Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Our text for this morning is the Gospel lesson, from Luke, Chapter 12. The concluding verses:
But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your soul is required of you, and things you have prepared for yourself, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself but is not rich toward God.
There are probably a lot of ideas and conceptions people have when they’re speaking of someone being a fool. Isn’t it strange, though, how Christians and the rest of the world often see or interpret the very same things so differently?
When most people hear the term “rich fool,” they might imagine some spoiled young heir who has wastefully squandered the fortune left to him by his enterprising ancestors. Or perhaps they might think of someone who lucked into winning the lottery, then blew all the money in a few years of frivolous spending.
Today’s Gospel lesson is known as the parable of the rich fool. Far from being a frivolous spender, though, this man carefully guards his wealth, seeks to protect it from risk, and wants to use it cautiously to provide a comfortable lifestyle for years and years to come.
To many people, this is an indication of wisdom and shrewdness, an admirable example of planning and discipline. But ponder a couple of questions, if you will, as we reflect on today’s Gospel lesson: First, from whom or from what is the rich man protecting his wealth, and why? And second, for whose comfort and enjoyment is it being stored up?
As you do this, however, let’s look back on how this parable came about. Just prior to this text, Jesus has been speaking to the disciples. He is warning them of the Pharisees’ hypocrisy, and telling them to have courage in their future work for His kingdom. He tells them that they do not need to fear the powers of this earth in this lifetime, but instead can trust that their faith will bring them eternal rewards.
In the midst of this important teaching about the spiritual life, a man in the crowd interjects with a plainly worldly worry. Unwilling to accept the Jewish law that the elder son receives a double portion of the family estate, this man wants Jesus to intervene. He wants Jesus to instruct his brother to divide the inheritance in a manner more suitable to the man’s wishes. In other words, he wants Jesus to serve him, not to save him.
Jesus replies bluntly:
“Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter over you?”
Jesus speaks a subtle but important truth within the rhetorical question with which He answers. That truth is that He has not been appointed a judge between men, but rather as judge of men—all men, as He has been granted by the Father. He had certainly not come to settle petty disputes of this earthly life. In fact, He had come to divide houses and separate families who can not agree upon who He is and what He has done.
Jesus proceeds to instruct the crowd regarding the dangers of the greed this man had demonstrated. He points out that,
“A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”
How often we forget this in our materialistic world! We confuse our “life” with our “lifestyle”. We say “Life is good” when we have a steady job, plentiful food, a comfortable place to live, good relationships with others, and many possessions and conveniences.
On the other hand, when we face unemployment, are short of money and down on our luck, or are in conflict with family or friends, we often claim that our life is going poorly at that time.
But is it really our life that is going poorly, or is it our attitude about our current lifestyle? Have we been handed a raw deal, or overlooking the precious gifts that God has given us?
Jesus begins, “The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop.”
That is, it was not the man’s own abilities or labors which were fruitful. It was the earth itself, God’s own creation, which yielded its bounty. Isn’t this always the case? In giving and preserving life, both now and eternal, it is always God’s initiative, God’s toil, God’s overcoming difficulties, which provide us His gifts. We can no more overcome our own sin and death than the rich man could make the seeds in his field sprout and grow.
But the rich man doesn’t recognize this. He doesn’t give God glory and thanks for His generous providence of a life-sustaining and wealth-producing crop. He doesn’t give any indication that he remembers or acknowledges God at all.
Instead, the rich man focuses entirely on himself and looks inwardly. Nine times in the next three verses, he uses words like I, my, and myself:
“What shall I do?” he says. “I have no place to store my crops. This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones. I will store all my grain and my goods. I’ll say to myself.”
Like we ourselves sometimes do, the rich man cannot distinguish between his bodily, physical self and his very essence as God’s creature, formed in God’s image and endowed with an eternal soul.
Even the end of the man’s internal dialogue is self-indulgent. The rich man congratulates only himself on his good fortune. After all, any interaction with others might require him to consider how his fellow human beings fit into his plans. They might even ask him to share his plenty with them
No, he had better look out for Number One, hoard his belongings, and take life easy for a good, long while. Isn’t that everyone’s dream? Who could find fault with anyone for enjoying what good things life brings them?
It’s clear from our text that God finds fault with this approach. While Christians are called fools for setting aside worldly wealth, power, and fame in service to God and others, the Lord instead chooses the foolish things of the world to shame the wise. The seemingly shrewd rich man is not only called a fool by God, he is also called to his death and his reckoning. The Ruler of all things shows how foolish it is to base our security upon ourselves and our possessions.
What the man says to his own soul, and what God says, are completely different. The man thought his soul was just another one of his possessions, his own to direct and control. Yet even this essence of our selves is always in the palm of the Creator. As the rich man stored up things for his physical self, he was anything but rich toward God.
There are three main points regarding this lesson. First, a reminder that Christ’s kingdom is not of this world. Second, that it is God who provides, not we ourselves. Third, how this parable instructs us regarding good stewardship of all of God’s blessings, both material and spiritual.
The man who wants Jesus to settle his dispute over the inheritance was not paying attention. Jesus had just spoken of His authority over this world, and teaching His followers that they should have little concern over this world’s trials, conflicts, and priorities. Our fears should be not of physical death, or of discomfort from being in need in this life, but of spiritual death and eternal separation from the Lord.
The accumulation of wealth may bring favor in the world’s eyes, but it jeopardizes our relationship with God. Our confessing and following Christ always places us in opposition to the world. It risks our life and our livelihood through persecution or prejudice, but it secures our place with God.
In dying to provide us a precious inheritance, Jesus ensured our place in an everlasting household of untold treasure. Unlike most inheritances, however, where the heirs only obtain the wealth in the absence of their loved ones, both our heavenly Father and our god-man Brother will be with us as we enjoy it eternally.
Our inheritance, too, unlike that of the man in the crowd, is neither limited nor divisible. We do not need to worry that someone else might get a bigger portion, or that there won’t be enough to go around. The precious blood of Jesus atoned for everyone, in every time and every place. The number of His elect is uncountable, and each receives a full portion of His abundant love and life.
Our second point considers God’s providence for our daily needs as well as His concern our eternal life. The rich man couldn’t see his needs beyond the physical. He certainly gave no indication that he recognized his needs were provided for by God. Even before being blessed with a fine harvest, he is wealthy. He already has barns adequate to support a comfortable lifestyle. To this man’s life of plenty, God grants further abundant gifts—not because the man was good, but because God is good. As Luther says, God causes both sinner and saint to prosper, at least in this earthly life.
However, this man’s blessing from the hand of God becomes his greatest test. What will he do with his new-found abundance? He fails this test miserably, and his blessing becomes a curse. His possessions became, as Solomon indicated, “vanity.” Not the vanity of conceit, but rather that his accomplishments are all achieved in vain, useless efforts.
Jesus never denied that people had physical needs. In fact, He often satisfied their needs for food or healing. He frequently encouraged the sharing of one’s wealth or possessions with those less fortunate. Yet Jesus knows that our real need is not food or housing or clothing—it was the removal of the sin. Sin separates us from God, blinds us to the needs of our neighbor, and leads only to eternal death.
Food and money and possessions can satisfy you for a time—if you are happy to remain fixated on this world. But, as Solomon observed further, this satisfaction is fleeting. When illness, age, and death come upon us, wealth is of little comfort and of even less usefulness.
Our third point today is in regard to our stewardship of what the Lord has provided. This consists of more than that which we place in the offering plate each Sunday, or have electronically donated each week.
Remember how the rich man in the parable had no discussion with anyone else. He never even mentions other people. They were of no concern to him, apparently. In a sense, he had gained the whole world for himself. Yet in the process of doing so, he lost his soul. The world would lament the rich man’s end in a way radically different from the believer. The world says, “How sad it is that this man died, just when he had reached the top. He had to leave everything he had worked for behind.”
We know, however, that the real tragedy of this rich man is not what he left behind. God will see to it that the rich man’s resources find their way to those who need them. The real tragedy of the rich man, rather, is what lay ahead of him—eternal separation from God.
He lived without God, he died without God, and he will dwell forever apart from God’s comfort, care, and blessing. He was greatly blessed in his worldly life, yet did not give thanks or praise to God for His blessings. He received abundantly, but did not give generously.
Contrast this to God’s own actions toward us in Christ Jesus. Our Lord praised and thanked His Father for all blessings on a continual basis, even for the simple pleasure of daily bread. He lived in close communion with God, seeking His will in all things, and conforming Himself to the Father’s desires. Begotten as the Son of God, co-eternal and co-equal, He forsook all the power and riches and majesty of heaven, and took on our frail human form so that He might face our temptations, fight our battles, and die our death. Jesus willingly set aside His rightful place as heir to the kingdom, and God freely gave His greatest treasure, His dearest possession, the very life of His dear Son, for us.
What, then, is a God-pleasing solution to using the abundant blessings He has given us in this world? If His kingdom is not of this world, how do we possess that kingdom while not being possessed by the world? Do we remove ourselves from the world, turning our backs on the trappings of life around us, as the medieval monks did, and as some Christian communities do yet today?
Luther made clear on many occasions that we are not placed in this world to serve ourselves or to try to reconcile our lives to God through a life of selfish and visible piety. In fact, we sin by attempting to do so, for we are given our very lives in part so that we might serve others as God’s instruments, even as God graciously serves us graciously with all the blessings of salvation we could never earn for ourselves.
How do we avoid the anxiety that comes with having—or not having—possessions? How do we overcome the concerns that arise about what our heirs will do with what we have gathered? The answer lies in sharing our abundance with others when and where we can, blessing those who God would bless through us.
We are His hands on earth. We have not earned a life of leisure and comfort through our own efforts. We may condemn others to the snares of temptation if we provide such a life to them, rather than a legacy of faith and sacrifice.
Jesus never endorsed a life of idleness, nor did He advocate a foolish trust that God will provide us everything without any effort on our part, without using the abilities and strength He gives us. Scripture says that fallen man must eat by the sweat of his brow, and that he who is capable but will not work should not eat.
We enjoy the fruits of our efforts through the providence of God, though. We give Him praise and thanks for His bountiful goodness in granting us all that He has. We share God’s blessings with others and provide for the furtherance of His kingdom through our physical and financial gifts. But first and foremost, let us not fail to make others aware of the blessing that has no equal.
Let us also share the life-giving word which we received in baptism, the word through which the Holy Spirit brought us to faith. Let others know of the greatest gift, the greatest blessing, the greatest treasure we have received: Salvation by grace through faith in the atoning death and victorious resurrection of God’s only Son, Jesus.
May we live the foolishness that defines our lives not by what we have, but by what we are: Chosen and redeemed children of God. May we live the foolishness that tells us our worth is measured not in what we have earned, but by what has been given and sacrificed for us: The life and precious blood of our dear Lord and Savior.
May God’s words to us as we enter His presence for our eternal journey not be, “Fool!”, but rather, “Well, done, good and faithful servant!” In Jesus’ (
) name, Amen.