This morning our scripture reading introduces us to someone many would consider to be a highly successful person. Somehow, this man has managed to acquire an incredible piece of real estate that has provided him an excellent living. His land has produced so abundantly that he has had to tear down his old barns and build bigger ones to store his crops. Consequently, he has been able to set aside enough grains and goods to last a number of years. After what we can only assume has been decades of hard work, he is finally ready to enjoy the fruits of his labours. He’s made every preparation necessary to settle down comfortably into his retirement years, to relax, eat, drink and be merry. This is freedom 55 at its’ finest, the modern day equivalent of someone who has saved for their golden years with a diversified portfolio guaranteed to deliver the kind of comfort and stability we all desire at the end of our working lives. And we call this the parable of the rich fool? Are you kidding? Here is the poster child for financial planners everywhere.
We call this this parable of the Rich Fool because Jesus calls the man a fool. Yet there is no evidence to support the claim that Jesus called him a fool because he was rich. There’s nothing in the story that says there’s anything wrong with being rich. He also didn’t call him a fool because he was dishonest. There’s no hint that the man acquired his wealth by anything but hard labour and careful planning. No, Jesus calls him a fool because he sought his security and his guarantees in life in his material wealth. He allowed the means by which he lived to become more important than the ends for which he lived.
This is someone who has studied his career options and chosen the job that would make him the most money not necessarily the most happiness and that seems to be what makes him a fool.
Martin Luther King once preached a sermon on this parable in which he told the story about the wife of a man from Alabama who had a car accident. The man receives a call to say that his wife has had an accident on the expressway. The first question he asks is: How much damage did it do to my Cadillac? He never asks how his wife was doing. Dr. King said that man was a fool, because he allowed an automobile to become more significant than a person. He wasn’t a fool because he had a Cadillac. He was a fool because he worshipped his Cadillac. He allowed his Cadillac to become his God.*
This illustration might be a bit extreme but it points to the heart of this parable.
It’s worth noting that the writer of Luke’s gospel has Jesus tell this parable in response to a question about an inheritance. “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” Clearly there has been a dispute among these siblings over their family wealth. The cautionary parable about the rich fool Jesus uses to tell the brother to be on guard against all kinds of greed is a good reminder that an unhealthy attachment to money and possessions can wreak havoc in all kinds of relationships.
Issues related to finances are probably the number one cause of conflict in marriages. Contested wills can tie up the distribution of the deceased’s estate for years after a death. And worse than the time and money spent, is the often irreparable damage it can do to the individuals involved. Family members become estranged over fights about inheritances. Sometimes this happens not so much because we are greedy but because money and possessions meant to express love become a substitute for love.
It makes me think about the way that in my family we are always careful to make sure we spend the exact same amount of money on each of our children at Christmas just in case one of them thinks the other has received more than them and mistakenly interprets that as us loving one of them more than the other.
Whenever there is greed, fear is not far behind it. Often what we are afraid of is that we in and of ourselves are not enough or that we are not worthy enough of love.
When Jesus is asked to solve a dispute over an inheritance, over money and possessions he seems to be asking the question is it really worth it for you to argue over money and over things? It’s a good question for us all. What is of true value in our lives? What is our true value? How is it that we are being rich towards God? That’s what Jesus comments on about the man at the end of the parable. He says he was not rich towards God.
It’s important to notice that in this parable about the rich fool there is no mention of anyone other than the man. The words “I” and “my” appear ten times. It’s an indication, to me at least, that perhaps there’s something about being rich towards God that has to do with acknowledging our dependency on others. No one who has any amount of success in life gets it without the help of others. We come into this world by virtue of the mothers that gave us birth. Someone changed our diapers and gave us enough food to help us make it past our infancy. We’ve had teachers and mentors, caregivers, family members and friends who have taught us and encouraged us and picked us up when we’ve fallen. We road to school on bikes that were engineered by someone else’s mind and fashioned by someone else’s hands. There isn’t a day that goes by that we don’t draw on the expertise and wisdom of someone else who figured out how to get water to our taps and built the taps to deliver the water to our sinks.
In the parable of the rich fool it’s as if the man thinks he is so independent he can even regulate the seasons. He knows everything he needs to plant his crops at just the right time to yield the maximum harvest. As he approaches what unbeknownst to him will be his final days, at the pinnacle of his success, the only acknowledgement he makes is of his three close personal friends “me, myself and I.” So confident is he in his own abilities to secure and protect his future, it is as if he has forgotten that he is a creature and not the creator of this world. And all God’s creatures have been created with interdependency built into us.
So what does this mean for those of us who want to retire in style and eat, drink and be merry when we do it? One thing it means is that retirement is not the end of the road. That seems to be one of the things that makes the rich man a fool. He thinks he has done what he needs to do to get him where he wants to be in life and nothing more will be demanded of him. In some respects, this is how we treat our elders in western culture as if they are “has beens.” But in other cultures, elders are held in the highest regard. They are the repositories of the wisdom of their communities whether they have great material wealth or not.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot myself lately because later this month I am turning 60. 60 is the turning point towards the final third (or less) of life and our society likes to tell us it’s all downhill from here on out. But I’ve recently had someone tell me that 60 is a venerable number in Judaism and I’ve read that in some cultures it signifies a new birth.
Just because we are on the homestretch of life does not mean that those who are our elders don’t have a lot to offer those who are younger.
I don’t think this parable is saying that those of us who want to eat, drink and be merry at the end of our working lives are foolish. I’m hoping to do lots of that when I retire. I think it’s saying that if we think that is all there is to life as we near the end of our days, we are missing the point. I wonder if what it’s really saying is that self-enjoyment is not the same as self-fulfillment. There is still opportunity for meaningful engagement in life.
There’s something about this parable that has the feel of a final exam. At the end of our days, what will God catch us doing? Building bigger and better barns or building bigger and better relationships? How will our success be measured? By the money we have in the bank or by the way we have used our wealth and our very life energy to support, encourage and enable others?
If you are at all worried about how you will pass that final test I have good news for you. The parable of the rich fool is meant to alleviate our fears more than it is meant to bring judgement. It reminds us that our value, our self-worth is far greater than the possessions that we have acquired, no matter how much of our wealth we have or haven’t managed to give away. The sum total of anyone’s life far outweighs their possessions. If we want to be called wise at the end of our days and not foolish, we are best to remember that who we are and how we value one another and the Source of all life is what gives us wisdom and makes us truly rich.
*Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project