The Parable of the Rich Fool
By Philip W. McLarty
If you’ve been keeping score, you know that we’re nearing the end of our summer series on The Parables of Jesus. Next Sunday, we’ll take a closer look at The Dishonest Steward. That’s found in the 16th chapter of Luke’s gospel, verses 1-8. We’ll conclude the series with the Parable of the Talents when I get back from vacation.
The parable for today is The Parable of the Rich Fool. This particular parable and I go back a long way. The year was 1974. It was my last semester in seminary. My assignment was to do a multi-media presentation. Back then, that meant something to do with a carousel slide projector and a tape recorder.
For the topic, I chose The Parable of the Rich Fool. I first studied the parable, got the point – the futility of wealth – then set out putting together a slide show with narration and taped music. Our family had just moved to Paris, Texas, and so I got Donna to drive me around town while I took pictures of various objects depicting wealth and poverty: Homes, churches, schools, streets, cemeteries, cars, you name it.
I got the film developed and put the slides together, back to back, to highlight the contrast.
So, picture this: Elegant homes … run-down tenement shacks; stone cathedrals … clapboard chapels; modern brick school buildings with air conditioning and lighted parking lots … dilapidated school buildings with broken windows and missing shingles; paved streets with concrete curbing … gravel streets with open ditches; the cedar-lined city cemetery with manicured plots and granite headstones … the county cemetery with its chain-link fence, where the weeds had taken over and many of the graves were marked by little metal signs supplied by the funeral home. As the images flashed on the screen, first you heard me reading the parable, then the band, Blood, Sweat and Tears singing, “God Bless the Child That’s Got His Own.”
It was a powerful presentation, if I do say so myself. It got me an “A” in the course. And it almost got me run out of town!
The trouble began when I showed it to my youth group on Sunday evening. By the time the 3rd or 4th slide came up, one of the girls said, “Hey, that’s our house!” And I can tell you, it was not one of the lesser homes. They watched more even intently and recognized most of the homes – at least, the more affluent ones – as well as their school, their church, their lifestyle.
They couldn’t help but identify with the rich man in the parable who tore down his barns to build bigger ones, only to be told: “Fool, this very night your soul is required of you, and the things you have, whose will they be?”
The kids got the message, and, in another sense, so did I. Monday morning the senior pastor called me into his office and said, “I don’t want to see or hear about that slide show again.”
He’d been on the phone half the night.
So, you can understand it’s with some fear and trepidation that I preach from this text today.
I’ll try not to step on your toes.
The parable begins, “The ground of a certain rich man brought forth abundantly.” The story wouldn’t read the same if Jesus had said, “The land of a poor man produced abundantly …” From the getgo we know that the principle character in the parable is one who already has enough money to make ends meet. He’s rich to begin with. So, unconsciously, when we hear these words we make a negative connection between wealth and righteousness. We falsely assume that the rich man is destined to be judged harshly, not because of his actions, but simply because he is rich.
And this brings up the first of several myths about money this parable exposes. The first and most common is that money is the root of all evil. Well, isn’t that what the Bible says?
Actually, no. The Bible doesn’t say, “Money is the root of all evil.” It says, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” (1 Timothy 6:10). And there’s a big difference.
To put it this way: It’s no sin to be rich, for it’s not wealth that’s our downfall, but greed.
And this is precisely the direction the parable is taking us: The wealthy landowner had a bumper crop, but instead of saying, “This is more than I need. How can I share my good fortune with others?” he said to himself, “What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?”
In defense of the rich man, we ought to be fair and point out another myth about money, and that is that, somehow, wealth can be objectively defined … as in making a list of who, exactly, are the rich and who are the poor. The fact is, wealth is a relative thing. The man in the parable may have been rich compared to his tenants, but poor compared to the king. Would any of you claim to be rich? I doubt it. Why, look at Bill Gates or Donald Trump. That’s what you call rich! It’s all relative.
Several years ago our family hosted a young woman from Ecuador who came to the United States for medical treatment. At the time, we lived in a fairly typical middle class neighborhood, but to Rosa, it was sheer luxury. She couldn’t believe that she was to have a room of her own.
One day I drove her to the doctor’s office, and we passed a two-story, white colonial style house with columns in the front. Her eyes got as big as saucers. She looked at me and said, “¿La Casa del Presidente?” As far as she was concerned, it was the White House! What’s affluence to some is moderation to others.
Another popular myth about money is that money is the secret to happiness. It’s not. Some of the most miserable people are extremely wealthy; some of the happiest are dirt poor, as we used to say. Some of the most joyful people I’ve ever met are the members of the churches in Ecuador we visited in 1985 and 1987. They didn’t have a lot of material possessions, but they had an exuberance for living that shamed the rest of us.
And another myth about money is that money is related to intelligence. Wrong! Not to mention any names, but I’ve known college professors who didn’t have a quarter for a cup of coffee and millionaires who could hardly read or write. To be sure, there are a lot of smart businessmen and women in the world today, but, often times, how much you make or lose is a matter of circumstances over which you have little or no control – like the weather for the farmer or the price of gasoline for the rest of us. In the parable, the rich man’s bumper crop was not due to his superior farming skills. It was dumb luck.
Another myth about money is that the amount of money you have is directly related to how hard you work. It grieves me to say this, but that’s not necessarily so. I believe in hard work, and I’ve known a lot of people, not the least of which was my father, who worked very hard to make a living. Most of them were not wealthy. At the same time, I’ve known wealthy people who spent more time in the coffee shop and out on the golf course than in an office or out in the field. I’d say money and hard work are distant relatives, at best.
The same can be said of the myth, that money is directly related to honesty. Some people say, jealously, that if you have a lot of money you must have been doing something dishonest.
That’s not necessarily true. Some of the wealthiest people I know are impeccably honest, while others would steal the shirt off of your back! There’s just no direct connection.
One of the saddest myths about money is this: Some day you’ll have all you need. Don’t count on it. Oh, you may win the Texas Lottery, but, I can tell you, the odds aren’t in your favor. More than likely, if your ship ever does come in, it’ll be a small boat. For the most part, you can always use more.
And this is where the element of greed comes in, for the irony is, the more you have, the more you need; or at least the more you think you need. I can remember, as a kid, our first television set. It was a small, black and white Emerson. We were the first in town to have one.
That was back in the early 50s. By the time our son, Patrick, turned thirteen in 1987, he wanted his very own color TV with a remote control for his birthday. Can you imagine a home today without at least a couple of television sets, a computer or two and a telephone in every room?
What we used to think of as wants, we now think of as needs, and what we used to call luxuries we now consider to be necessities.
In his book, Faith Quakes, Leonard Sweet tells of the owner of a West Virginia country store who refused to stock what the salesman claimed was the hottest, best-selling fad. The store owner told him, “Mister, in this part of the country every want ain’t necessarily a need.” Sweet goes on to say that we’ve actually taken another step in recent years, so that, not only do we think of our wants as needs; now we think of our needs as those things we deserve.
And this is the fallacy of the rich man’s logic in the parable, when he said, “I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger barns, and then I’ll say to my soul … take your ease; eat, drink and be merry.” The truth is, his stores would never be big enough to match his appetites.
But let’s not be too quick to judge, for the twist of the parable is this: Jesus’ listeners would’ve been quick to agree with him, that he was wise to sock away the windfall. After all, if small barns are good, then bigger barns are better. Isn’t that the way we think? Wouldn’t we have done the same thing?
It’s a vicious cycle. The question is, where does it end? In the parable, it ends in a word of judgment: “You foolish one, tonight your soul is required of you. The things which you have prepared—whose will they be?”
This is where the parable hits home – not that the man died in his sleep, but that he was so caught up in his affluence that he missed living altogether. For one thing, he was selfish. He wanted it all for himself. And, as I said, he was greedy. The more he had, the more he wanted.
But, what led to his demise was that, in surrounding himself with the things of this world, he insulated himself from others. As a result, his life was filled to the brim, but he starved to death because, in becoming independent and self-sufficient, he cut himself off from God.
In Psalm 106 we hear the story of the Exodus, how God delivered the people of Israel from captivity in Egypt by parting the waters of the Red Sea. Along the way, God gave them water from the rock drink and manna from heaven. You’d think they would’ve been grateful. But no, they wanted more. “We want meat to eat,” they whined. So, the psalmist writes,
“They soon forgot his works.
They didn’t wait for his counsel,
but gave in to craving in the desert,
and tested God in the wasteland.
He gave them their request,
but sent leanness into their soul.”
This is how I see our situation today: We’re killing ourselves on junk food – we watch mindless drivel on TV with vulgar displays of sexuality and horrific scenes of violence; we listen to endless chatter on the radio with never-ending conflict and criticism; we chase after every conceivable form of entertainment and pleasure; all the while, coming up empty and, ironically, craving for more.
We’re like children in a video arcade – no matter how many quarters or tokens you give them, when the last game’s over, they always ask for “just one more.” There’s no end to it. In the words of Harry Emerson Fosdick, we’re “rich in things and poor in soul.”
What’s the answer? The answer is that we need to get back to the basics and re-establish our priorities. In a word, we need to put God first. We need to follow the Great Commandment, to “…love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22:37-39) It’s as simple as that: “…seek first God’s Kingdom, and his righteousness; and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33)
As for the riches of this world, there’ll always be those who have more, and there’ll always be those who have less. Think of what you have as a blessing from God and use it to glorify God and serve the common good.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Copyright 2004 Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.