When you read the Parable of the Rich Fool, how do you picture the rich fool? Do you see him as an Ebenezer Scrooge figure or a heartless industrial tycoon? The danger of thinking of the rich fool in terms of a miserly old rich man implies that this parable is exclusively for the rich. While we may be tempted to approach this parable with a sense of smug security, Jesus is in fact speaking directly to everyone, both rich and poor, because the temptation to covet and not be rich toward God affects every person.
The setting for the Parable of the Rich Fool begins in Luke 12:1, where Luke describes an unruly crowd of “many thousands” who were “trampling one another” as the came together around Jesus. Nevertheless, Jesus began teaching His disciples to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees (vv. 1-3), having no fear of men (vv. 4-7) and the need to acknowledge Christ before men (vv. 8-12). There is no doubt, that throughout His teaching there were many cries and shouts coming from the crowd (cf. Luke 11:27). However, Jesus only responds to one shout from the crowd on this occasion, the request of a brother, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me” (12:13). Our Lord, as if provoked by this man, forcibly, roughly responds with, “man, who made me judge of you?” (v. 14). This man regarded Jesus as a mere rabbi or judge, not as the Messiah. While Jesus ignores his request for mediation, He does give him exactly what he, and his brother, need: a lesson on the perils of covetousness.
The primary reason Jesus refuses to grant this man’s demand is that to do so would not have addressed the root cause of the issue, covetousness. Therefore, Jesus says, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (v. 15). Jesus’ words spell out the evil motive that undergirded this man’s petition, and presumably his brother’s unwillingness to properly disperse the inheritance, “greed” (v. 15 NASB). A lack of contentment, the love of money, and the desire to be rich are “a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 1:6-10) and serve as the foundation of covetousness. Our beloved brother Paul even goes so far as to equate covetousness with idolatry (Ephesians 5:5; Colossians 3:5). The Lord addresses His words, not only the brothers, but also the crowd and the disciples. Thus, with a broad-brush, Jesus warns all, the rich and the poor, to continually be on guard against succumbing to the temptations of covetousness.
To illustrate His admonition against covetousness, Jesus tells a parable of a certain “rich man” whose land “was very productive” (v. 16 NASB); however, he has a problem. Year after year he has reaped a bumper crop and now has “nowhere to store” his most recent harvest (v. 17). So as he reasons with himself saying, “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’” (vv. 18-19). In effect this man was hoarding up his own possessions for his own ease and enjoyment. This is a very sad scene for two reasons. First, his riches have so isolated him to the point he has no one with which to discuss his plans, so he reasons with himself (cf. Isaiah 5:8; Proverbs 15:22). Second, the personal pronouns, “I” and “my,” give away his true inner character. He cared about no one except himself. He is covetous, prideful and selfish. From all outward appearances, he is especially blessed by God (cf. Luke 18:24-26). However, our Lord revels that the “rich man’s” heart is corrupted by a belief that one’s life does consist of and is safe in the abundance of possessions.
It is now that the second character, God Himself (this is the lone example in the parables that the authority figure is God and not a representation) steps into the story declaring, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” (v. 20). Ironically, the man who took great pains to care for his material needs turns out to be a spiritual fool. God’s words expose the shallow thinking of this man, revealing his sin and his destiny, which is vastly different than he supposed. The possessions the rich fool had accumulated did not in the end give him life. As Jesus brings the parable to an end, He makes application to anyone “who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God” (v. 21), your fate, He says, will be the same. Rather than setting one’s hearts on riches (cf. Psalm 62:10) a person should be “rich toward God” by doing good with what He has blessed him with (cf. Proverbs 3:9-10; 1 Timothy 6:17-19).
Once Jesus completes His parable, He turns to His disciples and addresses them in verses 22-34. Note that in verse 22 Jesus’ words begin with, “Therefore,” indicating that what He is saying is based upon what He has already been said. The disciples, especially the twelve, were poor people (cf. Luke 18:28; 1 Corinthians 1:25-29), yet, because there are “all forms of greed” (12:15 NASB) they too need to be warned about coveting material possessions of the world, even the most basic, such as food and clothing (vv. 22-30). Rather than being anxious about storing up or acquiring temporal possessions, Jesus repeats a common refrain, store up “treasure in the heavens that does not fail,” as opposed to treasure on earth that does fail to give life. “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (ref. Luke 12:33-34; Matthew 6:19-20).
- Read Luke 12:13-34. Write down any observations, key words and/or questions you have from the reading.
- In your own words, describe what we know and/or can infer about the man and his brother who interrupts Jesus.
- Do you think Jesus’ warning to “be on guard for all covetousness” suggests that greed has a variety of forms? Explain.
- How would you evaluate the actions and attitude of the rich man?
- During times of prosperity why is it easy to feel secure and at ease?
- How do God’s words and actions expose the man’s faulty sense of security?
- How does this parable illustrate that a person’s “life does not consist of the abundance of his possessions”?
- What does the message of this parable offer a man who has been cheated out of an inheritance and a brother who has an abundance of goods?
- After telling this parable, Jesus turns to the disciples, who were poor, and addressed being anxious about having even the most basic possessions. How is anxiety related to covetousness?
- What lesson(s) does Jesus want us to learn by reflecting on birds, lilies and grass?
- The solution to covetousness and anxiety is to be “rich toward God” and to store up “treasure in heaven.” What do those two things mean? How are they accomplished?
- How has Jesus challenged your thinking about possessions, true life, and God’s rule through this parable?