I just finished writing a sermon for Expository Times that will appear this summer. It’s on the parable of the rich fool. I tried to look at this well known parable from a different angle, from back to front if you will. Love to know what you think.
I’ve officiated at scores of funerals and not once have I uttered the words “you fool.” I suppose this is so because the primary task of presiding at a funeral, as I see it, is proclaiming the resurrection and the hope we have in Christ Jesus. It’s not so much about the person who has died as it is about what God has done for that person. That said, since God meets us in the particularity of the incarnate Christ, we properly spend some time remembering the particularities of the life of the person we are commending to God’s further care and perhaps offer some good words (eulogies) about that person’s life. For the most part, good words are easily found. At the time of death, stories of service to church, country, community, and family are often remembered and appropriately shared. This usually isn’t a whitewashing of our loved one’s human frailties and faults, but a way to honor them as we entrust them to God’s mercy. But sometimes, admittedly only a handful of times, finding good words has been difficult. For all I could see, these had been lives wasted in the pursuit of self-interest, leaving behind a long line of hurt people. On those occasions I try to name some of the demons the person struggled with, pray for the family of the departed and the grace to forgive, and then talk mostly of the mercy of God and the triumph of God’s love. I have been sorely tempted to say “you fool,” but never have. It seems to me that is God’s prerogative.
In our Gospel lesson, Jesus tells a parable about a man who on the day he dies hears God say to him, “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” This must have been quite a surprise for the man. He thought he was living the dream. He had stored up enough wealth and grain to, as he says, “Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” God calling him a fool may come as a surprise to us as well. Much of what Jesus tells us about the man – he was rich and he had abundant crops – may seem like a rather blessed life. I can even imagine some friend or family member mentioning such things in a eulogy. Why, then, does God call him a fool?
In Jesus’ parable, we learn the man was very fortunate in this life. He acquired great wealth by the fertility of his land. It produced abundantly, more food than he could consume. He had surplus, and as economists would tell us, as long as the market price for grain remained high enough, that meant profit. He could store up grain and wealth for the future. He wasn’t dishonest, wasn’t unjust. He came by his wealth, not by taking advantage of others, but by the grace of good land and enough rain and sunshine, by labor to harvest what grew, and by making solid plans. He saw that he had so much grain and goods that he could build bigger and bigger barns, more and more storage, to be able to save for his use in the future. But on the verge of living the dream—having enough stored up that he could stop planning and building and harvesting and instead relax, eat, drink, and be merry—the rich man died.
On the day he dies, God offers a eulogy of sorts. “You fool,” God says. Your life isn’t your own, and neither, in the end, is all your stuff.” Ever wonder what people will say about you after you die? Here God gives the man a preview of what God, at least, will say. “You poor fool.”
Why a fool?
Not because the man is rich. Money is a tool. Money builds hospitals, houses the homeless, teaches the illiterate, supports the arts, feeds children. Jesus depended on the money of others to support him and his disciples. Jesus praised the extravagance of a woman who poured expensive perfume on him, preparing him, he said, for his death. Jesus was buried by a rich man, Joseph of Arimathea, who placed him in his own tomb. In the book of Acts, the sequel to the Gospel of Luke, a mark of Christian community is not communal poverty, but communal wealth, where through people’s sharing with one another, everyone has enough. The fool’s foolishness is not that he is rich.
And yet we need to be realistic about money. Wealth can also divide, wall off, distract, lure, dazzle, occupy, possess. And so Jesus gives the rich fool’s eulogy this introduction: Beware. Be on your guard against all kinds of greed. The word is literally “much-having,” the having of a lot and the wanting of more, the seeking to possess a whole lot of anything, really—money, houses, cars, gadgets, books, clothing, Hummel figurines—because in the seeking of more and more, in the greedy quest for “much-having” there will never be enough. And you can spend your life building bigger and bigger barns to store all your grain and your goods, and in the end have lots of treasures for yourself, but be impoverished toward God. Poor fool. Even in this life, his major goal was pathetic and shallow: his own ease, enjoyment, the passing pleasures of food and drink. And he didn’t even get that.
The man is a fool because in his greed for more and more, even if disguised as careful planning and the discipline of delayed gratification, the man is the only person who inhabits his universe, or so he believes. In this story, the man can only talk about himself and to himself. “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down mybarns and build bigger ones, and there Iwill store mysurplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”” He acts like he is all alone; God does not exist for him. He doesn’t even pause to thank God for the abundant blessings of his productive land. He never thinks about the difference his blessings could make for others, the relief he could bring, the care he could show.
I wonder what the eulogies for this man would have been like. No one else is mentioned in the parable, but I wonder if there really were no other people in his life, or if they had just ceased to matter to him, if he stopped paying attention because he was busy building and storing for the future, a future he would not live to see. The ripples of his life would still affect others in this life.
What was it like to be the child of this man? The wife? “Yes, honey, Daddy is working late again today. Maybe you will see him on the weekend. Maybe he will put his smart phone away and play with you or come to your game. But, honey, you know he is so busy because he’s working for the future. . .”
What was it like to be his friend? Did he have any? Did they feel taken for-granted? Were his employees only the means to an end? What does it take to get the man’s attention when the only pronouns he uses are I,me, and mine?
His death is narrated in a single sentence. “This very night your life is being demanded of you. And all those things you have gotten ready—what for?”
In his foreword to a collection of obituaries from the New York Times, Pete Hamill writes, “The cause of death, of course, is always life. We humans all die, a fact so unremarkable that in [obituaries] the technical reason for death is almost always covered in a single sentence. What matters is the life, and how it was lived . . . There is a sense of finality to every obit, the fall of a last curtain. No matter what the reader thought of the subject, that man, that woman no matter how remarkable cannot add another sentence to his or her role in the ongoing story of the times. It’s over. If the person is admired, we mourn the death and celebrate the life. If the person is despised, we remember the reasons for our contempt. And then turn the page.”
“What matters is the life, and how it was lived.” Our worth does not come from acquiring any thing. We gain no true, lasting, eternal, and meaningful status from storing up any treasures for ourselves that in the end will be given away, passed along, inherited, sold, stolen, dissolved, donated, enshrined, treasured, or tossed in the trash. But how we use things—giving thanks for everything entrusted into our care, sharing what we have, caring for our neighbors, gives us a wealth that uses no storage space, does not need to be worried about, insured, managed, or guarded. Being rich toward God won’t end when someone writes our obituary and people remember with fondness or contempt and turn the page.
Pete Hamill, The Obits: The New York Times Annual 2012. Edited by William McDonald (New York: Workman Publishing Group, 2011), xiii-xiv.