Luke 12:13-21 English Standard Version*
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?” 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.” And he told them a parable, saying, “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.”
*The Holy Bible, English Standard Version copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
The parable of the rich farmer or fool; the successful but mistaken man. © Parva Press
The background to the parable
Why was the parable told? The Lord Jesus had just been speaking of very serious matters; of being dragged, on his account, before councils, of trusting the Holy Spirit to give inspired words, God’s words, in such a situation. He had spoken some of the most solemn and terrifying words that ever passed his lips: that ongoing sinning against the Holy Spirit is the one unforgivable sin. Into such solemn matters, one of his hearers breaks in, interrupts, to say, ‘Take my side and tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me. ’ And Jesus responds, ‘Man’ – by no means a warm and friendly response – ‘who made me an arbitrator; a judge and divider?’ Will he not arbitrate in such a situation? Will he not support the man’s cause? Does he not care about injustice?
Yes, clearly, he does care, but he goes to the root of it. Addressing both brothers and the crowd, he said, ‘Be on your guard against all covetousness.’ The real problem was not the division of the inheritance but the single-minded service of self; the single-minded grasping after this world’s possessions. There are several Biblical words for covetousness, but the underlying word here is a grasping after property, money or things. And that insatiable, grasping desire for this world’s goods is a foe to be fought; take care, beware. Concerning money, the Romans had a proverb, ’Money is like sea water; the more you drink the thirstier you become.’ Be on your guard, said the Lord Jesus, against all covetousness, you cannot own or buy life and great possessions are not its measure.
An inheritance, under the blessing of God, can be a liberating joy. As Solomon put it, ‘The Lord makes rich and adds no sorrow.’ But without that blessing, riches, great possessions either amassed or given under an inheritance can be our undoing; a curse on our lives. Our insatiable, grasping desire for it, or our clinging on to it; our covetousness can bring great sorrow. It can enslave us or even carry us to hell. Thirty gleaming pieces of silver – could love of money have been the bait with which Satan secured Judas the betrayer? There are strong hints in the Gospel of John that it could have been so. Beware.
The man before the Lord that day may have found himself in a very great dilemma. He may have found himself in the impossible situation that the prodigal son of our Lord’s later parable was determined to avoid. The prodigal son asked his ageing father to divide the inheritance before his father’s death. He asked for his portion of the inheritance straight away. He could then do as he pleased; he would have safely distanced both himself and his part of the inheritance from the control of his father and from the clutches of his elder brother. The estate could have been held together but only by mutual consent and that would have required mutual respect, love and a determination to live in harmony.
Did this man, asking the Lord to secure his part of an inheritance, find himself with an inheritance that was the junior share of a partnership with an impossible elder brother who clung onto the younger brother’s share? If that was the case, no wonder the younger brother wanted it divided; to keep hold of the inheritance, undivided, would come at great cost. It could make him, in all but name, a slave to his elder brother. Of course the elder brother would want to cling onto the total inheritance, no matter how unjust, for to divide it would weaken the overall estate. And, of course, the younger brother would be determined to tear his portion away, no matter what damage that did to the whole estate. What a situation grasping covetousness creates! Into that situation, the Lord Jesus spoke to both of the brothers, to the disciples and to all who will hear, ‘Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of grasping greed, covetousness, for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.’
Kenneth Bailey draws attention to the fact that by natural human selfishness we see an injustice only from our perspective. We rarely attempt to see the whole picture by asking questions: How has this come about? What is the other party’s perspective? Is reconciliation or restitution possible? And so we rarely seek a God-honouring solution. The demand is for justice from my perspective and justice now; in this case division of the inheritance. The Lord came to reconcile man with God and, flowing from that, man with man. He did not come to divide. It is for this reason that he rejected the interrupting man’s demand and called him, his brother and his wider hearers to look to themselves and their attitudes. He challenged them, as he challenges us, to ask, ‘How can I best serve the needs and interests of those about me so that, together, we may glorify God in our lives; by living in respect, love and harmony.’
Sometimes, when all proper and legal avenues have been pursued, there simply is no justice, no earthly possibility of reconciliation or godly harmony. The stark choice is then either to live, and maybe die, consumed with a bitter, grasping desire to secure what we consider to be ‘justice’ – or to let go a just claim and live at peace before God recognising that ultimate justice is in his hands.
What most pleases our heavenly Father is not ‘division’ but a common pursuit of his honour and a common submission to his will as we live in generous and open-handed harmony.
Stop for a moment and note that grasping for money, possessions and property; covetousness, is the root of so much sharp practice, so much misery, so much evil and strife in society – and, as in this case, in families.
And so to the parable itself
I want to follow Joseph Parker and just tiptoe into it phrase by phrase to see where the farmer went wrong and so to learn from this man who was so successful and yet before the Lord God was so mistaken; such a fool.
‘The land of a rich man produced plentifully.’ There is nothing dishonourable or dishonest mentioned about that. He clearly had good ground, had prepared it well, had sown good seed and as a result had prospered. That is wisdom, not foolishness. God bless him! Christians and Christian preachers in particular have a habit of verbally attacking the rich and successful. Rather, pray for wealthy and successful people, they are ‘God’s treasurers’. The rich person’s responsibility before God, for the use of their wealth, is very great. Pray for them, help and encourage them. Heaven, wrote a wise and godly man of a former generation, is a place, ‘where few kings and great folks come’.
‘And he thought to himself . . . what shall I do? . . . no room . . . I know, pull down and build larger ones.’ He is no fool here, he is to be commended. He faces the problem head on, no delay or uncertainty. He is clear-thinking; there is no sentimental hanging on to the past, to the old barns which, maybe, some, long-dead family member built. He wants to run with his, unacknowledged, God-given prosperity. The barns are no longer fit for purpose and must be replaced. A forward-looking man of clear, decisive action, who, as a result of his success, is poised to take early retirement. Some men are just brilliant at decision making. They can see the problem, see the solution and have a proven history of getting it right.
‘And I will say to my soul . . . ample goods for many years . . . relax . . . eat, drink, be merry.’ . . . . Oh dear, here it is! His wisdom has ‘feet of clay’; a very great defect. At bottom he is totally self-centred: ‘Relax,’ reflecting his years of stress and toil building up his little empire. ‘My soul’ – really? Our very breath is in the hand of God. Life itself is a trust from God. We never own it. At any time he can call us to give account of the one life he has entrusted to us. ‘For many years’ – a rich man may hire and fire men and service-providers at will – but ‘years’ – you cannot hire them! You cannot secure ‘years’ by contract or on leasehold! When God’s summons arrives you cannot excuse yourself or defer it even for a moment let alone for ‘years’.
Whether we like it or not, both individually and nationally, our breath and all our circumstances are in the hand of Almighty God. He is Sovereign. He is Lord. Occasionally he reminds us of this. He blows away our little schemes and clevernesses.
How sad then, despite all his enviable worldly wealth and wisdom, to find no hint of gratitude to the Lord God who had so prospered him. No awareness of the privileged opportunity he had to bring glory to God with his wealth. No awareness, either, of the needs of those around him; or even a hint of offering his skills in early retirement for the benefit of others. At root he is totally self indulgent; grasping all to himself and proposing to fill his life with ease, eating, drinking and making merry – totally unaware of either God or neighbour.
Note well the rich farmer’s long deliberation with himself with all the underlying assumptions: ‘my skill, my good fortune, my crops, my goods, my happy problem, my life, my days, my happiness and my many years.’ Be on your guard, for these are disastrously common assumptions. Do we not make them all the time?
Then, note well, the crushing brevity of the words of Almighty God in whose hand and by whose gift were all these things. ‘Fool, this night your soul is required of you.’ What was his gathering of wealth all about, whose will it be? But he was doing so well, his barns were full, he had just conceived his new-barns project, he seemed to have secured for himself an enviable future to which to look forward. But God, ‘Fool, tonight . . . ’ See the foolishness of living in God’s world without living for God. See the consequences of failing to love him, honour him, serve him and be ready for that summons. It is a simple fact that not one of us is further than the squeal of a lorry’s brakes, a few heartbeats missed, a few cells gone wildly wrong – from being in exactly this man’s situation.
At a funeral it was asked, ’What did he leave?’ And the instant response: ’Everything.’ So it was with this man, ‘everything’. ‘So it is,’ said our Lord, ‘for the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich – or ‘enriching’ as the active, underlying word has it – toward God.’ These are terrifying words for those who ignore God. Terrifying words for those who omit God from their thinking. Terrifying words for those who reject him or who live in active rebellion toward him. Yet here is the unspoken, underlying assumption beneath the whole philosophy of current, secular Western society. Postmodernism and post modern society is founded on an essentially self-centred, ‘God-free’ world view. Terrifying!
Challenging words, too, for contemporary Western Christian disciples who have, comparatively, such wealth and are called to use it in ways that bring honour to our Father in heaven; ways that further his kingdom and ways that bring relief to those in genuine and great need.
The challenge of the parable is to be actively enriching toward God with life itself and with all that the Lord God is entrusting to us. Alexander Maclaren puts it so clearly, ‘To hold all as a trust from him, to use all with reference to him and for ends of which he approves.’
Why did the Lord Jesus tell this parable? To judge? To condemn? Thank God, no. The gospel of John makes it plain that he did not come to judge or to condemn. He told this parable to alert and warn his hearers then, and ourselves now, of the ease with which we can make the same disastrous mistake.
The parable is a call to us all to examine before Almighty God our assumptions and our attitudes and then to turn, repent and plead for forgiveness. It is a call to use all the resources he has entrusted to us, money, home, influence, skill, opportunity, and wisdom for his glory. It is a call to recognise a foe, to take care and be on our guard against grasping, self-centred covetousness in all its forms and with all its subtlety. It is a call to recognise that – despite appearances and the many social pressures placed on us by the expectations of colleagues, family and friends – life does not consist in the abundance of our possessions. It is a call to accept the reconciliation offered in and through his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, and then to walk humbly with the Lord God, loving justice, showing mercy and, absolutely as far as we can, living in godly harmony with those around us – joyfully acknowledging that every breath we take, every morning we rise, every skill, possession and opportunity we have is a trust to be used for the glory of God and the wellbeing of those around us.
Heavenly Father, you know our strong, natural, self-centred, human desire to own and display yet more and more of this world’s treasures and property. Stir our hearts to hear and heed the warnings of this parable. Help us to see that we do not ‘own’ life and that possessions are not its measure. Turn our hearts so that they are set where true joys and lasting treasures are to be found that we may bring glory to your Holy Name by living in generous and godly harmony.
Solomon, Proverbs 10:22
Judas, John 12:4-6
Prodigal son, Luke 15:11-32
Godly harmony, Psalm 133
Feet of clay, Daniel 2:31-35
Ultimate justice, Romans 12:19
(‘Where few kings . . .‘, Samuel Rutherford)
Breath and circumstances in the hand of God, Daniel 5:23
Not to judge, John 12:47
Not to condemn, John 3:17
Walk humbly, Micah 6:8
Questions for personal reflection and group discussion
- Would we be embarrassed or horrified if others were aware of the thoughts that really occupy us as we apparently attend to the things of God?
- Why is grasping for money, possessions and property the root of so much sharp practice, misery and family strife?
- Do we love the Lord God with heart and mind and strength or are our hearts fixed on securing our rights and accumulating the things of this world?
- How can securing what we perceive as ‘justice’ blind us to the things that really matter; the things of eternity?
- Can inheritances still be the cause of a very great deal of distress? Why?
- Do we sometimes need to let go a just claim or leave the life-consuming pursuit of personal ‘justice’ with the Lord, with whom lies ultimate justice?
- Do you recognise the commendable characteristics of the rich farmer . . . and, maybe uncomfortably, the envy of those not so rich and successful?
- In wealth and plenty, how easy is it to forget the things this parable teaches?
- What world view is so persuasively and continuously presented to us by the media?
- In what ways would the parable challenge the ‘accepted thinking’ of our national and secular leaders?
- What assumptions are we personally making about our health and life and material possessions? How would this parable challenge us and teach us to view them?
- In what ways does the parable challenge the thinking of Western Christians?
- How does the Lord’s parable challenge and touch you?