A Pair of Brothers

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Luke 12:13-21

One day Jesus took the occasion of a family squabble to say some very important things on the subject of money and wealth. What he said runs counter to the way we typically think about those things.

As Jesus went about doing good during the course of his earthly ministry, he was often approached by people with questions or requests. Usually these came from two different categories of people. The questions were from his enemies, and were hostile attempts to trip Jesus up or get him into trouble for what they thought were his unorthodox views. The more numerous requests were from sufferers who pleaded with Jesus for help, healing or deliverance from the power of evil. On one occasion, though, Jesus was approached with a request a demand, really of a different sort. As Jesus was teaching the crowds one day, a man asked him to intervene in a family quarrel. As the gospel writer Luke describes it, here’s how this encounter started:

Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”

We can readily picture the scene, and fill in some background as well. A father has died, leaving the details of his estate unsettled. There are two sons, one of whom has managed at least in his brother’s eyes to have grabbed more than his fair share. Now they are both standing in the crowd around Jesus and the disgruntled brother sees a chance to get Jesus to join his side in the argument. To this man it is an obvious case of injustice; his brother has not shared the family property with him as he should have done. Jesus is a famous and powerful rabbi who ought to be concerned about fairness and justice, so the man puts the case to him. But Jesus has no intention of being drawn into family squabble as a referee.

But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or an arbitrator over you?”

Jesus then goes on to say some important things about money. The case that has been put to him does not suggest problems of inequity or unfairness to Jesus, but danger of a different kind. So he issues a word of caution to all who are hung up on getting more and more for themselves.

And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

Luke 12:13-15

The Rich Fool

And then Jesus, in order to reinforce his warning against greed and his point that true life is not measured by how much wealth you have, told the crowd a story.

“The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’

“Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull 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, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’

“So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

Luke 12:16-21, nrsv

We know this story as the parable of the rich fool. But I wonder, does the fate he met with seem a bit harsh to you? Don’t you think that what happened to this man was a little extreme? Why was God so hard on him? What did the rich man do that was so wrong? After all, he was only doing the smart thing, the same thing we would want to do in his place. He saved his profits and reinvested them in the family farm. To put it in contemporary management terms, this man recapitalized his business, he invested in new infrastructure. That’s not the sort of thing we condemn people for. On the contrary, we praise and admire them! We hold men like this rich farmer up as models to be imitated. The man was frugal, disciplined, successful. He was the exact opposite of the prodigal son, the selfish boy who squandered his father’s property in extravagant living. So why the harsh judgment on him? Why does God condemn him as a fool?

Maybe it will help us catch the flavor of this parable if we recast it in modern terms that are more familiar to the experience of most of us. Let’s imagine a businessman who has had a very comfortable income for several years, and who’s also done extremely well in the stock market recently. “What will I do now with all my money?” he asks himself. “I know,” he answers, “I’ll invest my profits conservatively tax-free bonds, blue chip stocks, real estate. I’ll have an even bigger income than before, enough to get myself whatever I want. And I’ll say to myself, ‘Self. You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” But God said to him, “You fool! Did you just feel that twinge in your chest? You aren’t even going to make it to the hospital!”

The Judgment

So why is this man judged? First let’s be clear about the nature of the judgment itself. I don’t think it was his death. Jesus gives no indication that this man’s death was a punishment that God inflicted upon him for his folly. No, death was simply what God’s providence had ordained was to happen in that particular life on that particular day. It was his time. The rich man wasn’t going to die that night for being a fool; rather, he was a fool because he was going to die that night. The judgment that fell upon him came in the form of God’s evaluation of his character. God’s verdict upon the man was to confirm his nature in a one-word summary of his life: Fool!

In this story Jesus is reminding us of the truth about our mortality, and the brevity of our lives in this world. He’s driving home the fleeting nature of earthly pleasures, the impermanence of worldly possessions. How short life is, how brief a time everything lasts! In one of his books the late theologian Francis Schaeffer described a formative experience in his life. As a boy he used to have to walk past the city dump each day on his way to and from school. The sight of all the things that ended up there, things whose acquisition most people were making the primary business of their lives, made a deep impression on him. Have you ever stopped to reflect on this fact? All the stuff we so much prize houses, cars, boats, furniture, clothes, gadgets, machines, books, pictures it all is going to end up in a landfill some day. And so will we.

A fool is someone who can’t or won’t recognize that truth. A fool doesn’t see the emptiness and futility of living for the things of the world. Notice the irony of the question God put to the man: “This very night your life is demanded of you. And all the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” One answer to that question is suggested by the incident that triggered the telling of the parable. Remember? Jesus’s story was part of his response to the man who wanted his. Whose will all these things be, the money and property and possessions that you worked so hard to accumulate? More likely than not they’ll be your family’s, to fight over. The irony goes deep indeed, and it’s chilling. All our feverish work in amassing an estate for the benefit of our family often turns out to be counter-productive. The wealth we so carefully gather and so jealously protect can end up ruining our children and grandchildren, and poisoning their relationships with one another. When Frank Woolworth, the founder of the F. W. Woolworth retail chain, died in 1919, he left a fortune of $65 million. His biographer summarized his life this way: “Unlike other wealthy men of his time, he left nothing to charity. His entire fortune went to his family, resulting in a legacy of conflict, scandal, and wasted lives.” That’s a more polite way of saying, “You fool!”

We can sharpen the diagnosis still more. In biblical terms, a fool is someone who is blind; to be specific, short-sighted. The word Jesus uses for “fool” in his parable is aphron, the negative form of the Greek adjective phronimos. Phronimos means to be sensible, prudent, shrewd, far-sighted. Being wise or foolish in the biblical sense has nothing to do with intelligence or education. As C. S. Lewis remarked, “A man may be a Master of Arts and still be a fool.” But wisdom has everything to do with being able to look and plan ahead. The wise person is the one who is far-sighted, who can see the consequences of present actions and act accordingly. Notice how the rich farmer talks. It is all “me, my, I” my crops, my barns, my plans. Never a word about God, never a thought of eternity. He doesn’t see past the end of his nose or his earthly life. That’s why he’s such a fool.

The Warning

Jesus surrounded his parable of the rich fool with warnings. The introduction is his warning against greed and covetousness (v. 15). Once again there’s the idea of seeing beyond mere appearances. Do we understand that real life doesn’t consist in the abundance of our possessions? But we’re so infatuated with them. We’re bombarded every day, by every television program, every newspaper and magazine, with the message that happiness in life is determined by getting and having all the right things. We’re like alcoholics working in a brewery; the temptation to covetousness is in the very air we breathe. How can we possibly learn to avoid greed, how can we curb our appetite for accumulation, when we live in a materialistic society that does everything to encourage it?

One suggestion is contained in Jesus’ concluding warning. Listen again to the word Jesus added at the very end of his story about the rich fool: “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” That sentence is Jesus’ application of his parable. This is the action Jesus urges us to pursue if we want to order our lives according to the truth of his words. He wants us to make sure we are “rich toward God.” That is the only way we can avoid the dangers of greed and selfish accumulation. That’s how we can be wise, instead of fools.

But what does it mean to be rich toward God? How do you do that? How can we store up for ourselves treasures in heaven (Matthew 6:19-20)? By giving our treasure to God’s kingdom concerns. The only thing that can break the hold of materialism in our lives is generosity. The only way to avoid letting your money control you is by giving it away for the sake of God and the gospel. And because God obviously doesn’t need anything we have, he wants us to give our gifts to those who do need them to meet both spiritual and physical human needs. As St. Ambrose commented on the rich fool, “His barns should have been the mouths of the poor and the widow and orphan.” That’s where this man should have put his surplus goods.

It’s funny, but somehow we have gotten the idea that giving our money away is a wonderfully kind and benevolent act. We act like we’re doing churches and charities a tremendous favor whenever we donate to them. How foolish we are! If we only saw things clearly enough, we would realize that our charitable giving does far more for us the donors than for its recipients. You do realize that all the really smart money isn’t going into the bank; it’s being put into the kingdom of God.