“The land of a rich man produced abundantly. . . . But God said to him, ‘You fool!’ ”
The story which Jesus tells is usually called “The Parable of the Rich Fool.” But on the face of it, we might not call the farmer in Jesus’ story, a fool. He certainly has been fortunate; because of the situation he was already in: the holder of a farm, a productive farm; because of the situation he was already in he has come into possession of an abundance, a great surplus of crops, of wealth. This is certainly not something which our culture/society, the world we live in would regard as foolishness. Indeed many might regard the rich man’s situation as entirely admirable. It is after all what nearly everybody seems to be aiming for: financial independence and long term security! He has been successful in the way in which our world has set up the definition of success. He has accumulated a surplus, which he has concentrated into his own possession, which he can now use to further whatever ambition or desire he might have. As it happens he has no more ambition. All he wants to do is to take it easy and satisfy his desire to eat drink and be merry. And few would be critical of him for that, calling it, as he might himself, “a well earned rest.” And the plans he has might be thought of might be thought of as demonstrating considerable practical wisdom. After all good fortune is nothing if it is not coupled with good management. He has been so successful that the barns he already has are insufficient to store what he has accumulated. His practical solution is to invest some of his surplus in replacing those barns with newer, bigger, better ones. So that the wealth he has produced isn’t scattered, dissipated but is concentrated all in one place where he can best control it.
Of course as he is considering all of this, his good fortune runs out. He dies! It is not that he is struck down. His death is not really intended as a judgement against him. There is nothing in the story as Jesus tells it, that suggest that the farmer he has in mind is in anyway dishonest. He was not a bad person. There is no suggestion that he was exploitative or fraudulent. The wealth which he gained was not stolen. He had broken no laws. And looking at someone like him now, we might not even call them immoral. His death is not in any sense a punishment. Dying is just what happens. The unfortunate thing for the man in the story was that his death turned up just at the moment when he was having what appeared to be his greatest success. We’d call it a tragic irony! He was making his most substantial and long lasting plans for his future well being and security when it was all brought to an abrupt close. In the end all that any of us, any human, any mortal might like to achieve will be cut off by dying.
What prompts Jesus’ story is a legal dispute. Someone in the crowd comes to ask Jesus’ judgement between him and his brother. What the brothers’ late father has done is quite normal, something that anyone listening in the crowd would have expected. The old man left his sons the farm as a single unit to be worked between them. Another piece of practical wisdom and good management. Rather than dividing the farm into smaller and smaller units as the generations passed. Which would create units that would be evermore inefficient and impractical and insufficient to support anyone. The family’s wealth , the means they had to support themselves, instead would be kept together. They would work it together for the benefit of the whole extended family.
But clearly the relationship between these two brothers has broken down. So that one of them, probably the younger, has come to Jesus, as he might to any prominent and well respected Rabbi, for a ruling. Jesus or any other rabbi are not judges, they do not have a police force to back up their rulings. But the prestige and the renown of Jesus’ wisdom would be sufficient to shame the brothers into doing whatever he ruled to avoid losing face.
The younger brother wants Jesus to rule that the farm should be broken up so that they could each work their portion separately. Clearly the younger brother thinks he is smarter than his elder, and believes that he will be able to make more for himself if he is allowed to work on his own and not be held back by his brother’s foolishness and by the burden of supporting all his other relatives. Jesus not only won’t be drawn into the dispute But also recognises the motive that lies behind it. And so he offers a warning against greed that could have come straight out of the Book of Proverbs:
“Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”
There is a great tradition of this kind of wisdom running through the whole Bible, from books like Proverbs or Ecclesiastes in the OT to James in the New. And frequently that tradition warns against the corrosive destructive effects of wealth. The great Prophets all contain ringing condemnations of the rich and powerful, but the Wisdom tradition is as suspicious of wealth as the Prophets are. Foolishness, which Wisdom teaches against; Foolishness, which is the opposite of wisdom; Foolishness is not merely ignorance or stupidity. Foolishness in the Wisdom tradition is the obstinate disregard of God. Foolishness is the opposite of the wisdom that flows from the fear of God. Foolishness is atheism
The rich man in Jesus’ story is not foolish simply because he had the bad luck to die just at the moment of his greatest success. A tragic irony perhaps, but probably not foolish in the sense we might mean it. And indeed the question which is posed to the rich farmer as he leaving this life:
The things you have prepared, whose will they be?
That question does have a rather straight forward answer. It is laid down in the Law. And any rich farmer, in the situation which the one in Jesus’ story found himself in, any rich farmer could give an immediate answer about who his heirs are. This farmer might even have replied, “My two sons” and not been terribly dissatisfied with the answer. Though of course that is where Jesus was brought in!
For all the man’s worldly wisdom and good sense in management, he is foolish because in practice he is an atheist. Whatever he might have said about his belief in God, in practice he acts as if there is no God. He is a practical atheist. When he prays in the story, he doesn’t pray to God, instead he addresses his own soul:
Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.
Jesus in his parable rejects the accumulation and the storing up of wealth. His rejection is on spiritual grounds. Because it grows out of and sustains a denial of God. The man’s fault lies in his attempt to amass resources beyond his own immediate need. And he does so in order to secure his own future well being and remove himself from productive human activity. This is in practice atheism. And it is this atheism rather than the noisy atheism of the likes of Richard Dawkins and other which is the characteristic belief of the world we live in. The attempt to gain the abundance of possessions, which motivates so much of what we see around us and in ourselves, as well as in the brother who asks for Jesus’ judgement. That acquisitiveness is about the (false) sense of security that possessions provide. We surround ourselves with stuff in order to insulate ourselves from our fears for the future and to make things easy on ourselves. It is atheism because it denies that God is the real source of our security and well-being. It is atheism because it denies our God given purposes in the world and our connectedness to everything else:
So it is with those who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich towards God
Wisdom condemns the man in the story as foolish. But the prophetic tradition, of which Jesus to is a part, goes further And Jesus’ story stands in that tradition as well. As Jesus says in his story:
The land. . . produced abundantly
There is no real credit to the rich man, he just happens to be holding onto the land when it produced its abundance. The implication is of course that it is God who is the source of that abundance, since God is the true source of all growth and all abundance. What the man has, he has been given as a gift. The rich man cannot take individual credit or sole ownership. It is his atheism which allows him to ignore God’s work and God’s giving, and deny God credit (worship and thanks) for his wellbeing. Which allows him to claim the surplus which the land has produced for himself,
rather than realising that it has been a gift that has been given to enable him to give to others. God has been generous. The implication being that God’s generosity should be matched by human generosity from those who have received it
Under the prophetic gaze situations like the one which Jesus describes in his story become a matter of justice. It has been said that the death of God is often followed by the death of humanity. The denial of God is followed by the denial of other human beings. Because God is the real source of growth, abundance and wealth, neither the man in the story nor anyone else can take credit or claim sole ownership. The prophet would ask the man: Who does the land really belong to? And how did the man come to be in possession of it, to make use of it and gain from its productiveness? The prophet would also ask: Who actually did the work? Surely the man on his own could not have laboured, to bring in a harvest that required hew barns, all by himself? Just because he happens to be in possession of the land, why does he deserve a larger share? And what of those who who have no access to the land to grow for themselves, or to work so that they might share in its productivity? The man’s denial of God’s role in his situation also enables him to deny other roles and his responsibility towards them. If God is the the source of all growth and abundance, then the moral imperative, richness towards God, is that everyone’s needs must be met.
Jesus points toward the dangers of greed. Greed is institutionalised in the way in which the world we live in now. Like the farmer in his story so much of what is done is about the accumulation of wealth and its concentration in the hands of fewer and fewer individuals. The world we live in is driven by greed and selfishness. The contrast Jesus wants us to learn points us to a society, a Christian commonwealth, that is rich toward God. Since it recognises God as the source of wealth. It distributes rather than concentrates. And it recognises the interconnectedness of us all’ it is mutual rather than selfishly individual. Because it comes from God wealth exists only to meet the needs of others. Jesus implicit answer to the dispute between the two brothers, that started all this off, is that he won’t divide their farm because the productivity and abundance that God provides should not be concentrated for the benefit or enjoyment of either one of them, or for any individual but should be distributed to meet the needs of all.
The Foolishness of Greed by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0