Nothing is certain — so the well-known saying has it — except death and taxes. The rich man in the parable we have just heard might quibble with that assessment. Whatever he might have thought about taxes — and I don’t imagine it would be anything positive or necessarily anything printable — death seems to have been rather far from his mind. Nothing unusual about that, we might justifiably say. But whatever he did or didn’t think about death or taxes, he seems to have had a remarkable confidence that his harvest and his treasures would see him through the vagaries of the years ahead — if he even considered the possibility of vagaries.
This character, traditionally dubbed the rich fool, is a bit of an absurd figure. And he truly is a fool in the biblical sense. The Psalms and the Book of Proverbs have a lot to say about fools. The word fool isn’t used to imply a lack of intelligence or common sense but is applied to somebody who denies or ignores God. As the psalmist famously proclaims: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Ps 14:1).
The rich fool is just such a person. It’s not that he openly says or consciously thinks “There is no God” but that he lives without reference to, or reverence for, God. It’s all me, me, me: “my barns” and “my grain” and “my goods” and “I will do this”. He is purely and simply living off the fat of the land and exploiting it for his own gain and pleasure. There is nothing about his family, his workers or his friends. There is no hint that the bumper crop is not all his doing or that, given different circumstances — a change in climatic conditions, for instance — it could have been a bumper failure. There is no hint that he doesn’t have complete control over the future. “You have ample goods laid up for many years,” he congratulates himself.
He does just what we are warned against doing in the reading from Deuteronomy: he forgets the Lord:
Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God […] When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them […] and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God […] Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth.
(Deut 8:11–14, 17, 18)
These words describe precisely the trap the rich fool has fallen into. We even see him exalting himself into God’s place in the language he uses when he talks to himself. His address to his soul ironically echoes the Psalms. Think of the beginning of Ps 103:
Bless the Lord, O my soul: and all that is within me, bless his holy name.
Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits
Those lines echo our Deuteronomy passage, which says:
You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you. (8:10)
The rich fool blesses himself instead of God. Truly, he is a model of the person who has forgotten the Lord.
He gets his comeuppance for his selfishness and absurd self-absorption. He isn’t allowed to get away with his plans for exploitation, gain and pleasure. Instead, the very things he ignored — God, death and maybe even inheritance tax — catch up with him. The one whom the rich fool denied denies him the chance to guzzle in his greed. God gets the last laugh and we, the parable’s audience, get to laugh at the man’s foolishness.
But don’t laugh too loud, or don’t laugh without at least a wry chuckle at yourself. For the fool is us. Jesus wants us to recognise our own folly: our own capacity for self-absorption, our own greed and selfishness, our own remarkable capacity to forget the God who has given us all we have.
In that light, it is legitimate to read this passage as a parable of our society, a parable of how we are living in relation to our global neighbours and the planet. Aren’t we, as a society, the ones who have been obsessed with continual economic growth, with pulling down our barns and building bigger ones, with enjoying every possible pleasure and creating new ones to fill our unprecedented amount of leisure time? We have done that at the cost of our neighbours in the developing world, at the cost of the environment and at the cost of the very existence of a vast number of the animal and plant species with which we share this planet, this good land that the Lord has given us. Given the likely cause of Covid 19, we have also done it at the cost of our own health. And we have done it at the cost of our own souls.
How, then, should we act to make sure that we do not join our wealthy farmer friend in his foolishness?
Jesus implies at the end of the parable that we are to be “rich towards God” (Luke 12:21). This is the opposite of forgetting God. It surely starts with giving thanks for what God has given us. But it can’t end there. The rich fool could have sought to sanctify his schemes by giving thanks for what God had given and continued with his programme of “eat, drink, be merry”. He still would not have been free of his self-absorption or been “rich towards God”.
The Epistle for today nudges us in the direction we need. There, we read how God provides us with “every blessing in abundance”, so that we “may share abundantly in every good work” (2 Cor 9:8). The harvest is the Lord’s and we are to share it. We are to be not rapacious devourers of the planet’s resources but cheerful givers out of the abundance that God has given us (2 Cor 9:7), giving not only to fellow Christians but to “all others” (2 Cor 9:13). In light of how interconnected our world is, that means making choices that allow others to live — living simply that others may simply live, as it is often put. Not only other people, but other species.
As David Attenborough’s recent programme showed us, that involves some complex choices. It is not simply enough to eat less meat, for instance, if we switch to alternatives that use soya from farms that destroy habitats halfway across the world. But it is part of our calling to grapple with these issues, to switch where we can to more sustainable and more just patterns of living, because caring for the good land the Lord has given us and caring for our neighbours is part of being rich towards God.
Ultimately, being rich towards God is about giving away. Giving away not just material goods but giving ourselves in love. It is then, when our actions — driven by the Holy Spirit and motivated by love — have freed us from the hold our material treasures have over us, that our thanksgiving draws us into a new richness, when we become more deeply aware of how everything we have is a gift.
Questions for reflection or discussion
Do you recognise yourself in the rich fool? How could you change to be less like him?
How can we be cheerful givers to our neighbours in developing countries? How can we allow them to be cheerful givers to us without this becoming a relationship of exploitation?
In what ways do you “bless the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you”? Does this go beyond words into action? How might it go further?