“You Fool!” – Luke 12:13-21
By: Northern Seminary
The story Jesus tells from verse 13 of Luke 12 is usually described as The Parable of the Rich Fool (the heading given to it in the NIV). Often we use the word ‘fool’ when we’re thinking of someone as unusually stupid or rash. If common sense is at all common, then a fool is someone who falls below the norm. In other words, a fool isn’t like us; he’s the exception.
The man in Jesus’ parable is and is not an exception. He is in the sense of being exceptionally rich. He has resources much greater than the average person. But he’s completely unexceptional in his desires and goals. He wants lots of money, and when he gets it he wants even more. For him, more and more wealth equals more and more happiness. Increasing his wealth is his life focus. How normal. How ordinary. How remarkably common.
We can’t write off this parable as a warning for the one-per-centers, the super wealthy. It’s a parable for people who think getting more money is a life goal worth pursuing. And that is almost everyone of us.
13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”
14 Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” 15 Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”
16 And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. 17 He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’
18 “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. 19 And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’
20 “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’
21 “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”
Before getting into the heart of the parable it’s important to be clear what it’s not about. Jesus is not condemning wealth, and not even the desire for more wealth. Some believe there is virtue in poverty, but that is not what Jesus is teaching here.
The key verses which make Jesus’ purpose clear are 15 and 21. He introduces the parable by saying: “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” And Jesus finishes with these words: “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”
Jesus’ warning is about an unbalanced or wrongly focused life. The man in the parable was consumed by his wealth and his desire for more of it. Almost nothing else mattered. He invested in his business and failed to invest in God. He gave his heart to money when it ought to have belonged to God.
What leads into the parable is a dispute as common today as two thousand years ago. Then and now families fought over the money left by someone who had died. “Teacher,” someone in the crowd said to Jesus, “tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” The man’s request wasn’t unreasonable. No one who heard him would have been surprised. He had a grievance, and rabbis were wise people so they were often asked to rule in family disputes.
Jesus refused to become involved. “Man,” he asked, “who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?”
So, he wouldn’t rule. But this was a teaching moment. Jesus sensed a lust for wealth at the heart of this family feud. And so he gave a warning about greed and told the story of a man who was already rich and then one year had a bumper harvest. Now he was super rich but he had a problem.
The harvest was so huge his barns couldn’t contain it. He did the obvious. He called the local builder and said, “I need more barns and I need them now.” Remarkably he found a builder who would meet the deadline. Now he knew he’d be comfortable right into the future. His barns would be full, and his new wealth would last him for years and years and years. He could sit back, sip a cold drink, and take life easy.
But God called him a fool for he would die that very night. He had lived for his wealth, dreaming of many days ahead to enjoy his fortune. But no amount of wealth could guarantee him life, and his earthly life ended without even one day to relax in his affluence.
The rich man in the parable was guilty of three kinds of folly.
1. The folly of thinking ‘things’ bring meaning to life.
Someone said of a man noted for his selfish attitudes that William was bounded on all sides by William. In other words, whatever way he turned William saw only the interests of William.
The man in this parable could have been William. There is not one hint in the story that this rich farmer cared for anyone else. He was entirely self-focused. What he wanted was more and more wealth, and when he had it, he’d find happiness. The wealth was for no other cause and no other person. More and more for him, and then his life would be complete.
There were at least two problems with that man’s philosophy.
First, the lust for anything – including possessions – soon becomes impossible to control and harder and harder to find satisfaction. I talk to sales people in stores. In a golf store I speculated that maybe some players change their clubs every year. “Not every year,” the salesman answered. “It’s more often than that.” The assistant in a furniture store quoted examples only a little less frequent for people replacing sofas, chairs, coffee tables, and, he said, they’ll re-carpet the floors and hang new wallpaper at the same time.
Others do the same with cars. Others with the latest phone, latest camera, latest television. They have to get the newest, biggest, and best product on the market. But they’re never content. ‘If only I have that I’ll be happy,’ they tell themselves. But they’re not, for three months later there’s another new product grabbing their attention and soon their money.
Things don’t satisfy.
Second, Augustine got it right back in the late fourth century when he wrote: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
Anything – even bad things – can bring fleeting pleasure, but not lasting satisfaction. A castaway at sea cannot quench his thirst from the ocean, no matter how much he drinks. Possession after possession after possession or dollar upon dollar upon dollar will not fill the empty soul or cure the hurting heart. Ultimately only God through Christ can do that.
The most famous of all psalms – Psalm 23 – says that well:
The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me. (Ps. 23:1-4)
Things can never bring meaning to life. Only the living God can do that.
2. The folly of assuming you know the future.
All through my childhood I heard my Dad and Mom talk about where they would retire: St. Andrews on the east coast of Scotland. The city is beautiful, and holds an important place in Scottish history and has even more significance throughout the world as the ‘home of golf.’ I love the place, and Dad and Mom loved it even more and planned their retirement there.
It never happened. One night Dad returned home to find Mom had died. No warning. No signs. She’d just died. She was fifty-five. With her, of course, died all the dreams of a St. Andrews retirement. In that one night everything changed. As the old saying goes: Man proposes; God disposes.
So it was for the man in Jesus’ parable. “This very night your life will be demanded from you,” God tells him. God’s words are emphatic, specific, and certain.
Death would be immediate and the fact that it would happen was completely beyond the man’s control. That night the man’s life would end, and there would be no negotiation and no vote. This was God’s decision. Period.
The two obvious lessons are these. One, you dare not invest all your hopes in a future you do not control. Two, you must live ready for any day to be your last day.
When I was eleven years of age, one morning the door to my school classroom opened five minutes after we’d all arrived. The school principal stepped in carrying a bundle of test papers. Several of the students in the class groaned. We all knew what was happening. We were about to take a big test, and every remaining year of our school-age education would depend on our performance.
Every one of us had known that test would come, but our teacher had refused to tell us when. That day many of my fellow students were caught by surprise. They hadn’t prepared for what would be a day of reckoning.
I didn’t groan and I didn’t panic. Because I’d known that day would come I was prepared. I was ready. That day held no fears for me, and I did very well in that examination.
The surest thing in life is death. It’s the great leveler, the common experience of kings and popes, of presidents and prime ministers, of factory workers and construction laborers, of chief executives and middle managers, of doctors and nurses, of home makers and home breakers. We all die, no matter your wealth, no matter your learning, no matter your color or nationality or religion or virtue or fame or influence or talent.
And we all know it’s coming. If we do nothing to be ready, no wonder God says “You fool!”
3. The folly of investing materially but not spiritually.
I have a friend called Brian who is an investment manager. He runs his own business and takes care of his clients personally. There are good and bad investment managers, and I believe Brian is very good because he understands the significance of his work for his clients. His philosophy is this: his clients need him to invest very wisely because their financial future depends on him. The investments he makes determine their future.
The investments the rich fool made determined his future too. Sadly they were bad ones.
Nothing in the parable ever suggests this man thought about others, and nothing suggests he thought about his own mortality or eternity. He was guilty of selfishness and guilty of short-termism.
The man wanted to be self-sufficient. With money would come power, and especially the power to decide everything. He reckoned he could do anything. He could even do nothing. “Take life easy,” he thought. “Eat, drink and be merry” (v. 19).
So he invested everything in earthly wealth for him. But that night his life on earth was over. He wouldn’t spend a single day eating, drinking, and being merry. Everything he had would go to someone else. He would never benefit. He could not take even one penny of all his money with him into the next life. The folk lesson passed down through the ages is that a shroud has no pockets. Spiritually he was destitute and would face an eternity in which he had never invested.
To give so much of his life to material things and to give nothing to spiritual things was this man’s greatest folly. He’d devoted himself to work and to prosperity, and devoted nothing to the one who had given him everything he had, even his own life. Was this man a fool? Yes, utterly a fool, and as complete a fool as anyone can be.
But not uncommon. So many live as if all things are for them to direct towards their own pleasure and purposes, as if every circumstance and happening is under their control, as if they are accountable only to themselves for what they do.
They’re wrong. They have a Maker. They have a Lord. They have a Judge. And one day they will stand before God who wants to see their investment in eternity. And many – far too many – will have nothing to show. What folly.
I didn’t know George well, but we spoke a few times. He was quite an entrepreneur, with a growing business in construction. He showed up at church occasionally, but never regularly like his wife and two daughters. His wife would tell me, “George had to go back into the office today. There are big contracts he needs to study before next week.”
Soon I learned that George neglected family time almost as much as he neglected church. He was rarely home in time to eat with the family; he never made it to his girls’ school concerts to hear them sing; and he never spent the weekend relaxing with them and almost never joined them on vacation. His wife told me, “George wants to get his business to a level where it’s really prospering. Then he’ll put a manager in charge and take a back seat. Once he’s done that, he’ll have time for me and for the family.”
Then one night George had a massive heart attack, and was dead in less than fifteen minutes. His business never reached its peak. He never got the time with his family. George died aged just forty.
If George had been given all those years to live again, he would never have made the same choices. He would have given himself to those he loved and to God. I could not be more sure of that.
But no one gets to live the same years again. This is our moment. This is our time. This is our one chance to invest wisely in God and in all the good things with which God surrounds us. This is our day to live rightly so that we never hear God say “You fool!” This is our day, and there is no promise of even one more day.