Now Jesus turns from issues of trust and conviction to discuss a major distraction to the spiritual life. The parable of the rich fool is unique to Luke. Rather than taking sides in a family dispute, Jesus warns about greed. Often disputes over inheritance are really about greed, symptoms of the disease of "possessionitis." Jesus attacks this disease directly in this parable, making a point Luke repeats often in his Gospel (4:4; 8:4-15; 9:24-25; 12:22-34; 16:19-31; 18:18-30). It appears that greed and the pursuit of possessions constitute one of the greatest obstacles to spiritual growth. This is especially true in modern culture, where possessions are readily available and their technological glitz is always being enhanced, as splashy advertisements for the latest gadget make clear.
Jesus will tell the parable in response to the arrival of a man who wishes to settle a dispute over an estate with his brother. Often rabbis served as mediators in such disputes, and so this man approaches Jesus as he would a leader of the Jewish community (on Jewish inheritance, Num 27:1-11; 36:5-9; Deut 21:15-17; m. Baba Batra 8:1—9:10). The details of the conflict are not clear. Often in the ancient world families kept their property together and shared its resources for business purposes, even though ownership was technically distinct. Did the brother want out of a family business so he could take his share and go out on his own? It should be noted that the brother really does not want an arbiter but an advocate on his behalf: "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me." This may have been Jesus' clue that there was a danger of greed in the situation.
Jesus refuses to judge between the two. He has not been appointed their judge, but he cannot avoid the opportunity to turn the request into an opportunity for instruction: "Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions." When Jesus makes this warning, he has more in mind than monetary accumulation. If Jesus were alive today he would see the attitude behind the expression "The one with the most toys wins" as a prescription for failure in life. The ancients knew, as moderns also know, that life consists of more than the accumulation of wealth. Scripture repeatedly warns against greed and includes it in lists of moral vices (Mk 7:22; Rom 1:29; Eph 4:19; 5:3; Col 3:5; 1 Tim 6:10; 2 Pet 2:3, 14; in the Old Testament, Job 31:24-25; Ps 49). The ancient historian Plutarch said, "Greed never rests from the acquiring of more" (On Love of Wealth 1 [Mor. 523 E]; L. T. Johnson 1991:198).
When possessions are the goal, people become pawns. In fact, a reversal of the created order occurs, as those made in the living image of God come to serve dead nonimages. It is this inversion of the created order that makes greed such a notorious sin; it is even called idolatry in some texts (Eph 5:3; Col 3:5). When I think of this story and its lesson, I picture a Buddha with a dollar attached to its stomach. For some, the material world is god. Many of us end up serving our dollars or pounds and bowing before their demands rather than relating sensitively to people. In the process relationships can be damaged and marriages destroyed. False worship involves bowing before something that is not worthy of honor and that cannot deliver life's true meaning. The pursuit of wealth is the pursuit of false religion.
So Jesus tells an example parable, in which the example is negative. It involves the fortune of one man and how he handles that fortune. The man remains nameless, as is the normal pattern in such parables, because he represents a type of person. This farmer has a banner crop year. So great is the yield that he lacks storage space for it all. Rather than letting his resources waste away, he devises a plan to create more storage space. Now it is crucial to realize that the decisions the man makes to address his dilemma are perfectly normal and prudent, but the rationale, philosophy and desires that result from the decision are the problem.
This man believes that what he has is his in no uncertain terms. Several times in the next few verses he speaks in first-person terms about what he has: my crops . . . my barns . . . my grain . . . my goods . . . myself. There is no hint of an awareness of stewardship or responsibility to others as a result of his fortune. There is only self-interest. In his view he, like the famous American investment company, has made money the old-fashioned way—he has earned it! So after he stores his grain, he can relax into a totally self-indulgent life of ease: "Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry." The language recalls the biblical and Jewish texts of hedonism, as well as Greek culture (Eccl 8:15; Is 22:13; Tobit 7:10; 1 Enoch 97:8-10; Euripides Alcestis 788-89). Almost every culture recognizes that using the creation for strictly selfish ends is a distortion.
As the man contemplates his future as one of the rich and famous, God has another account to render: the man is about to join the dead and departed. When God addresses the man as fool, he indicates the man's blindness in judging life's priorities. The man's soul is being weighed in the balance. On that scale the possessions the man has and the social resume he has built register no weight whatsoever. He cannot take these things with him to the bar of divine justice. Only his naked character will be on that balance. The man whose life is possessions makes himself a paperweight at the final judgment. The one who defines life in terms of possessions comes up empty when the time comes to assess whether eternal life will be gained. The parable ends on a note of tragedy: "Who will get what you have prepared for yourself?" One thing is for sure, his treasures will not be his anymore.
Jesus underscores this tragedy as he closes the parable with a final commentary: "This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God." Jesus' point is that the seeker of wealth ends up with an empty soul and an empty life. Possessions are like "lite" beer; they may taste great, but they are really less filling.
All this teaching suggests the importance of proper priorities regarding possessions. They are a stewardship, not to be hoarded selfishly but to be used to benefit those around us. Jesus is not saying possessions are bad, but that the selfish pursuit of them is pointless. When the creation is inverted, the value of possessions is distorted. Those who climb over people or ignore them in the pursuit of possessions will come up empty on the day God sorts out our lives. What a tragic misuse of the gift of resources this man had gained! What could have been an opportunity for generosity and blessing became a stumbling block to the soul.