August 1, 2010

“The Rich Fool”

Luke 12:13-24

An earnest young man comes up to Jesus asking the Lord to help him settle an inheritance dispute between him and his brother. Jesus, who has not been very easy to be around the past few chapters in Luke, is offered an opportunity to solve a practical issue.  Avoid all this esoteric talk about the Kingdom of God, he can help a guy out.

The man addresses Jesus as “Teacher,” which presumes that the man wants instruction, but in the next breath he demands that Jesus “tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” The man believes that his situation is straightforward enough that anyone who hears his story will not only accept his position, but help him do something about it..

As happens so often, however, Jesus refuses to answer the question, refuses to respond in the expected way and reframes the question, reworks the expectation. “Friend” (the word Jesus tends to use when he is preparing to thrust the dagger through someone’s heart), “who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?”—which is ironic because the man isn’t asking for judgment; he is asking for action on his behalf.

Assuming that there are two brothers, and assuming he was the younger brother, according to the law (Deuteronomy. 21:17) he was entitled to a smaller portion of the inheritance than the eldest brother. He is demanding more than his legal share (as in divide the inheritance in equal halves). He wants more. He wants what he thinks he deserves. It only seems fair to him. He does not think he is making an outrageous or ungodly request.

The response comes, not to the man directly, but to the crowd.  This is a ‘teachable moment’ that Jesus simply cannot let pass.  He says to everyone, apparently based upon this rather simple request: “Be on guard against all kinds of greed.”

As usual, Jesus doesn’t answer the question.  He offers a story, a parable to illustrate what it is he intends anyone who hears to learn.

When I read this text, I cannot help but become fixated upon the central character in the parable.  The rich fool.

I cannot, however, make him out to be a bad guy.  Maybe I am resistant because he looks like me, and very similar to most folks in the circles I travel.  Maybe he is no different than the Norwegian bachelor farmer character Garrison Keillor often makes reference to. He is alone on his land; he works hard, is frugal and finds pleasure in a good yield and a full barn. Simple pleasures really. Seemingly not a life full of relationships, but maybe the abundant life looks different to some folks.  What is it that makes a life worth living?  I suppose that the answer to this question is different for each of us.  The exchange, though, leaves me feeling a bit embarrassed for the guy.  He is asking for some help on this family matter and suddenly he is lifted up among his peers as an example of greed.

The Rich Fool by Jim Janknegt

There is no indication that the farmer is a bad man, that he is cheating anyone, or breaking any laws. But he is characterized as greedy, because he has a lot and he is keeping it all for himself when there are many in need. He tears down and builds bigger. All these things are abhorrent to my liberal sensibilities. And yet, by no measurable standard of society is this a bad man, nor is he stupid.  One does not require bigger barns by being a stupid farmer.

And yet, our Lord refers to him as a fool. 

Martin Luther King once preached a sermon on this text.  And he explains this name calling this way:

And so this man was a fool because he allowed the means by which he lived to outdistance the ends for which he lived. He was a fool because he maximized the minimum and minimized the maximum. This man was a fool because he allowed his technology to outdistance his theology. This man was a fool because he allowed his mentality to outrun his morality. Somehow he became so involved in the means by which he lived that he couldn’t deal with the way to eternal matters. He didn’t make contributions to civil rights. (Yes) He looked at suffering humanity and wasn’t concerned about it. (Yeah)

He may have had great books in his library, but he never read them. He may have had recordings of great music of the ages, but he never listened to it. He probably gave his wife mink coats, a convertible automobile, but he didn’t give her what she needed most, love and affection. (Yes) He probably provided bread for his children, but he didn’t give them any attention; he didn’t really love them. Somehow he looked up at the beauty of the stars, but he wasn’t moved by them. He had heard the glad tidings of philosophy and poetry, but he really didn’t read it or comprehend it, or want to comprehend it. And so this man justly deserved his title. He was an eternal fool. (Yes) He allowed the means by which he lived to outdistance the ends for which he lived. (Rev. Dr. Martin  Luther King, Why Jesus Called A Man A Fool, Delivered at Mount Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church, Chicago, Illinois, on 27 August 1967.)


Jesus says, “…this very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”  Look, your stuff is never really your stuff.  It is all God’s stuff, and we are but custodians of it for a brief time.  This is a stewardship sermon.  This is a sermon that recognizes that all we have was first (and still is) the property of God.  The issue at hand for every hearer is how might the substance of life contribute to a life worth living?


There is an old joke about two grave diggers in a cemetery, standing alongside a massive open grave.  Instead of a hearse a ‘roll-back’ pulls up the quiet lane to the graveside.  A crane lifts a shiny Cadillac and gently places it down in the hole, with the deceased inside.  The one man turns to the other and says, “man, that’s living.”

Is it?

Is it really?


In a short while, Jesus tells these same listeners: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.