Jesus told a parable to teach the importance of investing in eternity and not to think we can determine our happiness through materialism.
Jesus told a parable to teach the importance of investing in eternity and not to think we can determine our happiness through materialism.
Hello and welcome to Series 8, Episode 14, and we are studying the parable of the rich fool - quite a well-known story and a wonderfully powerful parable of Jesus. We are in Luke's gospel where we've been for quite a number of episodes now and our text is Luke 12: 13 - 34, which we're going to read through very shortly.
Introduction and Recap
Luke has been our guide at this part of Jesus' ministry and he particularly focuses on helping us to understand the events that happened after Jesus made that critical decision when he was in Caesarea Philippi and on the Mount of Transfiguration to leave Galilee and to head south to Jerusalem. That story is told in Series 7 and I'm referring back to it again as I've done on many episodes recently, to help us get the context, because things really changed in Jesus's life and ministry when he decided to leave Galilee. He never went back to minister in Galilee after he made this major decision. Galilee had been his home and that's where he had great popularity, great success, great impact. It was right in the northern part of the country - the less significant part of the country - but now he's heading south. That's made very clear. Luke is the one who makes it clear in chapter 9; Jesus with determination sets his face to head to Jerusalem. He's going to be travelling through the provinces, particularly of Samaria in the middle of the country, and Judea in the south, of which Jerusalem is the capital. That's the journey, that's the situation, as I've described in our previous episodes in chapter 8..
Series 8 also incorporates some material from John's Gospel when Jesus makes more semi-private visits to Jerusalem for a couple of religious festivals. Now, we're in Luke's story. Quite a number of important things have happened along the journey. We've seen the sending out of the 72 - 36 teams travelling around Samaria and Judea, and the surrounding area, trying to get Jesus' message out to the whole country. This creates a lot of interest. People are really quite keen to see Jesus and it must have been an interesting experience to have lived in the country and to have heard so many stories from Galilee, the northern part. People were coming from there and saying it's amazing what Jesus is doing; you've got to come and see; you've got to find out; I've seen these miracles; I've heard these teachings; the crowds are enormous, people are coming from everywhere. If you are hearing these stories time and again but you never actually see Jesus, then it would be a matter of considerable excitement if someone says actually he's going to be passing through soon because he's on his way south. That would have been the experience of many people and that would account to some extent for the large crowds that gathered, as well as the impact of the 72 travelling around in those 36 teams, preaching and healing the sick.
It's a time of great interest and we've noticed in recent episodes also that opposition is rising. That's not the main topic of this episode but I'm just noting it for context. Opposition is rising from the religious leaders; they're feeling more threatened, as Jesus comes further south. They are intensifying their campaign and we see the Pharisees, Teachers of the Law and other members of the ruling establishment appearing in the narrative, sometimes in a very confrontational way as we saw two episodes ago. The narrative around that suggests a major confrontation going on, which is putting some people off following Jesus because they're following their religious leaders. That's another part of what's going on in this particular period of time.
In this episode, we are looking at a parable and a personal question. Somebody in the crowd comes to Jesus with a very personal question and asks him to arbitrate in his family which brings forth from Jesus a parable. Another notable thing about Luke's Gospel is the abundance of parables. If you're looking for the parables of Jesus, you'll find that Matthew and Luke are the ones who give us most material in that particular area. We've studied parables in some detail so far and we'll come back to think about them again very significantly today. The wonderful thing about Luke's Gospel is that he gives us quite a number of unique parables that no other gospel writer records - like the Good Samaritan, this parable that we are going to look at today, the rich fool, the prodigal son, and quite a few others are found in this particular part of Luke's Gospel, which describes this latter end of Jesus' ministry as he's heading south to Jerusalem. It's a wonderful resource for us to go to these rich and powerful stories.
Let me remind you also about parables: the parable was never designed by Jesus to be an allegory where every detail represented something else. A parable essentially has one main theme, or main point, and the details may or may not relate closely to the personal circumstances of those who listen to the parable. What you need to do is to get the main point. The main point of this particular parable is fairly clear as we will see. The parable has the force of a dramatic story making an important point about Christian discipleship. Parables also had the effect, very often, of giving fresh insight to those who are open, and confusing those who are already quite closed to the message of Jesus Christ. That's less evident in the parable we're dealing with today but it's a general theme of parables and it's something that Jesus explained, particularly and specifically in Matthew 13, would be an outcome of teaching in the form of parables. Stories are important to us, aren't they? We remember stories, and parables are vivid stories which sit in the human imagination; they sink into our consciousness, and we understand at a deep, intuitive level what a story is about. A parable is a story within a story because of course the life of Jesus, as I'm communicating it, in this particular project is designed to come over to you as one big story with many different components and parts, that we want to fit together in one huge, dramatic and exciting jigsaw puzzle. I hope you're enjoying the big picture, which is why I give a lot of context for each talk so it becomes more vivid and exciting for us. There's another joy and that is to find these stories within a story - these lovely, wonderful and often quite challenging stories that come up and hit you in the face, so to speak, and make you think wow that's a powerful way of communicating what Jesus wants to say.
The Presenting Problem
Let's get to the text and have a look at what triggers this particular story because there is a trigger - a situation that makes Jesus want to tell a story. Let's read Luke 12: 13 - 21,
‘13Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” 14Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” 15Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” 16And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. 17He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ 18“Then he said, ‘This is what I'll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. 19And I'll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’ 20“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?’ 21“This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”’Luke 12:13-21, NIV
A man in the crowd calls out to Jesus. Jesus often had questions from the crowd as you will have noticed. People have their own personal concerns - they're longing to bring them to Jesus. This man had somehow got to the front of the queue and he said, ‘Tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.’ Inheritance is a big problem in any society - that's why there's such a strong system in many cultures of wills and legal frameworks by which inheritance, money, land, property is divided up in the family. It can cause tremendous rifts and conflicts. Very often in those days the rabbis, the Teachers of the Law, and the Pharisees, were asked to arbitrate in family disputes. Here we have a man who is basically saying that his brother is not going to share the inheritance with him - a common issue. This matter would normally be discussed by the judicial system and judges in different districts of the country. It wasn't really the responsibility of religious leaders to make this kind of decision but people often asked them. They had a sense of authority and people pleaded their case when they felt that they had been unjustly dealt with by their family.
Jesus avoids getting involved in the situation. It would be fairly absurd for him to do so given the mission he's on and the thousands of people that are following him. He can't just divert and go to a village somewhere and spend time dealing with this issue, so he avoids that but he uses it as a means of teaching something more general. Very often, in inheritance people feel they've come off worse than they expected. They've built up expectations that when relatives or parents die, it's going to be their economic salvation or benefit, or bring them to a situation of comfort and material security. It isn't always the case for all sorts of different reasons. It's quite a common human experience to put a lot of emotional capital and thought into the idea that when a relative dies and I'm going to get a huge benefit from that situation. This man was disappointed because he was not benefiting in the way he expected. He felt his brother was hogging all the inheritance and no one was intervening, but Jesus goes deeper, and basically warns people not to be greedy about material possessions, not to invest a lot of emotional energy in trying to get their hands on other people's possessions, for example through inheritance or through some illegal trading activity or theft. He's warning against materialism. Was this man very materialistic in his claim? We don't know if this isn't necessarily a direct comment to him but Jesus decides to make a teaching point out of this circumstance and this discussion of inheritance.
A Story of a Rich Farmer
He tells this story. It's a story that any Jew in this era would have understood very well because, for most people, land was the number one economic resource. It was a land-holding economy. Land was, generally speaking, not concentrated in the hands of some aristocracy or some land-owning, rich group and the Jewish system was such that land was supposed to be distributed amongst people in every village and every tribe, and then redistributed from time to time so that land didn't accumulate in the hands of just a few people. That's contrary to what happens in many countries today and you will probably have this experience in many countries - you can find vast areas of land controlled by very small numbers of people. I have myself been travelling through different countries and seen simply enormous barns being built on vast commercial farms owned by the rich elite in that particular country. Despite the Jewish Law, and the Jewish culture, there were some people who made really good out of land. They got lots of land, accumulated land, created large farms and, with a good harvest season, could make a huge amount of money, or store up huge amounts of grains in their barns, and other foodstuffs in preparation for years to come.
This is the situation described here. Here is not an average farmer, not a poor person, but a rich man, someone who had made money out of land, had already done very well. He was already fairly comfortable. At the beginning of this story there is no sense of need, or trouble, or difficulty for him - he's rich! The story states it unambiguously - ‘a certain rich man’. He had another bumper year, another really good year of harvest, - beautiful weather, beautiful harvesting conditions, good labour force, productive land, everything had gone well, plenty of irrigation, plenty of water - all the things that farmers long for all over the world today. This man had everything going for him. He was already doing well and then he produced a really good, top grade harvest and he suddenly thought, I don't know where I'm going to put all this grain. If I sell it, I can make money on it but if I keep it, then I'm not going to have to have to work so hard; I'm not going to have to worry so much and I can enter into a period of taking it easy, relaxing - take life easy, eat, drink and be merry - that was his thought. He'd reached a point where he thought - maybe I'll go into semi-retirement, have a comfortable life. Many people think about that sort of thing today in richer countries in the world, where resources for retirement have developed through pensions, through property and through other resources, through welfare state and social services. There's lots of resources that enable people to think I could stop working and I could live for many years comfortably, relax, and take it easy. In those days, and possibly even in your country today wherever you are in the world, that would not apply. It was only very few people who could adopt the attitude that this man adopted, because very few people had the resources that he had. He immediately thought, ‘I'm going to live for myself, I'm going to live for comfort, I'm not going to work anymore. We'll let the farm tick over; won't worry about productivity; there's so much in the barns; it'll last for years and years and years.’ He was sitting back in this comfortable, materialistic way. He was putting his trust in his material resources. Deep down in his heart he was saying, that's what's going to make my life worth having - that's what's going to make it good, that's what I love, that's what I want. I just want these resources; I've got them; let's enjoy life.
As the parable says, though, this man turned out to be a fool because his life was demanded of him, which means he died suddenly, unexpectedly. He presumably wasn't extremely old. He anticipated having a lifetime ahead of him but it was not to be and he died suddenly. The point of the story is in a sense an obvious one. He lost everything. What is the value of that massive accumulation of land, money and stored up grain, if you lose your life? It forces you to think as you look at the situation, what is the value of those things? I wonder if you've ever had that feeling, when you've been at the funeral of some rich person who's died and they've left everything behind. You wonder, was it really worth it?
Treasure in Heaven
Jesus' conclusion is that if you store things up yourselves but you're not investing in relating to God, you are in a very dangerous position because your eternal destiny will be outside of the Kingdom of God, outside of heaven. There will be an eternal judgement in hell like this man at the end of the passage: Verse 22.
‘22Then Jesus said to his disciples: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. 23For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. 24Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! 25Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? 26Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest? 27“Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labour or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 28If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! 29And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. 30For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. 32“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. 33Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”’Luke 12:22-34, NIV
For those of you who know the New Testament quite well, you'll immediately think that this passage is actually connected to the Sermon on the Mount, where something very similar is recorded in Matthew 6 and 7. There's a long section which has the same themes and much of this material is recorded there. Let me make a comment on that. I've mentioned it before in recent episodes and I mention it on quite a number of occasions but it's important to say this again. Jesus often repeated his teaching in different contexts and this isn't a surprise, because that's what teachers do. I used to be a history teacher and I know what it's like, you're often repeating your material in different contexts in different ways. Almost by definition a religious teacher is the same. Jesus spent approximately three or more years travelling around. Only a tiny fragment of what he taught is actually recorded for us in the Gospels and he was speaking to different groups of people all the time, so he would often be repeating himself. We've seen some examples recently in our studies: for example the Lord's Prayer that appeared at the beginning of Luke 11, that's already been taught in the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 6, and Jesus repeats very similar teaching in Luke 11. We've already noted that sometimes a parable can be repeated in a different context, for example the parable of the lost sheep appears in Matthew 18 in one context and Luke 15 in another with two slightly different applications. We have the same phenomenon here. Jesus brings material that has previously come in the Sermon on the Mount - why? Because it is directly relevant to the issue he's dealing with, which was provoked by the question of the man in this big crowd on the way to Judea - the context is different. The Sermon on the Mount was given more formally, more structurally to the disciples and a large crowd on a hillside in Galilee at the beginning of Jesus' ministry. We're much further on, but the teaching is repeated.
Jesus encourages his followers to avoid wrong attitudes, not worrying about the provision of our needs, not setting our heart on material things to bring us any ultimate salvation. He wants us to cultivate good attitudes. There's two good attitudes that you can cultivate that are really helpful. One is to consider the natural world, for example, the birds and the flowers. Consider the natural world, consider the provision that comes to the creatures and the plants of the natural world. That provision comes by the grace of God and is superabundant without worry. They have what they need in the normal order of the natural world and so reflecting on the natural world can be very therapeutic for us in terms of our natural tendency to anxiety. The other thing that is very therapeutic is deliberately seeking to increase our faith in God by praying about things - Lord I have a need, a material need, please help me - calling on God as our heavenly Father and this we should do on a regular basis. It's built into the structure of the Lord's prayer - ‘Give us today our daily bread’ is exactly that approach. It's a wonderful, wonderful prayer. Lord give me enough for today and that's what God has committed to do. We can have faith that he will do that for us.
The practical steps are seeking God's Kingdom first - in other words, asking yourself the question: what is his priority in my life, or my family's life, or in my church's life? How do I orientate my material resources to God's priority, rather than just accumulating them to protect myself. One of the things God often asks us to do is to sell our possessions and give to the poor, which is stated here in Luke 12: 33. There's a lot of very practical teaching that follows on from this stunning, stark, powerful story of a man who made an absolutely fundamental mistake. He believed that he could protect himself from any difficulty, any harm, any stress. He could create comfort, happiness in the long-term purely by material resources. He forgot to be, in Jesus' words, rich towards God. He ignored God. He kept God out of it; he lived for himself. When he died he realised he'd made the wrong decision and he entered into God's judgement. This is a risk for anyone. It's also a story about the vulnerability of human life. However rich you are, you have almost no control over the length of your life. It's in the hands of God and in the hands of unknown forces that you cannot control.
Therefore, in conclusion, I would want to say this is an encouragement and a challenge. True disciples of Jesus cannot be materialists. We must constantly reflect on the extent to which the culture of materialism in our society is getting a grip on our thinking. We need to break that grip; break that power; and think differently. Put your investment in God's kingdom; expect your reward principally in heaven; seek God's kingdom first - what does he want you to do with your life and your resources. You might have very few resources but he's still asking you that question. You might be moderately wealthy - he's asking you that question. You might be very wealthy - he's asking you the same question. Give control of your resources over to God. Ask him what he wants to do with your life, or your family's life, and then invest in those priorities, trusting that he'll meet your needs and he certainly will. You'll receive your reward in heaven and you'll never regret the sacrifices that you made on earth in order to be in that position. Thanks for following.