The Stories Jesus Told: The Rich Fool, Luke 12:13–21

By Peter Amsterdam

June 10, 2014

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The parable of the rich fool is one of three parables which we’ll cover in consecutive segments of The Stories Jesus Told, all of which touch on wealth and personal possessions. These parables aren’t the only teachings of Jesus on wealth and its use or misuse, but these are instances when Jesus used parables to teach about it. After “The Rich Fool,” the parables which will follow are “The Rich Man and Lazarus” and “The Unjust Steward.

Luke chapter 12 begins with Jesus teaching His disciples within earshot of a crowd of many thousands. At one point someone nearby addresses Him.

Someone in the crowd said to Him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” But He said to him, “Man, who made Me a judge or arbitrator over you?[1]

It would not have been out of the ordinary for someone to ask a teacher (the term used in Luke’s Gospel, synonymous with rabbi) to arbitrate a legal dispute such as this one. Rabbis were experts in the laws of Moses and spent much of their time giving legal rulings on such matters. In this situation perhaps the father died without a will, either written or oral, resulting in a dispute between two brothers. The man calling out to Jesus would most likely be the younger brother, as the father’s inheritance, which would likely include land, could not be divided if the older brother did not agree. The older brother possibly preferred that the land, or the estate, be kept undivided and that both brothers live on it together, which was common. However, the presumed younger brother apparently is not content with this arrangement and therefore is virtually demanding that Jesus tell his older brother to divide the inheritance.[2]

Jesus’ response is rather brusque and could seem to indicate a hint of displeasure. “Man, who made Me a judge or arbitrator over you?” The King James Version says “judge or divider over you.” The younger brother is not asking for arbitration, or for Jesus to mediate between him and his brother. He’s not trying to bring reconciliation or restoration between himself and his brother. He’s asking Jesus to side with him and to tell his brother to divide the inheritance. In a sense he’s trying to use what he perceives as Jesus’ position of influence as a rabbi or teacher to pressure his brother. Jesus would most likely prefer that the two brothers restore their relationship rather than dividing the inheritance, that they remember the wisdom expressed in Psalm 133:1:

Behold, how good and how pleasant it is

For brothers to dwell together in unity![3]

Jesus follows up with:

Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.[4]

Jesus gives a warning to all present to be on guard against all types of greed—the burning or insatiable desire to have more. Rather than addressing who is right or wrong in the situation, He warns against greed. The solution which will bring healing and restoration isn’t dividing the inheritance but getting rid of the covetousness or self-serving attitude within the heart.

Jesus then proceeds to tell the parable of the rich fool. In order to fully understand this parable, it helps to bear in mind that Scripture teaches that God created everything and that it ultimately belongs to Him, and that we are stewards of what God has given to us. As it says in Psalm 24:1:

The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein.[5]

Author Kenneth Bailey wrote:

In biblical thought we are stewards of all our possessions and responsible to God for what we do with them. At the same time the New Testament affirms the legitimacy of private property. Peter confronted Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:111 because they falsely claimed to have dedicated their property to God when they had not done so. Their sin was their false claim, not their possession of property. Christians everywhere are called to be stewards of their private possessions and of the whole earth. The parable of the rich fool is one of our Lord’s primary teachings on this subject. The story is about a man who failed to recognize that he was accountable to God for all he owned.[6]

In response to the brother’s appeal to divide the land, and in alignment with His comments about greed and possessions, Jesus told this parable:

The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, “What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?” 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. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God said to him, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.[7]

What we find out about the man is that he was already rich, and that his land had just produced a bumper crop. It was probably one of those years which had just the right amount of sunshine and rain. There’s no indication that he worked harder on this crop than he had on any other, but this year there was a huge surplus, so much so that he didn’t have room in his present barns.

He apparently doesn’t consider that this abundance is God’s blessing on him, or that ultimately God is the owner of the crops, and of his land, and of all that he has, for that matter. We hear his internal dialogue about what to do with the abundance, and he’s speaking about “my crops, my barns, my grain, my goods, my soul” … there’s no mention of God or God’s blessings. In his mind it’s all his. As we’ll see, he has no thoughts of using it in a way that would benefit others or glorify God. Rather he says to himself: “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.”

This self-indulgent rich man, who already has plenty, plans to store the crops in new, larger barns; with the idea that once he does, he will be financially set for many years. He says to himself, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”

The book of Ecclesiastes speaks of eating, drinking, and being joyful,[8] but it also reminds us that God has given us the days of our lives, that our lives and our time on earth belong to Him.[9] Jesus makes this very clear as the parable continues:

But God said to him, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”

Jesus calls this man a fool. Those listening would have been reminded of the verse in the book of Psalms that says:

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”[10]

The word fool is used elsewhere in the Old Testament to refer to one who refuses to acknowledge dependence on God.[11] The rich man is called a fool because he’s left God out of the picture. He sees his material goods as what secures his future. In his mind, if he’s financially secure, then his future is taken care of. He can eat, drink, and be merry. What could go wrong?

The rich man is not taking into account that God is the one who gave him the increase, the abundance. He’s also not considering that God is the one who has given him life. The Greek words used to express this night your soul is required of you contain language that is related to repaying a loan.[12] And like a loan which has come due, the man’s life ends, showing how meaningless and foolish his plans were. His possessions offered him no real security.

James made a similar point in his Epistle, when he wrote:

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.”[13]

The rich man didn’t include God in the equation. According to his way of thinking, everything was his, including his life. But Jesus is making the point that it’s all on loan in a sense; it all belongs to God. The rich man was mapping out his future with no thought of God or of God’s role and rule in his life.

Jesus continued by saying:

And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?

Those hearing this parable might have been reminded of scriptures from the book of Ecclesiastes and from Psalms which say:

I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun.[14]

Be not afraid when a man becomes rich, when the glory of his house increases. For when he dies he will carry nothing away; his glory will not go down after him. For though, while he lives, he counts himself blessed—and though you get praise when you do well for yourself—his soul will go to the generation of his fathers, who will never again see light. Man in his pomp yet without understanding is like the beasts that perish.[15]

As the old saying goes, you can’t take it with you. All physical wealth is left behind upon death, and it no longer has any value to the one who owned it. Jesus succinctly makes this point in the parable and then ends with:

So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.[16]

The one who lays up treasure for himself is like the rich fool. In what ways? Is he called a fool because he’s rich? No. The message of the parable isn’t about the condemning of riches; it’s about the improper use of the riches and about those who take no thought for God.[17] The rich fool saw the blessing of the abundant crop as a means to provide for his own enjoyment and his own security. He thought only of himself, his future, and his pleasure. There was no consideration that perhaps God had given him this increase for a reason beyond his own desires, such as helping the poor and needy.

The conclusion of the parable speaks about being rich toward God. What does that mean? In the verses which follow this parable, Jesus speaks about trusting God for our lives and our provision; saying that if God will feed the ravens, who have no storehouses or barns, and if He clothes the lilies of the field, that He will take care of us. He says we are to put our trust in God, to seek His kingdom, and He will take care of us. It’s in doing these things—trusting God, seeking Him, doing His will—that we provide ourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with treasure in heaven which does not fail.[18] We’re told to lay up treasure in heaven. We are rich toward God when we acknowledge Him, when we do what He asks, when we live according to His teachings, when we seek to do His will, what He’s asked us to do.

The parable speaks to all of us. We all need resources to live. It’s wise to set aside money for the future if we can. There is nothing inherently wrong with having possessions or plenty of finances. Riches aren’t evil in themselves. However, those who have them face spiritual challenges, such as the greed the rich man in this parable manifested. Scripture teaches not to trust in riches,[19] and Jesus warned of how the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke out the Word.[20] The challenges are sufficiently difficult that Jesus said: “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven.”[21] The man’s riches were not the problem; the problem was that his heart was with his treasure, his riches, and not with God. He was not rich toward God. He wasn’t laying up treasures in heaven; he was greedily storing his abundance with no thought of God or of others who may have been in need.

What about us? Do we recognize that all that we own actually belongs to God? And if so, do we look to Him regarding how we use and manage our finances? Do we thank and praise Him for what He’s provided for us? When He blesses us financially, do we in turn bless others in need? Do we bless God by giving back to Him in tithes and offerings?

As the great evangelist Oswald J. Smith once said:

[The question is] not how much of my money will I give to God, but how much of God’s money will I keep for myself.” Dallas Willard stated: “Frugality is both a discipline and a primary Christian virtue. But it must be noted that such failures concern the use of goods, not their possession.[22]

No matter what our financial situation, we can be like the rich fool. It wasn’t the fact that he was wealthy that made him greedy. No matter how much or how little we may have, we can easily become covetous by focusing on our possessions, or even the lack of them, to where we squeeze God out of our lives; to where we stop trusting in Him, stop following Him, and stop living with the understanding that we are called to be rich toward Him, to lay up treasures in heaven.

May we each learn to involve God in every aspect of our lives, including how we use our finances and the material goods He has blessed us with. May we look to Him for His direction on how to use the blessings He’s given us, and may we reflect His nature and character in the use of our material goods and in our lives and service. May we all be rich toward God.


The Rich Fool (Luke 12:1321)

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.”


Note

Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


[1] Luke 12:13–14.

[2] Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 300.

[3] Psalm 133:1 NA.

[4] Luke 12:15.

[5] Psalm 24:1.

Psalm 50:12: If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and its fullness are Mine.

Psalm 89:11: The heavens are Yours; the earth also is Yours; the world and all that is in it, You have founded them.

[6] Bailey, Middle Eastern Eyes, 298.

[7] Luke 12:16–21.

[8] Ecclesiastes 8:15: I commend joy, for man has no good thing under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun.

[9] Ecclesiastes 9:9: Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that He has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun.

[10] Psalm 14:1.

[11] Arland J. Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000), 107.

[12] Kenneth E. Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1980), 67.

[13] James 4:13–15.

[14] Ecclesiastes 2:18–19.

[15] Psalm 49:16–20.

[16] Luke 12:21.

[17] Craig L. Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1990), 226.

[18] Luke 12:22–34.

[19] Proverbs 11:28; 1 Timothy 6:17.

[20] Matthew 13:22.

[21] Matthew 19:23.

[22] Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines (HarperOne, 1988), 194.

 

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