The Rich Fool
Luke 12:16-21: ‘And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”‘ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich towards God.”‘
Let’s be clear that there is nothing to be gained from a failed business. We Christians also believe in businesses that prosper and make profit, businesses that can employ men who then are able to speak two comforting words, ‘My job.’ That’s very important. Wage-earners can buy food and pay a mortgage and support their wives and children. Christians can support the work of the kingdom of God. There is no sin in the enjoyment of financial success – as a look at the life of Job and the patriarchs of Israel clearly teaches. There is no sin in wise and energetic use of our talents and creativity. The sin lies in greed and selfishness. The sin lies in being a sluggard and burying your gifts. We pray that all your business ventures will succeed, whether it is a farm or a factory or a shop, and that God will bless your own labours. We admire businessmen and we pray for you. Some of our favourite heroes are men and women who have kept a fine Christian testimony and have prospered in their businesses, such men as the late Ernest Reisinger.1 Such lives have been a constant testimony to their communities. They were not slothful in business while they also continued to love God and love their neighbours. So we have no problem with the fact that the lands of this rich man (of whom our Lord spoke in this passage) produced a good crop. ‘Great!’ we say. It was good for him; it was good for his farm labourers that there was a bumper harvest. It was good for those who traded in the crop, and good for the women who bought the crop at the local market, and good for their families who ate it up. It was good for the bank where his money was invested. It was good for the government who received tax on the money. They were all winners.
It is also good to learn that this rich farmer stopped and considered, ‘What shall I do?’ That is common sense to weigh things up; such self-consciousness reflects the divine image in man. He didn’t live by instinct. He considered his life and his future. So what is our judgment of this man so far? It’s pretty good. He was an industrious man and an effective farmer. He was a thoughtful and judicious fellow. He was a careful and frugal man. He was a respected, influential and envied member of the community. So far so good. We can emulate him in all those ways and many of us wish we were more like him.
WHAT ARE WE TO THINK OF THIS MAN?
How are we to picture this man? What are we to say about him? Love would surely have to make the following observations:
i] He lived such a narrow life, a one track life, and that was the track that led from his house to his fields and barns. He wanted to farm and nothing else. We are told of no interest in his family, or his community, or in cultural matters. ‘My farm, my land, my crops, my barns,’ and nothing else! We are made by God and we live in his creation. The heavens declare his glory. There have been farmers ploughing their fields on a spring day who have had to stop the plough for five minutes overwhelmed with the glory of the scene around them, the wheeling birds overhead and following the plough, the smell of the cut open soil, the sight of the blue distant hills, the sky and the sun – all this is saying, ‘God is, and God is glorious, and God is great, and God is to be worshipped and served.’ What a breadth of life comes from loving the Creator, not a restriction of life; it is not at all a narrow life to know God, but this man was certainly living a narrow life. There are fifty-four words in this parable in the original Greek and fully eighteen of them are first-person words like ‘I,’ ‘me,’ and ‘my.’ The man was obsessed with himself and you see it in these bouts of inner monologue that Jesus records. He was a man constantly talking to himself. He asked himself questions and he also gave himself answers.
ii] Again, this man had such limited expectations, that the sun would shine at the right period, and the rains would fall during the right weeks and in the right amount, and there would be a great harvest. That is what he looked for every year, that his land would produce a good crop. He didn’t think of the great religious gatherings, that they would be blessed with the Lord’s presence. He didn’t think in terms of justice and peace characterizing his nation. He didn’t think of his grandchildren kept from temptation and delivered from evil and doing well in school. His expectations were strictly limited to the farm and the harvest.
iii] Again, this man had such a false security. At the back of his mind he was aware that he wouldn’t for ever be maintaining the country year, ploughing, sowing, watering, harvesting and gathering into barns. There’d come a time, he thought, some time in the years ahead, when he’d have laid up many things for a secure future, and that that would be the time he’d sit back and say to himself, ‘Take life easy now. Eat, drink and be merry now.’ That is what he planned . . . one day. It would come some time in the distant future. The huge problem was this, that he had no way of guaranteeing that that age of ease would definitely come to him, any more than any of us can know without a shadow of a doubt that we’ll live to retirement age and then enjoy many years taking life easy. We don’t know how long we have to live, however long, however short it may be. So that is how we judge this man, but more important . . .
WHAT DID GOD THINK OF THIS MAN?
That narrow life, with its limited expectations and false security was judged by our Lord to be the life of a foolish man.
i] He took no account of God even though all his life he had lived and moved and had his being in God. His breath was in God’s hands . . . inhale . . . exhale. His conscience would commend him when he did right and rebuke him when he did wrong. The things of God’s law were written on his heart. He knew he should have the Lord alone as his God, that he shouldn’t bow down and worship idols, that he shouldn’t take the Lord’s name in vain, that he should keep one day for the Lord each week saying, ‘My farm and my land are not my God. I don’t worship barns full of grain. Most certainly I worship the Lord on this day every week.’ He should have honoured his parents and not been a violent man, not a liar, not an adulterer, not a thief and not a covetous man. He should have feared God and kept his commandments. It is the fool who says in his heart there is no God.
This rich man should have read what God had said through the prophets in the Scriptures which were written in his nation and revered by its wisest men. He should have read what Moses had written in Genesis about where the world came from and how death came into the world and why mankind is in the sad state it is, why men and women treat one another as they do. Moses tells us in the opening chapters of the Bible where the world came from. He should have read how David had praised the Lord in the book of Psalms, and how Isaiah had seen the Lord high and lifted up with his train filling the temple and the angels bowing down and worshipping him. He should have read and learned from that great revelation of God in the Scriptures. Then when people began to talk of this great prophet that had appeared, Jesus of Nazareth, and what extraordinary preaching there had been in his Sermon on the Mount, and how he healed the sick and delivered people from the devil and even raised the dead, then he should have taken note. There was something more to life than his fields and crops. He should have given all his farm labourers a day off to go to Galilee, and he should have accompanied them, and they should have all listened to Jesus Christ. What a fool to miss the opportunity of meeting with the greatest man this world has ever seen simply in order to keep watering his fields and weeding another on that day, and that that was far more important than hearing the incarnate God, the Word made flesh! All this pathetic farmer was interested in was his land, and his crops, and his barns. What a foolish decision!
ii] He took no account of his soul. He was not just body; he was also soul. It’s animals that are just bodies; they respond to the instincts that they’ve inherited from their parents and the attitudes they’ve observed in the pack. They take what is given to them; they seize what is in front of them; they have no plans for the future; they don’t think of the beauty of the world, and the greatness of their Creator. They pay no heed to a voice of conscience for they have none. They are a body and when they die they think that is it. They are annihilated, life over. But we are also souls. God has set eternity in our hearts. We know the challenge of self-denial. Parents will refuse the best for themselves that their children will be healthier. A man may lay down his life for his friends. It is all because we are souls also. There is a God-shaped void in everyone’s life which the living Creator, our mighty Redeemer alone is able to fill. Consider the whole drama of the deliverance of the 33 miners in Chile,2 the extraordinary cost of that rescue operation, the longing in the families for their loved ones, the world-wide rejoicing when they were brought out of their tombs. Only men and women with souls can behave in that way. What an impoverishment to live just for the instincts of the body – food, drink, warmth, the herd, copulation – and encourage others to think like that – ‘Go with the flow!’ We are far more than drives and instincts. We are made in the image and likeness of our Creator. We are made by God and for God. This fool took no account of his soul.
iii] He took no account of death. The single unavoidable event that lies before us is death. This rich farmer made his plans as if he were immune from dying. None of us is; we cannot be, so we have to have some philosophy of life that has a proper recognition of death. It is very simple for us Christians, because we are simple people. The Lord Christ, the Son of God, conquered death. On the third day he rose from the dead. He was resurrected. The stone guarding the sepulchre where the body lay had been rolled away before dawn, and when people looked inside they saw that there the grave-clothes were neatly folded, but he was not there. Then the Lord Jesus appeared again and again, the one they had seen put to death, whose body was anointed and wrapped in a shroud. He came to them often for 40 days, in the garden, in the upper room, on the road to Emmaus, by the sea, in Galilee, on the Mount of Ascension, privately just talking to one of them, recommissioning and forgiving, or to two of them as they were walking, or to all the apostles together and he made them breakfast, or to the 500 who had come to trust in him. They all had an opportunity to talk with him and be assured by him that death is not ultimate reality because that is the Lord of death, Jesus Christ. He is its conquerer; it is subordinate to him; death does what Jesus tells it to do. So for the Christian death is the little journey to the one who said, ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’ We know what death is and what lies after death. He has told us, ‘I go to prepare a place for you so that where I am there you will be also.’ Death will be our means of being with him. That is our total philosophy of death. Our head is in heaven, and so we have no fear of putting our feet into the grave. When he calls us there we shall go with the joy of a boy on the last day of term leaving school for the summer holidays and bounding off home. Through Christ death has become friendly to us. Our Lord Jesus is the end of the journey. We Christians think about death because it will be our best day. It is the day that is nearest to heaven and to the sight of Jesus Christ. Those who remain will certainly bury something, but someone is not there. He is with the Saviour he loved, who had been waiting for him with love. But there is another reason why he is called a fool:
iv] He took no account of eternity. I am talking about the lifetime of the Almighty. I am talking about ‘for ever’; what short words, but utterly endless. I am talking about immortality. I am talking about a duration which had no beginning and will have no end. The Bible affirms that there is a life after death, which for some will be a day that has no sunset, and for others a night that has no sunrise. I believe it because the men who have been closest to God, the apostles who spent most time with Jesus Christ, were totally convinced of it. This is what the Lord had taught them. Paul said that to be absent from the body was to be present with the Lord. His longing was to depart and be with Christ which was better. When Stephen was dying then for a moment he saw Jesus standing to greet him on the other side. John in prison on the Isle of Patmos, convicted by some court or other of preaching the message of Jesus Christ, saw a revelation of the final state. Our Lord’s eye-witnesses were totally convinced of the life of eternity and they have convinced me also. I believe it because on the Mount of Transfiguration the apostles saw Moses and Elijah who had come from heaven to speak with Jesus. They had not been annihilated. They had not been reincarnated. They were those men whom they always had been, true people who served God in their generation, whose sins had been forgiven through the Messiah. They were now enjoying the life of eternity. The solution to the many riddles that life brings us lies outside space and time. The solutions lie in eternity. The moral case against God would be overwhelming if it were not for eternity. This life is full of pain and injustice. The young are murdered; their killers are never caught. Does not this injustice trouble God as it troubles us? Yet there is eternity!
So in Jesus’ judgment, and that is the only judgment ultimately that matters, the man, so highly esteemed and admired in his day, was not a sensible man. He was a fool because he said, ‘What I’ve got is mine,’ but everything he possessed only temporarily belonged to him. That is all, just for a few brief years was it his. There was a sideboard in our house when I was a boy. My parents bought it when they were first married, and my mother kept it until she died, and then one of my daughters took it. I’ve always linked it with growing up in my home, and then earlier this year my daughter called me and said that with the arrival of their son they needed to make room in the house and would I mind if they disposed of Mam and Dad’s sideboard. She was so thoughtful to ask me, and I didn’t mind at all. Then a few weeks ago I was walking through the Wiltshire town of Trowbridge with my son-in-law when he pulled me into a furniture shop. We walked into the centre of this store and there he showed me that old sideboard of my childhood that once belonged to Mam and Dad forlornly standing there for sale for sixty pounds, unwanted for weeks. I had only the slightest pangs seeing it again; like everything that my parents had it was theirs just during their brief lifetime to keep or to dispose of as they wished. So it is with all my books and belongings – moth and rust will corrupt them; others will enjoy them. There is nothing of which I can say, ‘This is mine for ever.’ So why should I live for and love exclusively something that is mine for a moment – as briefly as a watch in the night?
Do you see how Jesus ends this parable by asking the man, ‘Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ (v.20). After his death whoever has his farmhouse and fields, his goods and chattels, then one thing is certain – they certainly don’t belong to him any longer. He is dead. With all his effort, and good taste in gathering them, and expense in purchasing them, and the safeguards he had in taking care of them they will be no longer his. He could not take his favourite ring with him. However rich he was, he died a poor man. He left life as naked as he entered it. Others now have all that is left of his estate. In the words of the psalmist, ‘The foolish and the senseless alike perish and leave their wealth to others’ (Psa. 49:10). But he was foolish for another reason:
This man said, ‘The more I’ve got then the richer I am,’ and again he was wrong. Jesus is telling this story in order to illustrate his words in the previous verse, ‘a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions’ (v.15). We have read the biographies of some of the richest men in the world, Greek shipping magnates, Russian oligarchs, lottery winners, and many of them were total strangers to joy. They have found their luxury stifling. Joy is a gift of God; it is the fruit of the indwelling Holy Spirit; it is full of glory, that is, it comes from heaven, from the very presence of God. What does it profit you to have everything but not have that? Having heaven’s joy is true wealth.
The man also indicated his folly when he said, ‘I can reckon on the future.’ What presumption! Again he was wrong. 33 miners in Chile this summer went off to their place of work one day and they had no inkling that it would be ten weeks before they saw the light of day again. But they were more fortunate than others of their companions who were never to see its light again. One thing you cannot reckon on is the future.
GOD STOPPED SHORT HIS SOLILOQUY
God cut him down to the size of a mere mortal when he said, ‘This very night your life will be demanded from you’ (v.20). The rich man had spoken aloud, ‘I have plenty of good things laid up for many years’ (v.19). ‘No’ God said, ‘just until tonight, just a few more hours. Then your soul will be required of you.’ A fool and his money are soon parted. The word that Jesus uses here, ‘required of you’ or ‘demanded of you’ the bankers of the time used when they were calling in a loan. You had asked the bank for a sum of money and they agreed that you should have it, but just for a specific time. So you were conscious of this debt hanging over you and the brevity of the time to repay it, working hard on the investment you had made with the money, staying at your job in the evenings, saving every penny, keeping the string in a tin, and putting every jiffy bag you received in a cardboard box, walking instead of driving, and watching the voltage of the light-bulbs. You warned your wife to be careful what she bought, and the children knew that these were tough times. You could not afford holidays and parties and going to a restaurant because the day was coming when the bank would demand that the loan should be repaid. You feared debtors’ prison and bankruptcy and so you worked and saved because of the appointed day that seemed to be speeding towards you.
That date is our death, and then, for the life that God has loaned us, we must give account. He will say, ‘I gave you health, a sound body and mind; I gave you intelligence so that you could go to university. I gave you threescore years and ten. I set you in the world in a prosperous and peaceful time in the history of your nation. I gave you loving parents. I gave you a job, a salary, prosperity, marriage, children. You are made in my likeness, a little lower than the angels, and now I am asking for an account of your life. You had a conscience, and the things of the law were written on your heart. I gave you an overwhelmingly Christian heritage. There was an earlier grace in the land. There were places of worship built 140 years ago in your town where the gospel of my Son, Jesus Christ was preached. The Gideons gave you a Bible when you were in school. You had friends and family that told you of the virgin born Son of God. I am going to ask for an account of your life.
‘Did you have other gods before me? Did you serve your idols rather than me? Did you take my name in vain? Did you keep the Sabbath Day holy? Did you honour your mother and your father? Were you violent? Were you sexually promiscuous? Did you steal? Did you lie? Did you covet what was someone else’s? In other words did you love me? Did you love your neighbour as yourself? Were you ashamed of me and the gospel? Did you know that you and everyone else in the world has sinned and fallen short of my glory? Did that make you ask me to forgive your sins? Did you come to me in the name of Jesus, because I made him to be sin in the place of sinners on Golgotha that they might be made my righteousness in him? Did you plead Jesus’ death as the Lamb of God who takes away our sin? Did you ask me to forgive you for Jesus’ sake? Did you continue to ask until you knew that I had heard? Sinners should come just as they are, without any other plea than the life and death of Jesus. Don’t plead your good works. Come to me! For those who come to me in Jesus’ name I will in no way cast them out.’
I know a man named Cecil Andrew who in the summer of 1984 was still thinking that he could ‘sweet-talk’ his way to God on the basis that he wasn’t really too bad. Then God chased him from that refuge by bringing to him the words of James 2:10, ‘For whoever shall keep the whole law and yet offend in one point is guilty of all.’ In other words, when our Creator gave us his law he gave us a unity. The commandments of God are not like ten Lego bricks and if one is cracked then you still have nine perfect ones. No, it is one law reflecting the character of the one God. It is like a pane of glass and just one crack has spoiled the whole pane. It is like a ball, and the cutting away of one segment has ruined it completely as a ball. It is like an exposed computer and half a cup of water poured over the works has finished all its usefulness. It is like some soup and one pinch of arsenic had made the whole inedible. We have defied the Law-Giver himself with that one sin. The act is the indicator of our state of heart toward the Almighty. It has destroyed our relationship with him. We are guilty sinners.
Cecil Andrew saw that that was his condition in the summer of 1984, and on 19th August he plucked up courage and went to church. What an effort it was, but he went. He said, ‘I can’t recall what the preacher spoke about but I know during that service God revealed to me that the sinless life and the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ were the only answers to my great need.’ Cecil saw that and he acted upon it. He gave himself to God through Jesus Christ. He did not know how long he had to live but henceforth he would live for Jesus, and live with Jesus, and live for the glory of Jesus however God prospered him or if God did not prosper him. He was no longer his own; he had been bought with a price. Henceforth he would present his body to God as a living sacrifice. He would fulfil man’s chief end of glorifying God and enjoying him for ever. Now what of you?
I have been reading the life of Brownlow North again, that man through whom many came to know God for themselves in the middle of the 19th century. I was struck by his conversion and what he did as a rich fool when God came upon him and convicted him of his sin. These are his words:
I rose from my bed in an agony of soul, for I had been many months in trouble about my spiritual condition. I need not have been like that for many hours, if I’d only had faith to believe in Jesus Christ, and to make my own heart a liar; but my own heart told me that I was the chief of sinners, that Paul, who called himself the chief, was not to be compared – no, neither was he – to me, and that there could be no hope for me. For months I believed my own heart. That night, being unable to sleep, I rose and went into my room to read the Bible. The portion I was reading was the third chapter of Romans; and as I read the twentieth and following verses, a new light seemed to break in on my soul. ‘By the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in God’s sight.’ That I knew. But then I went on to read these words, ‘But now, now, the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference.’ With that passage came light into my soul. Striking my book with my hand, and springing from my chair, I cried, ‘If that scripture is true, I am a saved man! That is what I want; that is what God offers me; that is what I will have.’ God helping me, it was that I took: THE RIGHTEOUSNESS OF GOD WITHOUT THE LAW. IT IS MY ONLY HOPE.3
ARE YOU RICH TOWARDS GOD?
One practical application of this parable is very simple. It is this warning: ‘This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich towards God’ (v.21). This is not a unique, one-off story of one man, utterly remote from all of us. It applies to anyone, Jesus says. What you have heard from the lips of the Lord Jesus is how it will be with millions of people, many known to you, whose lives are spent in storing up things for themselves but behave like Scrooge in their attitude to God. Maybe many of you are just like this man. Don’t be a fool! Don’t be the kind of man who lives in God’s creation and yet for this world system only, the world that hates God and has banished him from all its thoughts. No. Do not be a fool, rather be a wise man.
Be wise to thank God for every blessing, knowing that everything comes from him. Be wise to pray about practical problems, asking God what to do. Be wise to offer the best of your abilities for whatever God needs to be done, even in retirement. Be wise to know that life is short, that any day may be your last, and therefore that your future belongs to God. Be ready to meet God for judgment, trusting him to save you from your sins through Jesus Christ . . .
Jesus calls us away from such poverty of soul to be rich toward the God who has been so rich toward us. God has lavished us with the gifts of his good creation: food, clothing, shelter, and millions of other material blessings. More than that, he has lavished his people with the gifts of his saving grace: the forgiveness of our sins, freedom from guilt, and the hope of eternal life. He has done this through the extravagant grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave his lifeblood for our sins when he died on the cross. Though he was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor, so that we through his poverty might be made rich.
Now we have a choice to make: will we lay up more stuff for ourselves, or will we be rich toward God? We know all too well what it means to lay up treasure for ourselves, but what would our lives be like if we were not so selfish? You say, ‘What do you mean being rich toward God?’ I am rich toward God when his glory is my highest goal, when his worship is my deepest joy, and when his fellowship is my greatest satisfaction. I am rich toward God when I offer all my abilities for his work, without reserve. I am rich toward God when I take the time to serve people in need and give to the work of God’s kingdom. I am rich toward God when I make the needs of the poor a priority in my financial giving and embrace a simple lifestyle that gives me more freedom for ministry. I am rich toward God when I decide there are some things I can live without so that I will have more to give to people who do not even have the gospel. I am rich toward God when I give and give until all I am and all I have is dedicated to his glory. Will we lay up treasure for ourselves, or will we be rich toward the God who has been so generous to us? This was the question Jesus gave to them.4
- See Ernest Reisinger: A Biography by Geoff Thomas (Banner of Truth, 2002).
- On 13-14 October 2010, 33 miners were rescued after spending 69 days trapped 700 metres underground following a rockfall in the San Jose Mine in Chile.
- K Moody Stewart, The Life of Brownlow North (Banner of Truth, 1961) [Out of print], p.29.
- Philip Ryken, Luke Volume One (P & R Publishing, 2009), pp.664-5.
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