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The Parable of the “Rich Fool”


Luke 12:13-21


For the past ten years we’ve been hearing that the provincial government has to continue cutting the provincial budget on big-ticket items. Hospitals, schools, universities, municipalities: they may receive a little more from the present government than they received from the previous, but the cuts in provincial pay-outs can’t be reversed entirely, since the province is now paying out one million dollars per hour more than it takes in. The gravy-train has derailed, and the government is hoping that the residents of Ontario will understand that it has derailed.

Even as we admit that the gravy-train has derailed we should also admit that there never was as much gravy in the train as we wanted to think or were led to think. For decades we Canadians have spent vastly more money on ourselves than we ever earned. Collectively we have lived beyond our means for years.

In saying this I don’t mean that all of the material prosperity we soaked up came to us only because we were living beyond our means. A few years ago our “means” were genuinely greater. For instance, for years 20% of Canada ‘s Gross National Product came from the development of non-renewable resources, such as copper ore or nickel ore. I support such development. Copper ore is of no use to anyone as long as it remains in the ground. We were right to mine it and sell it. At the same time we must realize that once it’s been mined it’s gone for ever. Copper doesn’t reproduce itself in the ground the way wheat reproduces itself in a field or beef cattle reproduce themselves in a barn.

Then will our children find life financially leaner than we have known it? On average, yes. You see, ever since Confederation (1867) each generation of Canadians has been approximately twice as wealthy as the previous generation. I am twice as wealthy as my parents; they were twice as wealthy as their parents. Then our children should be twice as wealthy as we. But here the pattern is broken. Social scientists tell us that the next generation, on average, won’t be twice as wealthy as we are. In fact, for the first time in Canada ’s history, the next generation will be less wealthy than we are. This doesn’t mean that the next generation will suffer from inadequate nutrition, clothing or shelter. The next generation will find, however, that it has less money for trifles and trinkets and toys.

Is this bad? Is it bad to have fewer trinkets and toys? As a matter of fact the leaner finances for most Canadians will be a spiritual boon. Material superabundance, Jesus reminds us everywhere in the written gospels, is a spiritual threat; a grave spiritual threat, graver even than material scarcity. In fact our Lord maintains that material superabundance is the gravest spiritual threat of all.

How grave a threat? What kind of threat? Jesus answers our questions in his parable that generations after him have called “The Parable of the Rich Fool”.

I: — “The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully, and it made the rich man richer still,” the parable begins. “And the rich man — now super-rich — thought to himself…” He thought to himself? The Greek verb is DIALOGIZOMAI, from which we derive the English word “dialogue”. The super-affluent man dialogued with himself; he debated with himself; he deliberated with himself; he weighed all the considerations; he approached the topic from ever so many angles. So intent is he on dialoguing, debating, deliberating with himself; so consumed is he with weighing, assessing, calculating, estimating, measuring; so preoccupied is he with his fortune that he’s — just that: preoccupied, consumed. He can’t think of anything else besides his new-found fortune. He doesn’t care to think of anything else. He doesn’t even think there might be something else to think about.

What exactly is preoccupying him? One matter: how he might hoard for himself what’s been dumped in his lap.

(i) The first thing we notice about the fellow is that his possessions absorb him. He can think only of what he owns: how to measure it, how to maximize it, how to multiply it — ultimately, how to preserve it and protect it and protract it. He’s a hoarder; he gives nothing away. There isn’t an ounce of generosity in him for the simple reason that he doesn’t care a whit about anyone else, so “thingified” is his heart.

(ii) The second thing we notice about him is that he’s an egotist. In the space of a few lines, according to the parable, he speaks of himself, “I,” repeatedly; “I,I,I” eight times over.

(iii) The third thing we notice about him is that he’s a secularist. The world he lives in is a world bounded by the material, the human, the finite. There’s no vertical dimension to his world, no room for anything other than the horizontal. Matter, mammon, man; human history understood no more profoundly than the never-ending scramble for social ascendancy. He doesn’t regard all of this as supremely important; he regards it as solely important, since for him this alone constitutes life.

As if it were going to last forever! As if his one-dimensional life were going to last forever! As if his secularist viewpoint were the only possible viewpoint for anyone with even a modicum of intelligence! As if? But secularists never say “as if”, just because it never occurs to them that their one-dimensional universe might be merely their invention; just because it never occurs to them that their perception might be arbitrary, shallow and false.

The man our Lord speaks of in the parable — thing-absorbed, egotistical and thorough-going secularist; this man has a problem. He himself is aware that he has a problem. His one problem, he thinks, is this. “Now that I, an affluent fellow, am eversomuch more affluent, how am I going to retain my increased, socio-economic advantage? Right now I am financially privileged. How can I perpetuate it?” The man has a problem, and the thinks that this is his only problem.

Very soon, of course, Jesus Christ will let us all know, all us hearers of the parable, what the man’s real problem is. And what is his real problem? What his real problem is he can’t even guess.

III: — “But God said to him.” BUT GOD SAID TO HIM. His real problem is that God has spoken to him. Suddenly the vertical dimension to all of life (he never dreamt there was a vertical dimension to all of life) thrusts itself upon him. It was there all along, of course. Now, however, it’s staring him in the face. Now it’s as undeniable as it is unmistakable. BUT GOD SAID TO HIM — and obviously God said it in a very loud voice. Suddenly the fellow’s world is exposed as too small, too narrow, too shallow, too anaemic, too flat. When God speaks, the universe expands in a hurry; when God speaks, the universe expands hugely; it expands immeasurably as surely as God himself is immeasurable. It isn’t merely that “a new dimension,” even a vertical dimension, has been added; it’s rather that when God speaks, all of life is revolutionized.

Think of the woman at the well in John 4. She meets Jesus and chitchats humorously with him, banters with him, even flirts with him. She’s enjoying it all, never expecting it to end on a jarring note, when suddenly Jesus breaks off the banter and says, “Go call your husband.” She stares at him, knowing that he has seen through her disguise. He has crumbled all the defenses she has spent years perfecting. And all he has done is speak to her. “Go call your husband.” “I don’t have a husband,” she barely croaks out; “Do we have to talk about this?” When the woman encountered Jesus at the well she thought she had a problem: she thought her problem was that she lacked a bucket of water for household tasks. That’s why she had gone to the well. Once the master has spoken to her, however, she’s aware that her real problem is something else, something eversomuch deeper.

The man in the parable we are listening to today: “BUT GOD SAID TO HIM.” Said what? What did God say?

“You fool.” In modern English a fool is someone who lacks sound judgement. Then is this man merely possessed of unsound judgement? No. There’s more to be said. In older English “foolish” means “mad, insane.” “Foolish” is derived from the French word “fol,” and “fol” means mad, insane, psychotic. The mad person, the psychotic person, is someone whose reality-testing is severely impaired.

“But God said to him, ‘You fool.’” The man didn’t merely lack sound judgement; rather, with respect to the reality of God his reality-testing was severely impaired. With respect to the reality of God his perception of reality was skewed, so badly skewed as to be non-existent. What he had always regarded as self-evident (a one-dimensional universe) was now exposed as untrue. What he had regarded as reality (a life whose only purpose was greater and greater ease born of greater and greater affluence) was now exposed as illusory. On the other hand, what he had always regarded as illusory (the truth of God and the penetration of God and heart-seizure at the hand of God); this was now exposed as real.

“You fool!” Wherein had he been a fool? He had certainly been ungrateful. When his bumper crop had come along it had never occurred to him to think of (let alone thank) the one who sustains the universe and sends seedtime and harvest.

Moreover, his head and his heart had become thoroughly “thingified.” He had planned to store up goods for his soul, for his innermost life, stupidly thinking that goods had anything to do with his innermost life.

Moreover, he had planned to take his ease, never to work again. Most importantly, he gave no consideration to kingdom-work, the sort of thing Jesus meant when he said, “We must work while it is day, for the night comes when no one can work.” He hadn’t had a clue about kingdom-work and hadn’t wanted to have.

God had said more to him than “You fool!”, however. God had also said, “Tonight you must die.” The fellow had never factored his mortality into what he was making of his life. If he ever thought about dying at all he dismissed the notion as soon as it intruded. He was too busy planning how to hoard to bother with having to die. Therefore he was a fool twice over.

God had said even more to him: “All that stuff that has cluttered your life and corroded your heart — who gets it now? If you have lived for it, then you have lived for nothing, because now you must surrender it.” And so he was a fool three times over.

IV: — Needless to say, the point in learning wherein the rich fool was a fool is to be sure that we don’t follow him foolishly ourselves. The point in learning wherein he thought he was rich only to find himself poor; the point is to become rich ourselves. Jesus concludes the parable by urging us to become “rich towards God,” rich in God. In other words, our one good, our eternal good, is to be rich in God.

I crave such richness myself. I continue to crave it for two reasons. One reason is that I have “tasted” (to use a vivid biblical expression); I have “tasted and seen that the Lord is good.” (Psalm 34:8) The taste I have had (and enjoy now) isn’t the taste of a tiny tidbit on the tip of the tongue. The taste I have had has satisfied me so thoroughly as to leave me wanting to look nowhere else and pursue no one else. And yet as often as I have tasted, the taste has left me hungering for more: always satisfied, never satiated; always supplied, never surfeited. In all of this I have never doubted that it is GOD with whom I have to do, not my overheated imagination, not a fantasy, not a projection from an unconscious “wish-list.” How do I know it is GOD with whom I have to do? Encounter with God is self-authenticating. Since God is who he is, there is nothing above him — and therefore nothing above him by means of which he is proved (or disproved). Because there is nothing above God, nothing greater than God, there is nothing apart from God that can authenticate him; and when he seizes any one of us, there is nothing apart from him that is needed to authenticate him. Were we to ask a Hebrew prophet of old how he knew that it was God who had seized him, the prophet of old would have said two things: one, our asking the question suggests we are not yet “seized” ourselves; two, seizure at the hand of God is as self-authenticating as seeing an object convinces us of the object’s size and colour and shape. When we see an object we are convinced without further argumentation as to its size and colour and shape.

It’s difficult for me to say more without exposing myself to the charge of spiritual exhibitionism. At the same time I cannot say less without failing to testify of him whom Jeremiah says is fire in his mouth, before whom Daniel could only fall on his face, and for whom David cried out as he cried out for nothing else.

Many times from this pulpit I have said that the characteristic of the Holy One of Israel is that he speaks. Not that he yammers, not that he jabbers or blabbers or chitchats, but that he speaks. Then has he spoken to me? Yes. Many different words. A word of judgement upon my sin, which word has left me weeping brokenheartedly, like Peter, except that no one else was around to see it, not even my wife. He has also spoken to me words of pardon, of encouragement, of direction, of exhilaration. The psalmist says, “At God’s right hand are pleasures for ever more,” and I have found the psalmist true a hundred times over. A relentless word from him, a summons that I have found inextinguishable and inescapable since I was 14, is my vocation to the ministry.

Because I have “tasted and seen that the Lord is good” I cannot doubt him but can only want more of him. This is one reason I crave being richer in God, as Jesus urges us to be.

The second reason is that I have been drawn into the heart and head of several people who were immersed so deep in God they exuded it. Simply to have encountered these people was to know they weren’t misled themselves and wouldn’t mislead others. When they spoke to me of God they spoke naturally, unselfconsciously, without affectation or artificiality or phoniness.

One such person was the late Ronald Ward, professor of New Testament at the University of Toronto , an Anglican who used to help me with the finer points of Greek syntax. When I called on him, ready to be schooled in the seven uses of the infinitive or the fivefold significance of the subjunctive mood, he would help me in these matters, to be sure. Then he would sit back in his chair and casually, completely unintentionally, overwhelm me with his oh-so-believable intimacy with our Lord. “Do you know why most ministers want to preach no more than ten minutes these days?” he asked me once; “It’s because they can relate their entire experience of Christ in ten minutes.” If Ronald Ward had had one hundred years to acquaint me with his experience of our Lord, it wouldn’t have been long enough.

In this respect Ward resembled the apostle Paul. Paul’s vocabulary wasn’t stunted in the least, yet rich as it was it couldn’t do justice to the fathomless riches of Christ. For this reason when the apostle could say no more he used the word “unsearchable” or “immeasurable;” “the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Eph. 3:8) or “the immeasurable riches of his grace.” (Eph. 2:7) No wonder he could speak of himself and others as “having nothing, yet possessing everything.” (2 Cor. 6:10) To be exposed to men and women like this is to crave being rich (or richer) in God.

One thing I never want to do is suggest that all of this is reserved for the clergy. The fact that I speak about it from a pulpit doesn’t mean for a minute that you are excluded from it. On the contrary, I speak knowing that hearers in front of me will resonate as the same truth reverberates within them.
For this reason it is fitting that we conclude our discussion about what it is to be “rich towards God” with a few lines from one of the books of my friend, Ronald Ward, in which he speaks of preacher and congregation facing each other, together rejoicing alike in their common Lord:

“When he [the preacher] proclaims Christ there will be an answering note in the hearts of those who have tasted that the Lord is gracious. When he mentions the wrath of God they will be with him in remembering that they too were once under the wrath and by the mercy of God have been delivered. When he speaks of the Holy Spirit they will rejoice in Him who brought Christ to their hearts with His fruit of joy. When he speaks of the church they will dwell on that vast company of the redeemed which has responded to God’s call and has received Christ, the multitude which no man can number of those who are His peculiar treasure. When he speaks of the word of the cross they will welcome the open secret of the means of their salvation. And when he gives an invitation to sinners to come to Christ, they will create the warm and loving atmosphere which is the fitting welcome for one who is coming home.”

Victor Shepherd