The Rich Fool | Luke 12:13-21

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  • The Rich Fool | Luke 12:13-21
  • Imagine you lived during the days of Jesus. You were able to see and hear the ministry of Jesus in person. Somehow, you finagle your way to the front of the large crowd, close enough to speak to Jesus. What would you ask or say to him in that moment? 

    That scenario is the occasion of the text. Verse 13 reads: “Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.’” In Jewish custom, the firstborn son was the heir of the father’s estate, executor of his father’s will, and recipient of the lion’s share of his father’s wealth. The man of our text was the younger brother, who was deprived of his inheritance or wanted more than his rightful share. He brought this financial dispute to Jesus to receive justice or vengeance. Rather than humbly requesting Jesus’ wise counsel, he ordered the Lord to do his bidding. 

    Verse 14 records Jesus’ response: “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?” “Man” indicates the man was a stranger to Jesus. Jesus asked, “Do you think I am Judge Wagner on the People’s Court?” The rhetorical question was an emphatic refusal. The request was not outside of his sovereign authority. It was outside of his redemptive purpose. Leon Morris commented, “He came to bring men to God, not property to man.” Jesus refused to get involved in this family and financial squabble. He used it to instruct his disciples. Verse 15 says: “And he said to them, ‘Take care, and be on guard against all covetousness.’” 

    “Take care” is a stern warning. It means to “watch out,” “take heed,” or “beware.” “Be on guard” is military language. It is to defend yourself against an enemy’s attack. What threat demands this solemn language? “Covetousness.” We don’t treat covetousness as a matter of spiritual warfare. But God includes in the Ten Commandments. Exodus 20:17 says, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.” Covetousness is more than envy or jealousy. It is greed – a desire for more. Colossians 3:5 calls it “idolatry.” Covetousness is “thing-worship.”

    Jesus warns us to be on guard against all covetousness. Verse 15 explains: “for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” We are human beings, not human havers. You are more than what you have. Covetousness is a false and faulty definition of life. Fight against materialism with all your might. Why? You cannot live for God and live in greed. Jesus makes this point emphatically in the Parable of the Rich Fool. What does this parable teach us about life, death, and eternity? Let’s review this story under two headings. 

    The Life of a Wealthy Man 

      The main character of this parable is called “the Rich Fool” because he had a bad solution to a good problem.

      A Good Problem. His good problem was twofold.

        The Plentiful Harvest. Verse 16 says, “The land of a rich man produced plentifully.” A rich man’s land produced a bumper crop. We can assume the man was rich because he worked hard. He tilled the soil, planted the seed, and cultivated the crop. His hard work paid off with a great harvest. However, the text gives him no credit, and rightfully so. His land was not his land. Psalm 24:1 says, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” Because of Adam’s sin, the ground was cursed. A man may work by the sweat of his brow, and the ground brings for thorns and thistles. That did not happen here. The Lord blessed this rich man’s land to produce plentifully. 2 Corinthians 9:10 says, “He who sows seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness.”

        The Limited Storage. Verse 17 says the rich man thought to himself, “What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crop?” The bumper crop created a dilemma for this rich man. He reaped so much grain that his barns did not have room to store it all. This is a good problem to have. Or is it? “What shall I do?” indicates more than the rich man’s confusion about where to store his grain. It expressed his great anxiety about his storage problems. Proverbs 10:22 says, “The blessing of the Lord makes rich, and he adds no sorrow with it.” This rich man’s blessing became a curse because of his self-centeredness. If he had shared his abundance, he could have remained rich while helping the needy. Ambrose said, “The bosoms of the poor, the houses of widows, the mouths of children are the barns which last forever.” This answer did not seem to cross the rich man’s mind. He worried about what to do about his limited storage for his plentiful harvest. 

        A Bad Solution. Verses 18-19 records the rich man’s bad solution to his good problem. 

        His Construction Project. Verse 18 reads: “And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.’” Note the personal pronouns in this monologue: “I will do this…” “I will tear down…” “I will store…” Note the possessive pronouns: “My barns.” “My grain.” “My goods.” The rich man had a business meeting with his board of directors: Me, myself, and I. He decided to tear down his barns and build larger ones.

        See how warped this man’s thinking was. He did not plan to expand his barns or build new ones alongside them. He would tear down all of his existing barns. Then he would build larger ones. Assuming the successful completion of his construction project, he would store all of his grains and goods. It was the ancient prototype of the American Dream: “Get all you can, can all you get, then sit on the can without sharing it.”

        His Retirement Plan. Verse 19 reads: “And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’” In a perverse soliloquy, the rich man addressed his own soul. He congratulated himself for having “ample goods laid up for many years.” There would be so much grain stored up in his new large barns that he would never have to work again. He could “relax, eat, drink, be merry.” This is the closest scripture comes to addressing what we call retirement. It pictures retirement as a path to a wasted life. 

        R. Kent Hughes said, “The problem with this man’s retirement plan is that it was a ticket to hedonism.” “Eat, drink, be merry” is a biblical idiom for a decadent life. 1 Corinthians 15:32 says, “If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” If it’s true that when you’re dead, you’re done, party as much and as long as possible. That’s not how it works. Hebrews 9:26 says: “It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.”

        The Death of a Foolish Man 

          A bumper sticker reads: “The one who has the most toys at the end wins.” Wins what? The one who has the most toys at the end still dies. You cannot take any of those toys with you. 

          Your time on earth is limited. Up to this point, the rich man is the only character in the parable. Verse 20 introduces a new character: God. When Jesus wants God the Father to speak in a parable, he disguises him as one of the characters in the story – be it a king, master, nobleman, father, or shepherd. To show the futility of this rich man’s life, Jesus casts the Father as a guest appearance as himself. The rich man has had much to say in this parable. God has the last word in the end.

            The Final Verdict. Verse 20 says, “But God said to him, “Fool!”

            • The media called him a success story. 
            • Society called him a mover and shaker. 
            • His colleagues called him a trailblazer.

            God called him a fool – a damned fool! He was a fool in the Old Testament sense of the term. He had no spiritual wisdom. Psalm 14:1 says, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” The rich man was not a fool because he had earned, planned, saved, or enjoyed his wealth. He was a fool because he allowed his wealth to cause him to think, speak, act, plan, and live as if there is no God. The Parable of the Rich Fool is a cautionary tale.

            • You can be a wise before man and a fool before God. 
            • You can be rich among men and poor toward God. 
            • You can be a success with man and a failure with God. 

            The Death SentenceThis rich man was a fool because he could not tell time. In verse 19, he said to himself, “You have ample goods laid up for many years.” In verse 20, God told him, “This night your soul is required of you.” While establishing an investment plan that would give financial security for years to come, he did not factor in that there was no guarantee that he would be around for years to come. He would not live to see the next morning. 

            James 4:13-15 says, “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit – yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’” Life is brief, fragile, and out of your control. We will all be bones in a box or ashes in an urn. Pray Psalm 90:12: “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.”

            The Probate Estate. See the Master Teacher at work. God condemns the rich man as a fool. He announces the rich fool would die that very night. The next step would be to send him to hell. That’s what happens to the rich man in the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man. That’s not what happens here. God asked, “And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” This question reveals how dangerous covetousness is to the soul. The threat of hell does not frighten the heart in love with money and what it can buy. It is more concerned about what will happen to what they have when they die. There are two pieces of bad news here:

            • You cannot take any of it with you when you die. 
            • You cannot say what will happen to it when you die. 

            Ecclesiastes 2:18-19 says, “I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seething that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity.” Wasting your life accumulating things that cannot save, secure, or satisfy is vanity. Jim Elliot said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”

            Your treasures on earth are limited. Many of Jesus’s parables are open-ended. The story ends without a conclusion, leaving the hearer to discern the meaning of the parable. Here, Jesus states the point of the parable. Verse 21 concludes: “So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”  The text is not about the man who ordered Jesus to tell his brother to divide the inheritance with him. It is not about the Rich Fool. It is about you and me. 

            Let me be clear. Jesus does not condemn laying up treasures for yourself. It is an inevitable fact of life. Each of us is laying up treasures for ourselves. We work, gain, spend, plan, and save. That process is not a dispassionate one. “Treasure” refers to what you accumulate and your attitude toward it. You lay up treasure, and you treasure what you lay up. Jesus does not condemn any of that. He condemns the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God. 

            Matthew 6:19-21 says, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

            A king set sail on a diplomatic mission. His host honored him with a vest made of silver and gold. The bejeweled vest was so heavy that it was not meant to be displayed, not worn. But the gift swelled the king’s pride, and he determined to wear it home. On the way, his ship wrecked at sea. Everyone would have to swim to safety. The king refused to take off his golden vest and drowned at sea. 

            Matthew 16:26 asks, “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” Imagine the Rich Fool tried to negotiate with God that night. 

            • Would half of his wealth stave off death? 
            • Could giving his entire estate save him? 

            None of his material possessions could help him at dying time. “So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.” Are you rich toward God? What does it mean to be rich toward God? How can you become rich toward God? Matthew 5:3 says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” To be rich toward God, you must be poor in spirit. Confess your spiritual bankruptcy.

            God created us. We must give account to him for our lives. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Nothing we say or do or give can make us right with God. But God sent his Son, who lived a perfect life, died on the cross for our sins, and rose from the dead. 2 Corinthians 8:9 says, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” Run to the cross! 

            A wealthy Roman had a foolish and rebellious son. He also had an obedient servant named Marcellus. Because the son was such a prodigal, the father determined he did not deserve an inheritance. His will left all his wealth to his loyal servant, Marcellus. The will permitted the son to choose one thing from his father’s estate to take as his own. The son responded, “Give me Marcellus! That’s the scandal of amazing grace! We don’t deserve God’s favor. But if you choose Jesus, you get it all! 


            H.B. Charles Jr.

            Pastor-Teacher at the Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church of Jacksonville and Orange Park, Florida.