The Parable of the Rich Fool juxtaposes humor and sadness more intensely than any other I can think of. The two extremes remind me of the contrast of how we often experience joy and hurt, as well as how we balance an eternal perspective with the fact that “now” is all I have ever experienced.
I do not know if Luke intended 12:13 to be funny, but I laugh when I slow down to picture this happening in real time. Thousands of people are gathered together (12:1). Jesus is teaching. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, some guy in the crowd interrupts Jesus and shouts, “Hey, Rabbi, could you tell my brother to give me my stuff?!” Who is this guy? Is his brother there with him? Luke does not tell us, but I smile as I try to fill in the blanks of the scene.
The humor continues in the parable itself, when the already rich man faces the dilemma of what to do with his hyper-abundant crop. His biggest problem is he does not have enough capacity to store his wealth, poor guy. His naiveté is comical. He says to his self (or his “soul”), “I’ve got it! I’ll just build bigger and better barns and then everything will be fine. Eat, drink, and be merry.” He knows the first part of the saying but has humorously (or tragically) forgot the final phrase. “Eat, drink and be merry... for tomorrow we die!”
Thus, the sadness of the story. A tragic and sudden death comes unexpectedly to someone who seemingly had it all. And if he is not safe, then who is?
Consider the growing self-storage industry. We have so much wealth, our biggest problem is where to put it all. Forbes reports how the self-storage market will have a valuation of over $115 billion by 2025. So, if you have extra wealth you do not know what to do with, you can store it in an investment in an industry which provides storage for other people’s excess.
At the very same time, minimalism is on the rise. From blogs, to books, to Netflix specials, more and more people are drawn to an approach to life that recognizes life is more than the accumulation of stuff.
Of course, none of this is new. Nothing under the sun is different. You can find philosophers and faiths from across the centuries and millennia who tell us our life does not consist in the abundance of our possessions. This is certainly part of what Jesus is teaching us here. But I do not think it is the full extent (or even the primary point) of Jesus’ parable.
Ecclesiastes not only reminds us we will die and leave our stuff to others (2:18-19), but the Preacher there tells us this will happen regardless of whether you are wise or foolish (2:14-15). The fool in Jesus’ parable dies and cannot take his wealth with him. But even if he had wisely embraced an eternal perspective on wealth and a generous use of the fruit of the earth, he would have eventually met the very same fate. So, while the parable certainly is about wealth and earthly possessions, the final phrase of the old adage is true regardless of whether one is wise or foolish: “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”
So, while the parable certainly is about wealth and earthly possessions, the final phrase of the old adage is true regardless of whether one is wise or foolish: “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”
Then what? That is one of the questions this parable invites us to consider (and proclaim).
The disgruntled brother in 2:13 is not just calling on Jesus to give him more stuff. He is really crying, “Give me what’s fair. Give me justice!” This is a very dangerous request. Jesus’ immediate response echoes Exodus 2:14. Moses had just delivered justice to a Hebrew by killing an Egyptian (Exodus 2:12). That is what justice looks like. The next day, Moses intended to intervene with more justice, but one of the Hebrews asked, “Who made you a prince and a judge over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?”
Justice often brings death. God would execute justice upon Pharaoh and his house and all the land of Egypt throughout the life of Moses, the judge and arbiter. From atop Sinai, Moses would receive more instructions for what justice means. Primarily, God’s holy will is for His people to have no other gods. Every other infraction of God’s just decree ultimately flows from the breaking of the First Commandment: No other gods. This means not Molech, mammon, or even your own mother. Nothing is to be of greater importance than the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Jesus warns the one crying for justice. Demanding justice for ourselves does not end well. Thankfully, Jesus is not just another Moses. “For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). As Walther’s Fifth Thesis reminds us, “The most common way people mingle Law and Gospel [is to] turn Christ into a kind of new Moses or Lawgiver.”
Jesus is a mediator, but not the kind the man in Luke 12:13 was looking for. “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5). Jesus bore the burden of justice in His own flesh, giving Himself as the ransom price for all. All who demand justice will pay with their lives. “For all who rely on works of the Law are under a curse” (Galatians 3:10). Therefore, we praise God that, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13). But thanks be to God, “Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over Him” (Romans 6:9).
We need not fear when death comes for us, because it already came for Him.
What Jesus promises is better than justice. Jesus promises grace. He gives grace to us because He has taken justice upon Himself. This is the backwards way God reigns in His Kingdom. The Kingdom of God is offered, promised, and guaranteed to us through faith in Jesus.
So, you are free to, “Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33). All you need will be added, given, and kept for you, where neither moth nor rust destroy, where thieves do not break in steal, and not even death itself can separate you from the treasure: The love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord! Consequently, we too can sing boldly with Luther, “Were they to take our house; Goods, honor, child, or spouse; Though life be wrenched away; They cannot win the day. The Kingdom’s ours forever!” (A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, Lutheran Service Book, hymn #657)
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Luke 12:13-21.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Luke 12:13-21.
Lectionary Podcast-Dr. Jeffrey Pulse of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Luke 12:13-21.