in thinking that responsibilities ends with securing one’s own economic future.”
–Klyne Snodgrass

Why do we as Christians not allow other people to have a say of what we do with our possessions?

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. 19And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” ‘

In this next line, we have this man who basically interrupts the narrator and takes control of the story and starts talking to himself. The line goes “and I’ll say to myself,” where did the narrator go? The text doesn’t say and he said to himself, it says and I will say to myself. It switches from third person to first person.

This is a big harvest, this harvest is so big that this guy needs new barns. Any experienced farmer wouldn’t be left with no room after his harvest, so that either leads us to believe that he isn’t an experienced farmer or this harvest was too good to be true. If it’s too good to be true, then anyone listening to this story or living in this story would have instantly given God the credit for the miracle harvest. That is the only kind of harvest that would demand such a drastic option of actually tearing down barns to build up bigger ones. Now at least we know that this man didn’t acquire his wealth through evil means, but by a miracle of God. At the conclusion of this first line, the audience will have determined that this farmer is prudent and wise preparing ahead of time for the lean years. The audience would soon expect his wealth to be stored up for his community, the same way it happened during Joseph’s time in Egypt. But by the next line we are starting to get the idea that he might not have such pure intentions. He describes his goods as those which will keep him for many seasons. Wrong answer. Just as he takes over the story, he takes over the harvest.

The wealth we experience every day is pretty hard to ignore. We are given what we need but also much much more. With all this wealth we don’t really need God more than just a conventional way. We thank him for all our great stuff, you know like children who receive gifts from grandparents and say thank-you so the gifts keep on coming. We can’t really avoid wealth. Whether we get it as a spiritual blessing from God or because of a capitalist economy it still finds its way into our lives. The scriptures are full of warnings to try to keep us safe from it; the commandments, parables and proverbs just to name a few. Either way though, we like the wealth we have and it doesn’t take us very long until we are thinking about buildings ourselves a bigger barn.

We quit thinking of wealth as love to be shared and begin calculating it as power to be used. We reinterpret our wealth and position as something we are in charge of and others as the poor that we must organize and direct and guide. As we do it, it feels good. We are in charge. We don’t need others. We are in control. We know more than others, we have more experience. We are going so much good! We need a bigger barn. In order to be more effective in our use of what we have we accumulate more, extend our influence. We become very busy doing good, because when we are very busy we don’t have time for building the more more demanding and difficult personal relationships of love. Building barns, which is so obviously a good thing, doesn’t leave much energy left over for the time-comsuming work of loving our neighbours, let alone our God.
–Eugene Peterson

The parable of the barn builder is an expose of greed: using what we have to get more instead of giving away more; using our position or goods as a means for getting impersonal power rather than giving away love.
–Eugene Peterson

I know this happens with me all the time. The second I’m doing something that is good, all I want to do is become bigger and do more. I have no problem sacrificing relationships with people for the sake of having more and bigger stuff or having a bigger event that more people come to. We trick ourselves all the time into thinking that our bigger barn will actually give us more room to be better at our relationships. We can barely maintain the barn we have now without destroying our relationships but we just want more because we think with more we can do better. It’s just not true. Our barns take up our entire lives, and they consume all of our time and our energy, because it becomes all about the barn and not what the barn is for, and especially not what the harvest is for.

Jesus goes through great pains here to give us two major characteristics of his life. The barn builder is greedy and the barn builder is alone. These typically aren’t two things that we put together. We don’t really see consumerism, hoarding and having stuff as our biggest obstacle to relationships. Jesus does. The more this guys focused on his bigger barn and taking care of himself, the more alone this guy became. He ended up being so alone at the end of the story that even the narrator stepped aside and let him take over his own story. This is the warning embedded deep into the words of this parable. By choosing a bigger barn, you are choosing to isolate yourself from relationships. The more you worry about your own security and future, the more alone you will be.

This parable completely ignores the man at the beginning of the parable’s “rights” and it points out his greed. Will the man at the beginning recognize himself as the barn builder? If he is able to, it will require a stretch of his imagination. Here is the thing with parable. They aren’t really explanations or illustrations. You don’t listen to them and be well that stands for this, and that stands for that so that means that. We can’t just look at a parable from the outside as a spectator and expect to understand what is going on. Parables don’t make things easier but rather make things harder by demanding participation, by entering the story, in this case by taking on the role of the barn builder.

Eugene Peterson explains it by saying that God’s truth is not some weird alien invasion but rather a loving courtship. He tells these parables out of the ordinary stuff of our common life-in this case building a bigger barn. Building a barn is normal work for a farmer. No one would ever think of it as a moral failure. No farmer ever got in trouble by his pastor or put in jail because he builds a barn. The story of the barn builder doesn’t condemn. It just sits there, in our imaginations. So it makes us wonder. Did the brother who asked the original question wait around in the crowd long enough to get it? Or because it had never occurred to him to ever build a barn did he impatiently walk away and continue to shop around the neighborhood for another rabbi who would take up his cause.

In the same way I think we could be at danger of not really seeing our role in a story like this. The only position we can take is that of the barn builder. We are the barn builders. We are the ones that are securing our own future at the cost of everyone around us.

But God said to him, ‘You fool! (aphrōn) This very night your life will be demanded (apaiteō) 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.”

Now this is the only NT parable in which God is an actor in the parable. Yet this farmer maps out and lives out his life as if God doesn’t exist. He is a practical atheist, or a fool if we want to use biblical language. He has no problem taking blessings, but when it comes to actually doing with it what he is supposed to do; he forgets God is part of the picture. God is the only character who can address this rich man because the rich man has eliminated all other competitors or people in his life to speak to him. He is alone at home and isn’t in relationship with anyone else.

Let’s take a look at the word here that is translated into fool, the word is aphron. The root word of aphron is phren, which refers to the center of where you breath, your diaphragm. It’s the center of your passions, understanding; it is your life source where everything happens inside of a person. This is where we get the word euphoria, which basically means feeling on top of the world, the best feelings ever. Now when God comes on the scene, which by the way, this is the only parable that God actually does show up on the scene, he says “you aphron.” Which is the complete opposite of euphoria. It gives images of being without life, without breath, passion or awareness. God says this man is a fool, a man living without truly possessing life or zōē.

Sorry for spending so much time in the Greek, but I think it’s important for understanding what is really going on under the scenes here. Let’s do one more. The language God uses for the word demand is a Greek word called apaiteo. This is a legal term to recall or demand something back. So if you lent somebody something, legally you could go back to them and say it’s time to give back what you lent out. This brings on entire new meaning in this parable, because God is demanding something back that he lent out in the first place. We would all have no problem saying that his wealth or the harvest was a gift but this parable takes it one step further to remind us that his very life was a gift from God. This fool, he did not understand that his life was a gift to be used for the kingdom, it wasn’t for himself to protect himself and make sure that he lives a long and prosperous life. When God judges, he judges everything. His soul, money, possessions. It is all clumped together and connected.

So what did this guy do that was so horrible, that for the only parable in the entire NT God steps on the scene, and the only time in Jesus’ teaching where a life is actually demanded back. Greed. He was blessed, he was rich and he was greedy. It wasn’t because he believed the wrong things it was because he didn’t share what he had with those that needed it. The field prospered, and not the man – which makes prosperity almost an accident or at least distances the man from the reason of the prosperity. As Christians we are aware of the beautiful life God has given us, and it is criminal to withhold that to everyone we come in contact with.

If we are seriously connected, we shouldn’t have to ask ourselves what to people need. I don’t want to be like the rich man and not have a clue about what people need, I don’t want to live out the dark side of this teaching.

Parables like this scare us a little bit, so what we end up doing is trying to justify our lives rather than head in a direction that truly lives it out. Our first justification that we constantly tell ourselves is that our own individual debt and our own individual financial situation isn’t really suitable for living a life that is constantly giving to others. We have to take care of ourselves first right? Or else we won’t ever have anything to give away to others. As soon as we go down this road of justification I fear that we have missed the entire story. Remember the story of the widow putting her two pennies into a jar? It was the poor person who was authentic, it was the poor person who was truly rich and was possessing the kingdom of God. Why do we constantly try to justify having to have stuff before we give it away? Let’s not trick ourselves into thinking we can actually be wealthy, secure our own futures and still honour God. It doesn’t work that way. The gospel is clear. It isn’t about us. It isn’t about our individual selves. If we truly want to live out this gospel then let’s stop justifying our own indulgences whenever they come up and just admit them for what they are.

Let’s put this out there for a bit and just talk about this parable out loud. What do you think about it? Ask some questions out loud, let’s wrestle with it for a few minutes and just see where the conversation takes us.

So this morning, I don’t want to leave you with a challenge. I fear if I do that we will all fail before we even walk out the door. Rather, I want to pray together with you. I want us to ask for forgiveness for every time that we have chosen to fill our barns rather than stomachs. I want us to ask for forgivness for every time we chose to build bigger barns rather than be with people and give away our blessing. I think we need to be asking forgiveness for not caring and pray that God helps us care more. I think we need to be asking forgiveness for choosing to look out for ourselves instead of others. We need to ask for forgiveness for organizing our lives in such a way where we can’t even hear the cry of the hungry anymore.

So let’s take 5 minutes and pray. I’ll start. Throw in your prayer when you are ready and we’ll be silent and listen and agree.

Now let’s pray this together

God, thank-you for your blessings
Thank-you for our wealth
Thank-you for our community

Let us not turn your blessings into curses
Let us not hoard your wealth as if it’s ours
Let us not focus on ourselves but each other

God, thank-you for this story
Thank-you for the barns we already have
Thank-you for our full stomachs

Let us tell this story with humility
Let us not be afraid of empty barns
Turn our ears to empty stomachs and hearts

God, thank-you for your story
Thank-you for grace when we fail
Thank-you for your promise of abundance

Let us not turn your story into selfishness
Allow our failure to highlight your grace
May we build different kinds of barns
May we throw different kinds of parties

God, even though we are poor
Let us make many rich
Even though we are sorrowful
Let us always rejoice
Even though we have nothing
May we possess everything.

7 Comments

  • Thank you. This was a very good explanation. Right on target. Whoever reads this will surely be enlightened.
    God bless!

  • We are surely a nation of fools. We have lost sight of the truth in our quest to aquire. Thank you for this enlightening read.

  • Good explilnation….Too long for a Sunday sermon. You should put it in a book.

  • This is powerful. I come from Africa – KENYA and this is true. I will preach this to my people.

  • To be honest, 1st, I want to thank God for building you up like a barns
    and store lots of valuable harvest in for me. To God be the Glory, Thanks for the prayer, and I did agree with the prayer. Thanks for Greek words and explanations I love it. 2nd. My prayer is that may God fills your barns with
    spiritual possession towards HIM.

    Amen.

  • I preferred it when I heard Rob Bell preach it…

  • GOOD EXPLANATION.

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