Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

129. The Rich Fool (Luke 12:13-21)*

It was a common enough human situation which goaded Jesus into telling his parable about a rich fool. Here was one, a poor fool, who showed by his first word that he was prepared to respect the authority of Jesus but not to be his disciple-he addressed him, not as "Lord" but as "Teacher".

Not even by ordinary worldly standards was the man's request reasonable: "Bid my brother divide the inheritance with me." He was not asking Jesus to investigate and then pronounce judgment. He was wanting the Lord to interfere unilaterally, as the politicians say, on his side.

Even if the said brother had appropriated all the inheritance to himself, having robbed the complainer of his rightful share, the request could have been better put.

But such a circumstance is hardly likely, for "Speak to my brother . . ." implies that the brother was a disciple of Jesus and could be decisively influenced by what his Master said regarding the dispute. It is highly unlikely that one of the Lord's close followers had been so unscrupulous as to defraud a brother of the inheritance.

A much more likely and very different situation is that the elder brother had, according to the Law of Moses (Dt.21 :17), inherited the double portion of the firstborn, and the younger resented this and demanded equal shares with his brother.

Jesus and materialism

But Jesus would have none of it. In one of the most curt rejoinders he made to anyone he liked: "Man, who made me a judge or a divider over you?" The words were a deliberately close imitation of the jibe with which the Messianic authority of Moses had been crudely rebuffed by a fellow-Israelite (see the original in Ex.2 :14). The use of this Biblical allusion only makes sense on the assumption that the man now appealing to Jesus for intervention had himself similarly decided against being a disciple of Jesus and was known to have declared his independent attitude. Yet, when money was involved, he was willing enough to make use of the authority of Jesus for his own ends, whilst still in his heart despising the validity of that authority. In the circumstances, he deserved an even stronger rebuff than he got.

Jesus turned away. He had no more use for the man, except as providing a lesson of warning to his followers. Turning to them, he spoke very solemnly: "Take heed, and keep yourselves from all covetousness (be on guard, as against an enemy): for a man's life consisteth not in the abundance of those things which he possesseth." This reading of a decidedly difficult Greek sentence carries the meaning: “There are more important things in life than money." But the NEB suggests, very differently: "for even when a man has more than enough, his wealth does not give him life." This is an interpretative translation, but its general correctness is vouched for by the parable which Jesus now spoke in order to drive his point home.

And indeed he might well dwell on this question, for Scripture is dotted with warning examples-Balaam, Achan, Gehazi, Judas, Simon, men of God who were made blind to their true loyalty by the allurements of Mammon; and how many explicit warnings has divine Wisdom left on record against temptations of this sort? The Tenth Commandment had long forbidden Israel to covet "anything that is thy neighbour's;" but now Jesus added to this:" any thing that is thine own."

"I am come that they may have Life, and may have abundance", Jesus had declared very emphatically (John. 10:10); but what a different kind of wealth from "the abundance of things which a man possesseth" and against which the Lord now issued such stringent warning. If this plaintiff got the whole of the inheritance, and not just the "fair share" that he sought, he would have had less of the Life that Jesus spoke about.

Today the Lord's disciples believe all this, in theory; but in practice they need their Lord's parable of the rich fool as much as anybody.

Prosperous and Egotistic

"The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully." He was already rich, and now a super-abundance is poured on him as a test of his character. "If riches increase, set not your heart upon them," counsels the Psalmist (62:10).

But this man was unable to resist the lure of his prosperity. Thus his wealth became his greatest worry: "He kept on arguing it out within himself: What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits? This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods." This nine-fold repetition of the personal pronouns declares the man's supreme egotism.

David ascribed his own unparalleled prosperity to God, and thankfully he gave it back to God: "All that is in the heaven and in the earth is thine ... Both riches and honour come of thee ... All things come of thee, and of thine own have we given thee" (1 Chron. 29:11, 12, 14).

Ignoring such a fine example, this silly man chose Nabal as his working model: "Shall I then take my bread, and my water, and my flesh that I have killed for my shearers, and give it unto men whom I know not whence they be?" (Cp. also Sennacherib: ls.37 :24-26a).

God's needful warning had been given long ago against such self-sufficiency. In a long eloquent admonition concerning the perils of prosperity, Moses had said: "Beware lest thou forget the Lord thy God . . . when thy herds and thy flocks multiply, and thy silver and thy gold is multiplied, and all that thou hast is multiplied; then thine heart be lifted up, and thou forget the Lord thy God, and thou say in thine heart, My power and the might of mine hand hath gotten me this wealth. But thou shalt remember the Lord thy God: for it is he that giveth thee power to get wealth ... And it shall be, if thou do at all forget the Lord thy God... I testify against you, this day, that ye shall surely perish" (Dt. 8:11-19).

For this rich fool in the parable such a Scripture might never have been penned. What merit was there in him, that he should preen himself so? Could he give no thought to the qualities of soil and seed and God's sun and rain? But alas, "the prosperity of fools shall .... destroy them" (Pr. 1:32). How well does a Laodicean- harvest flourish on their farms (Rev. 3:17). This fool was rich and increased in goods and had need of nothing, not even of God. "This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater. . ."

What a contrast with the ravens which "neither sow nor reap, which neither have storehouse nor barn; and God feedeth them" (v.24).

An ancient writer expostulates: "Thou hast barns—the houses of the widows, the bosoms of the needy, the mouths of infants and of orphans."

Yet what cared this man for these? "There will I bestow all my fruits and my goods"—not even a little for distribution to the poor; not even the tithe that God commanded to be given to His sanctuary, not even a basket of firstfruits (Dt. 26:1,2).

"And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years." How caustic this repetition of the word which so often emphasizes the unspiritual outlook of unregenerate man! (see Notes). And what dramatic irony there is about that phrase: "for many years"! "Boast not thyself of tomorrow: for thou knowest not what a day may bring forth."

Yet, as the world sees it, this man's scheme was normal decent provision for old age, a sensible planned retirement in security and comfort. The Bible, however, says nothing about turning old age into a long holiday: "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread till thou return unto the ground." Change of occupation from one form of usefulness to another is right. But cessation of useful activity is damned by its approximation to the dedicated selfishness of this prosperous fool.

However, he went further: "Take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry." This was the attitude of Isaiah's God-less contemporaries in Jerusalem when they thought the threat of destruction by Sennacherib's army had been bought off by the payment of massive tribute: "Behold, joy and gladness, slaying oxen, and killing sheep, eating flesh, and drinking wine, (and saying) Let us eat and drink; for tomorrow (and not today, as we feared) we shall die" (22:13). With what sardonic reprobation, shown by his complete change of emphasis, did Paul quote the same words against those who were losing faith in resurrection: "If the dead rise not, let us eat and drink; for tomorrow we die" (1 Cor. 15:32).

God in control

If only this tycoon in the parable had give attention to the context of his own sentiment in Ecclesiastes: "Walk in the ways of thine heart, and in the sight of thine eyes: but know thou, that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment" (11:9).

And God did. He said to him: "Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee." The man deemed himself wondrous prudent, making the most of his bonanza. And the world envied his good fortune and applauded his self-interest until the stroke of God smote him: "Though while he lived he blessed his soul (and men will praise thee, when thou doest well to thyself); they shall go to the generation of his fathers which never see light" (Ps. 49:18,19).

The prophet of the Lord made a contemptuous assessment of this commonplace stupidity: "As the partridge sitteth on eggs which she hath not laid, so is he that getteth riches, and not by right; in the midst of his days he shall leave them, and at his end he shall be a fool" (Jer.17:11).

Account rendered

How did God communicate the frightening message? The designed close parallel will Nabal saves the reader of the gospel from guesswork: "As his name is, so is he. Nabal is his name, and folly (n'balah) is with him... And it came to pass about ten days after, that the Lord smote Nabal, that he died" (1 Sam. 25:25,37,38). A stroke, followed-as not infrequently happens-by another, removed that crude ungodly egotist. And so also in the parable, except that here the first seizure gave less than twenty-four hours notice, during which brief time the conscious but helpless man had time to realise that his end was near; had time but not the faculties to arrange for the disposal of "all his fruits and his goods;" had time, as he lay there, helpless and little pitied, to contemplate the glorious squabble soon to take place over his "much goods laid up for many years;" had time to recognize sadly and bitterly the truth of his Maker's assessment-"thou fool;" had time to recall and ruefully ponder Job's true prophecy: "What is the hope of the godless (though he get him gain), when God taketh away his soul?" (27:8).

Though he had chosen to assume personal right and ownership over all that his ground had brought forth so plentifully, it really belonged (as David had been happy to confess) to God, And his soul-his life-as well. All these God gave, and God took away. "This night they require thy soul of thee" is the literal reading the text. The reference is surely to the angels. "Yea, his soul draweth nigh unto the grave, and his life to the destroyers" (Job.33:22; 27 :8; Mt.13:48,49; Jn.l5:6 Gk. text; Lk.l6:22).

The Law of Moses forbad the exacting of debts in the year of release, but "of a foreigner thou mayest exact it again" (Dt.15 :2,3). Here, in LXX, is the same word as in the parable: "they require thy soul of thee." This man of wealth owed a debt he had never taken account of, but now God called that debt in, treating him as a foreigner and not as one of His own, to be forgiven.

"Then whose shall those things be which thou hast provided?" The Psalmist had already given the same reminder: "He heapeth up riches, and knoweth not who shall gather them;" but his good counsel had gone unheeded: "And now, Lord, what wait I for? my hope is in thee" (39:6,7).

The entire story has stood written in Holy Scripture for centuries, yet still men go after covetousness: "There is an evil which I have seen under the sun and it is heavy upon men: a man to whom God giveth riches, wealth, and honour, so that he lacketh nothing for his soul of all that he desireth, yet God giveth him not power to eat thereof, but a stranger eateth it: this is vanity, and it is an evil disease" (Ecc. 6:1,2 RV). And still it lieth heavy upon men, still it is an evil disease!

In the days of Jesus this was true in yet another sense. In all the nation few or none could match the wealth, pomp and circumstance of the chief priests. They grew fat on the illicit revenues of the sanctuary of the Lord. As the fool in the parable was set on pulling down barns to build greater, so they, with the help of the Herods, were building a finer, more glorious temple than men thought possible. Yet Jesus prophesied that their essentially materialistic project would come to nought, and themselves with it. "Then whose shall those things be?" All that prosperity which was not carried to Rome disappeared in an unquenchable Gehenna of fire. And the priesthood and all other spiritual privileges were inherited by despised Gentile believers, friends of the Son of David. The Lord's parable besought them to learn the lesson taught by the fate of Nabal. If he had not been fool in name and nature, he would have made friends with David, instead of execrating him, and so would have lived in health and contentment for many a year. Caiaphas, must you also, in your affluence and power, prove yourself a fool?        

Notes: Lk. 12:13-21

Speak to my brother. There is a certain resembelence between this and 1Cor 6:1-6, but a marked difference in spirit surely.
Soul. Rev 18:14; 1Cor 2:14; Jas. 3:15; Jude 19; Heb 4:12; Mt. 16:25; Lk. 12:22.
See Eccl. 2, Almost the entire chapter is a vivid commentary on this.

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