The Text: Luke 12:13-21
Few things are sadder than family members fighting over an inheritance. The possibility of gaining from a substantial inheritance can turn lambs into wolves. Imagine interrupting a sermon to seek help to get more wealth! That’s what the brother in today’s Gospel does. In dispute over assets, this man wants Jesus to decide in his favour. Both brothers are captive to covetousness. The man with the lion’s share of the inheritance could have divided it equally with his brother.
No mediating of one dispute by our Lord will solve the deeper problem of the human heart. People who covet what they don’t have are unaware of their covetous attitude. A priest has reported that in 25 years of hearing confessions, he’s heard every sin confessed except that of covetousness! The man who seeks Jesus’ help wants the broken relationship between he and his brother finalised by complete separation. Jesus points out that He hasn’t come as a divider. He’s come as a reconciler. He wants to reconcile people to each other, not to finalise divisions between them. Reconciliation will require the petitioner to gain a new perspective on himself.
Receiving his portion of the inheritance won’t solve the antagonism between the brothers, for the issue is greed rather than justice. Jesus’ parable seeks to change human hearts, to free them from being possessed by their possessions. His story of a “successful” farmer is a subversive story. It calls into question so much of what we hold dear in our culture. Our culture holds up successful people as an inspiration for us. Any book with the words How To Succeed In … in the title is assured of large popularity.
The farmer in today’s Gospel is an outstanding success in earthly terms. But Jesus calls him a dismal failure in what really matters, what matters eternally. The irony of success is that it can limit as well as expand our horizons. This farmer was locked in by his success. What he’s mastered had come to master him. No other story is so full of “I” disease. In its short space, there are eight “I”s and four “my”s. All goes well for him in his business. His wealth isn’t ill-gotten. There’s no mention of him being a bad employer. Many people see nothing wrong with his attitude. After all, he’s acting with prudence and common sense. Our modern society would consider him an eminent success.
It is significant that in light of the gregarious nature of life then, the rich man dialogues only with himself. He has no one else with whom he talks. He consults no neighbour or friend to exchange ideas. His speech is pitiful. This affluent person has arrived! He has made it! And he needs an audience for his arrival speech. He exclaims, “Who will rejoice with me?” He can only address himself, his only audience!
This self-serving individual deals only with things – things like the bigger barns he’ll build, the profit he’ll make from selling his grain when the prices go up, and the richer selection of food and drink for himself to indulge in. The greatest good he can imagine in life is maximising his own pleasure. It never enters his head to give to the needy, or to assist the poor. He has no need of anyone else. He lives only for himself. Not only does he give no thought to thanking God for his huge harvest, he reveals that he’s forgotten that his own body is mortal and he won’t necessarily live on for many years. The existence of others has totally dropped out of the picture. His formula for the “good life” is sheer stupidity. He cannot take any of his immense possessions into the grave with him. In his hour of greatest need, all his possessions will prove of no use to him.
Though this man may have had nothing to say to God, God had something to say to him: “You fool! This very night your life is being required of you (v.20).” The verb “to require” is used for the return of a loan. His life was on loan and now God, the Owner, wants the loan returned. Jesus makes it clear that our lives are not our own to do with as we like, but are a gift from God. God thunders to the rich farmer: “Look at what you’ve done to yourself! You plan alone, build alone, indulge alone and now you’ll die alone.” The man doesn’t know who will end up with his assets and riches after his death. A fool is someone whose plans end at the grave. Was there ever a more searching question concerning the meaning of life than our Lord’s question, “What does it profit any of us if we gain the whole world, but lose our lives? (Luke 9:25)”
There are few things our Lord condemns more than greed. He attacks the false evaluation of life in economic terms. As if we can measure life in such narrow terms! Greed prevents so much generosity from occurring. Greed never delivers all the benefits it promises, benefits like peace of mind, security and happiness. We need five things for a reasonably contented life: (1) food; (2) clothing; (3) shelter; (4) medical care; and (5) the means to purchase the first four things. Jesus doesn’t oppose an appreciation of the good things of life. The best way to enjoy all the good things God has given us is by thanking Him for them. Nothing sustains joy and happiness better than gratitude.
“It is good to give thanks to the Lord” for life and health and daily food. “Life doesn’t consist in the abundance of possessions.” Life consists in the abundance of God’s undeserved goodness to us. God’s goodness is first of all evident in His gifts of family, friends, and neighbours. Where would any of us be without all that our grandparents, parents and siblings have done for us? Relationships with others are the true God-given riches of life. Relationships take time to keep together. Sadly, we see marriages breaking apart because couples are not spending sufficient time with each other. We hear of children becoming estranged from their mothers and fathers, because their busy parents haven’t spent sufficient time with them.
Advertisers give people unrealistic expectations of the benefits of material goods and possessions. God never meant these things to be the focus and goal of life. A TV interview with someone who had lost his home and possessions in a fire provides a vivid contrast to the rich fool in Jesus’ parable. He recalled that his brother had recently said they should avoid letting their possessions possess them. The victim of the house fire announced to the TV reporter with a note of unexpected triumph: “I am a free man now!” Jesus can free us from being enslaved to our possessions.
Jesus came into our world to help us become rich toward God. We become rich before God when we accept God as the Giver, and all we have as His gifts to us. We’re rich as far as God is concerned when we see the existence of everyone else in our lives as God’s gifts to us. We see and acknowledge faith, hope and love as life’s true riches, and Jesus Christ as God’s crowning gift to us. Thank God, His Son Jesus Christ shares the riches of His love, goodness and glory with us. “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, so that by His poverty you might become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9).” Jesus said, “I have come that you might have life in all fullness and richness (John 10:10).” It’s a life too rich and wonderful to end in death. Let this good news of great joy possess you and overwhelm you with all its glorious possibilities.
Those who are contented with what God has given them are truly rich indeed. What better can we hope for in this life than God-given contentment? “Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these (1 Timothy 6:6-8).” The more grateful we are for all we have already, the more contented we will be. Saying “I love you” as often as possible to those near and dear to us fills them with a sense of contentment. We can be content in the knowledge that what God chooses for us is better than what we may choose for ourselves.
Better a poor farmer than a rich fool!
“Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that He has promised to those who love Him? (James 2:5)”