The Rich Fool
The Parable of the Rich Fool - Luke 12:13–21
13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” 14 But he said to him, “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?” 15 And he said to them, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” 16 And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, 17 and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ 18 And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear 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, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21 So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”
In his sermon on this passage, Bishop Hugh Latimer began by repeating the phrase, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness” three times. Then, he said, “What if I should say nothing else?” Tim Keller begins his sermon on this passage with the reading of the text, followed by “This is God’s word…unfortunately.”
Obviously, this passage is hard for us to hear. Especially for Western, wealthy ears, this message is not only hard but vital. What we do with these words will set us on the course toward the kingdom of heaven or away from it.
Talking about money is never easy in the church. Maybe in other parts of the world it’s different, but in America, talking about money in the church is something pastors know they should do, but often rarely do. There may be one Sunday a year set aside to address it, and even that is a struggle. But Jesus talks about money a lot. In fact, eleven of Jesus’s thirty-nine parables were about our handling of money. Tim Keller says that at least 28% of the time Jesus spoke, he talked about money. But money is a topic most of the church in America ignores from the pulpit and Bible study.
Today, we can’t ignore it.
Our life on earth does not last long. When we’re young, we like to believe we have many years to sort everything out. But the reality is, we have almost no time at all. Our life is a breath. Neglecting to put first things first is not merely a misappropriation of our priorities; it is a denial and rejection of the call of Christ. If we do not listen to God now, we cannot be assured we will listen to him later. “Later” may never come. God may call us to account tonight. Therefore, our time to make a dent in church history is right now, today.
So, who is Jesus talking to?
In Luke 12, Jesus speaks to his disciples as a crowd of many thousands gathers around to listen. He tells them to beware the leaven of the Pharisees, not to fear or be anxious, to acknowledge Christ before men. Then, a man from the crowd butts in to ask a question. “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” But Jesus doesn’t answer him. Instead, he responds, “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?”
The parable of the rich fool is not a response to the man who asked this question. Jesus didn’t tell the man—or the crowds—the parable. Notice verse 15 says, “And he said to them, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” Jesus doesn’t respond to the man with a bit of wisdom. He uses the man’s folly as the opportunity to teach his disciples. Jesus was not going to judge his case; he was going to teach his people. This wasn’t a word for the crowds, but they gathered around, trampling on one another to listen in.
So, what does Jesus tell them? And in the story, what is he telling us? He’s telling us three things: take care, be aware, be rich.
This parable is launched out of an example of covetousness. Jesus warns us to take care, to be on guard, because we tend to make our lives about the abundance of possessions. We don’t mean to, but it seeps in. We begin thinking the next thing is the final thing, but it never is. It’s only one more thing in the line of many others. Over time, we cram our lives so full of the stuff of the world that we begin to call wants needs and needs become expectations.
We know at the intellectual level that possessions do not make up the most important part of our life. But that knowledge doesn’t do anything to stop us. It’s not a knowledge problem, after all. It’s a heart problem. What we’re seeking when we seek possessions is the security that only comes from Christ, and until we bank all our hope on Christ’s storehouses of grace, we will stuff our lives—even build larger storehouses—with things of the world. And we will do it in the name of responsibility. We will do it in the name of prudence. We will do it in the name of care. But what is it that we’re taking care of? Jesus says it’s not our heart, and that’s the problem.
When Jesus tells his disciples that a man’s life doesn’t consist in the abundance of his possessions, he’s saying that a man does not exist in his possessions. This man from the crowd is asking Jesus to divide his brother’s wealth with him and in so doing asking Jesus to give him what he believes to be his life. But Jesus won’t do it because that’s not his job. His job isn’t to be a judge between two men and their money. His job is to tell us what life really is—what it truly consists of. It’s not the money that grants one a full life. It’s Jesus who does that.
Then he tells them a parable, calling them to a life of taking care. There was a rich man who was highly successful. His fields yielded much more than he needed to get by. They produced a hundred-fold, you might say.
He must have taken care of the land. He seeded when he needed to seed. He fertilized when he needed to fertilize. He harvested when he needed to harvest. It wasn’t only the planting and the watering, it was the caring for the field that yielded such a crop. But he ignored the more important things of life. Thinking life consisted of the things he could make, sell, and own, he exchanged the glory of the immortal god for stuff. He took care of his stuff and ignored the heart that wanted the stuff. Take care, Jesus said. Be on guard, Jesus warned. One’s life does not consist of what he has but in what he is.
The rich man knew what he had. He didn’t know who he was. He saw his wealth and understood his life to be one of protecting it. But it was not his possessions that defined him. It was his heart toward them that did that. And Jesus says his heart is like a wild field, captured by the weeds choking the life out of everything good. But he can’t see it. He’s too busy taking care of his stuff to take care of his heart. His work of building bigger sheds distracts him from doing the soul-work required to build God’s kingdom.
His possessions comprised the whole of his life. He lost sight of who he was because all he could see was what he had. And what he had, though he believed it gave him ultimate security, was the most dangerous thing in his life. It would have been better for him to lose it all, for in losing it, he may have gained the world. He thought he existed in his possessions, but Jesus said he existed in who he was before God. And it’s who he was that sat behind the column of his stuff that obstructed his view. He saw in part. Jesus says we must see in whole. We must take care because to fail to do so is to miss out on the life God intends to give.
If we are to take care and be on guard, we must be aware of what’s going on inside. Our heart will lie to us. We must ask God to reveal what’s truly going on. What is the narrative in our head? Who’s doing the talking? Who is getting the advantage in your plans for the future? Who is honored in what you one day will accomplish? If we aren’t aware of what or who we’re working for, we will find it was all a grand rouse to boost our own ego, our own estate, our own platform. We will find ourselves working for dying things when the opportunity to receive living things stood before us.
The parable drives to a sharp conclusion. This man spent his time thinking about himself, building for himself, and talking to himself. But his life was cut shorter than he imagined. He didn’t even finish his work, and the Lord called him to account for his life. The rich man did all the talking in the beginning and middle, but in the end, it is God who speaks, “You fool!” The rich man wasn’t aware God was watching, listening, hearing his conversations to himself. He probably thought himself wise for planning ahead. But God saw him as a fool. Why?
The rich man was a fool not because he had wealth but because he loved his wealth. He was rich but not toward God. To live a rich life not directed toward God is to be a fool. No matter the wealth, a time is coming soon when it will all be left behind and only what we did for God in this world will be taken with us.
The rich man was blinded by his wealth. It consumed his thoughts and his time. Money and possessions can do that to us. It’s not easy being rich. It requires a lot of work not only to gain it but to keep it. And when our minds are focused on the things of the world, we can begin to forget that the world isn’t all that exists. There is a spiritual realm, and it’s the spiritual realm that matters in the end. We focus on what we can see, but the Bible calls us to focus on what we can’t see.
The fool says to himself, “I’m doing well. I have enough, and I’m getting more. The real problem in my life is what to spend my money on.” But the wise man says to himself, “I’m doing well. God, thank you for this opportunity to live for you. I want to steward what you’ve given well, and I need your help to do that. How can I live not rich toward myself but rich toward you?” The fool seeks to enhance his own life. The wise seek to enhance the lives of others.
We all tend toward foolishness. If we didn’t, Jesus wouldn’t have used this opportunity to tell the parable. He would have moved on. Luke wouldn’t have recorded it. Since we bend toward selfishness and building our lives on the abundance of our possessions, Jesus gives us this story to make us aware of what’s really going on inside. We are always talking to ourselves. Do we realize it? It’s our internal dialogue that is so dangerous because no one else can hear it. No one else knows what we really think, what we really say, what our longings really are. But God does. What does he hear?
God is not against rich people because they are rich. Too often, rich people are against God because they are rich. Their money blinds them to their spiritual poverty because their physical needs are all exceeded with comfort and security. As the bank account grows, the need for God decreases. When all the world’s toys and gadgets can be added with the click of a button, what do you not have that is required for a good life?
But the same can be said for poor people. God is not for poor people because they are poor. Too often, poor people are against God because they are poor. Their lack of money blinds them to the spiritual fullness available because their physical needs are so lacking in comfort and security. As the bank accounts near zero, faith in God’s provision subsides. What all the world’s toys and gadgets are desired above God himself, it doesn’t matter what you have, you’ll never have the good life. You’ll have a shell of it, an empty bucket to fill with things that rust and rot.
This parable is less about being rich or poor as it is about being a certain kind of rich—a kind of rich that we can all be, if we have ears to hear.
After deeming the rich man a fool, and showing God’s calling him to account, Jesus ends the parable with the words, “So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.” Everyone not rich toward God is a fool. It’s a simple as that.
Very few rich people are unintelligent. It’s often their intelligence that gains them wealth. They can play the stock market, start businesses, run companies. But if they cannot use their money wisely in God’s eyes, though the world may call them smart, they are fools in eternity.
The rich man in this parable had a problem: he was rich and getting richer. His fields were already fruitful, and they produced more than he imagined they would. It was this excess that consumed him. What would he do with the extra that came in? His storehouses weren’t big enough. He must build more, he decided. But he had other options before him. What’s so striking about this parable is his internal dialogue. He talks to no one else. This is common to us but was uncommon in his time. In a community-based society, every decision one makes is discussed with friends and family before acting. But this man apparently either had no one to talk to or chose to talk only to himself. Either case was a tragedy.
What should he have done with his surplus? St. Augustine says, “He did not realize that the bellies of the poor were much safer storerooms than his barns.” Augustine’s teacher, Ambrose, said, “The things that we cannot take away with us are not ours…Compassion alone follows us.” The rich man should have invested his surplus into the people around him, not into his barns. But he didn’t. He believed his surplus gave him the life he needed, but it instead ripped his life from him. He thought he was growing full when he was starving.
Charles Spurgeon said one way you know that Jesus Christ is precious to you is that nothing else is. He’s not saying nothing matters, only that Jesus matters above everything else. All we have is seen through the lens of what Christ Can do with it. We open our bank accounts and see money not for our use but for Gods. We enter our homes at the end of the day and see a dinner table not merely for our retreat but for our neighbor. We lay in our bed at night and feel not only the warmth of the covers but a pricking of our heart for the cold. Our jobs become platforms from which to serve. Our homes become outposts of heavenly retreat. Our cars become vehicles ready to be muddied with the boots of the poor rather than luxury sedans protected from the slightest scuff. All we have becomes to us a resource to be used for the advancement of the kingdom. To do otherwise isn’t merely an oversight; it’s to live a foolish life.
If one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions, to elevate our possessions above God is idolatry. He can call us to account at any moment, and in his grace, he’s giving us this parable to do it before he does it. He’s waking us up to a spiritual reality that we call a normal life and giving us an opportunity to repent and believe. We can be two kinds of rich. We can be either rich toward ourselves, or rich toward God, but we can’t be both.
Being rich toward God is not giving all your money away so that you become a burden to others. Rather, it is stewarding what you have well so that your needs and the needs of others are met. Notice, the rich man was rich before the field yielded extra. The extra was not his; it was for others. He just didn’t see that. Do you?
The Rich Fool of Heaven
In the parable of the rich fool, Jesus lets us listen in on his conversation with his disciples. But in his life, he sent an unmistakable message to the watching world.
When Jesus came to earth can began his public ministry, many of the Jews believed he was the Messiah that was finally going to set the world right. They believed he would establish the kingdom of God in Jerusalem and reign from a throne like his father David. They believed he would overthrow Rome and put God’s house in order. But he didn’t do that—at least not yet.
Instead, Jesus became the fool from heaven. He didn’t build any storehouses on earth to keep his wealth. He had no earthly wealth. He didn’t speak to himself as if he was the only one that mattered. He spoke to his Father in great dependence, not moving a muscle without talking to him. He didn’t look out at what he had built in his short life-time and think, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” He didn’t lay up any goods to last many years. Instead, he poured himself out.
Jesus became a different kind of rich fool—the rich fool from heaven. He left the heavenly riches his Father had lavished on him to give his life for fools of every kind who could never find him on their own. He left the crown for the cross, the throne for the grave, everlasting life for temporary death, praise for shame, justification for condemnation, righteousness for wickedness. He left is all for us.
Jesus came to us rich fools on earth to become the rich “fool” of heaven. But the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of man (1 Cor. 1:25). Jesus left his home to do the work of his Father, and instead of building storehouses for his wealth on earth, he left by way of the cross because in his Father’s house are many rooms. He will come again and take us to that place (John 14).
Because of Christ, we can become fools in the world because the rich fool of heaven staked it all on grace. And he won. We can trade our riches for his, and though it may look like failure here on earth, the reward in heaven will be as big as Christ is.