The Parable of the Rich Fool attacks the delusion of a self-made person like no other teaching of Jesus. Yet the American narrative of opportunity and possibility, which undergirds the illusion of meritocracy and keeps the nation undignified, continues to guide the country. So what does Jesus say and how does he challenge us to live?
A Key to Understanding Jesus
To understand Jesus, we must realize that the Semitic world did not distinguish between body and soul. That is a Greek concept and prompts much of a Western world founded on Greek philosophy to misread the Bible. Therefore, when we approach the teaching of Jesus on wealth, we should not distinguish between the temporal and eternal.
Instead, we should focus on how we use material goods while alive. In other words, we need to recognize that spirituality is not spiritual and the Bible is not about going to heaven. Put it another way, Jesus teaches about the Kingdom of God or, in the language I regularly use here, the way of love as opposed to the way of power. This brings us to Luke chapter 12 which includes the Parable of the Rich Fool.
An Introduction to Luke 12
This is a transitional chapter in Luke’s narrative. Luke 11 closes with a declaration that the scribes and Pharisees are now out to get Jesus. Luke 12 opens with Jesus warning his disciples not to model their lives after the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. Instead, he calls them to live love boldly. While it is easy to translate these words as a purely oral confession, both a Semitic mindset and the parable itself reveal it is about how we conduct all of life. This only makes sense given that the Pharisees were known for outward gestures of piety while privately working to expand their power.
While speaking to the Disciples, someone from the crowd speaks up and sets the stage for the parable. He is the younger son of a man who recently died who is now asking Jesus to tell his brother to divide the family inheritance. In that world, if a man died without a will, the oldest son had to agree on the division of assets before anything else happened. For some reason, be it grief, a debate over a fair division, or his greed, the older brother was stalling. The younger was angry and wanted what he believed was owed to him.
A Foolish Younger Brother
This attitude is a fundamental error in thinking. Nobody is owed an inheritance. You do not earn what your parents acquired during their lifetimes. An inheritance is a gift from one generation to the next. So before anything else, the younger brother’s thinking about the inheritance is faulty.
Moreover, coming to Jesus with this request demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of who Jesus is. While the scales of justice are about an equal distribution of good and ill, they hold little concern for the broader impact on people. This is not the justice of Jesus, which is about restoration and healing. Ultimately, justice for Jesus means everyone realizes that they belong and lives to make others aware of their belonging.
Without saying anything about the older brother, the younger has chosen power so rather than subjecting himself to the wisdom of Jesus and asking him to arbitrate the dispute, he independently decides what is right and calls on Jesus to enforce it. In response, Jesus offers a parable warning explicitly against greed and defining life based on possessions. Jesus has an entirely different vision of abundance that challenges the younger brother and the Pharisees while reinforcing his argument to his disciples.
What Makes the Rich Fool a Fool
The parable itself opens with a man who is already rich. Then his land produces another abundant crop. So what is the response of the landowner to the ample surplus? How does a fool respond?
He said to himself, “What should I do? I don’t have room for all my crops.”
There are two key issues with this response that we miss because of our Western minds. First, he consults himself. While we celebrate the rugged individualist, in the ancient world, this idea was foreign. Wise decisions happened at the city gates where (in that culture) men would gather to discuss life’s most important questions. How else could anyone gain the broader perspective necessary to come to thoughtful conclusions?* Only a fool would act independently. Yet that is exactly what this man does.
*Leaving out the voices of women limited their perspective, thus decisions were made that often only benefited men.
Second, part of this limited perspective is on full display when he refers to the harvest as, “my crops.” This is the same error as the younger brother who believed the inheritance was his. But as we already established, he did not earn the inheritance, just like the rich man did not produce an abundant crop. Rather, the story already made it clear that it was the land that produced. They are not his crops, they belong to the earth. According to Jesus, they are a gift from God for the man to steward because God granted him that earth, but none of it is, in any way, his.
Moreover, in that society, an already wealthy man would not work the land. Instead, his laborers would have plowed, planted, tended the crops, and harvested this abundance. So any human credit for this banner crop actually should go to them, not the landowner.
It is only because of these two fundament flaws in his thought that he can come to his conclusion:
And I’ll sit back and say to myself, “My friend, you have enough stored away for years to come. Now take it easy! Eat, drink, and be merry!”
Laundering the Rich Fool
As the parable closes with the man’s unexpected passing, Jesus turns to the disciples and invites them to live a life of trust in divine provision for all of life. Read outside of this broader context, these words become dangerous. After all, we live in a society of rich fools. People we entrust to be good stewards of God’s gifts regularly choose to devalue labor for their benefit. For forty years they have promised an economic trickle down, but the trickle never comes.
Left alone, Jesus’ admonition to trust in divine provision becomes a weapon that rich fools use to justify themselves. They become a defense of injustice and greed. These very words that Jesus uses to warn the disciples against acting like rich fools are used by the fools to launder their foolishness.
Eat the Rich Fools
The real question is, “How do we bring about justice without becoming fools ourselves?” Here is where we turn to the rest of the title and a play on a quote from Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau:
When the people shall have no more to eat, they will eat the rich!
So how do we eat the rich in a society designed to encourage and enable rich fools? What can the follower of Jesus advocate for? That is what we will explore next week.
Book: Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels by Kenneth Bailey
Bailey is one of my favorite authors as his work unpacks the cultural realities that shape the Biblical text. In doing so, he helps the reader to approach the Bible through non-Western eyes.
Podcast: Jon Talks With Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase on The Problem with Jon Stewart
Former Daily Show host Jon Stewart sits down the Jamie Dimon to talk about the economy. Dimon, is broadly considered to the cream of the CEO crop when it comes to public policy. Over the course of the interview, Steward reveals Dimon to be a rich fool who is out of touch with American society.
As part of the Jon Steward video Jamie Dimon bragged about how well Chase treats its employees. But during this House hearing, Representative Katie Porter proves him, once again, to be a rich fool.
How is your thinking shaped by the narrative that allows rich fools to survive? Perhaps you justify exploitation with the idea that it is the cost of someday making it? Or maybe you buy into a narratives of fear surrounding regulation and taxation? Then again, you might not recognize everything that has enabled you to thrive?
How might life look different if you changed your thinking?
What can Christians do today to address a society created for and run by rich fools?