Today is April 1, April Fool’s Day. This is an unofficial day celebrated in much of the world, a day when the goal is to play a prank on someone else. In my family, someone would always sneak down to the kitchen during the night and put sugar in the salt shaker and salt in the sugar bowl. You had to remember that it was April Fool’s day and check the taste before putting salt in your coffee or breakfast cereal and sugar on your eggs.
The BBC played a great April Fool’s Day joke in 1957 when they aired a short piece about the spaghetti harvest in southern Switzerland. They reported that in the fall of 1956 there had been a bumper crop and it showed young women harvesting the strands of spaghetti off the trees, laying them out on the ground to dry, and then celebrating the harvest with a bowl of freshly harvested spaghetti. They mentioned that it took years of patient breeding to produce the uniform lengths of spaghetti. It finished the clip with: “For those who love this dish, there’s nothing like home-grown spaghetti.”
I remember watching this clip at a drive-in movie when I was a young boy. It left quite an impression on me and it was year’s later that I read an article about the hoax. It was not difficult to fool me. I once had green peppers stuffed with hamburger at a friend’s house and asked his mother how they grew the green peppers with the hamburger inside. It must be genetic, because my father, when he was a young boy, planted chicken bones and then waited for the chickens to grow.
I did not intentionally pick the parable of the Rich Fool for this day, it just worked out that way. But in this parable, Jesus was not talking about playing a joke on someone.
A man came to hear Jesus teach and decided to ask for help. His brother was not being just in sharing the inheritance with him and he wanted Jesus to tell his brother to do the right thing. (Luke 12:13–21)
Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.
For a year and a half before I moved to Morocco, my mother refused to speak to me. She was an unhappy woman and she continually blamed others for her unhappiness. Over the years my sisters and I took turns bearing the brunt of her disaffection and this was my turn. She had threatened over the years to cut off one or the other of us off from our inheritance, but during this time when her only sister died and she settled the estate, it was my turn and I was cut out of the inheritance. In addition, as part of the settlement all of her grandchildren were given $10,000 – except for my two daughters who received nothing because they were my daughters.
I expected this from my mother but this also made me feel resentment toward my sisters. If one of them had been cut out of the inheritance, I would have shared what I received with them. But only one of my sisters did that with me and I felt tremendously angry about this injustice and I still can feel remnants of this anger today. I haven’t thought about this for years but the context for this week’s parable brought it up once again.
Inheritance issues create huge tensions in families. It may be money or there may be a table or a chair or a collection of stamps and all the children want it. So there is a fight and the children may end up not talking to each other, having a divorce among siblings.
When families fight over material possessions the issue is most often not simply about the material possession. After the fact, it seems strange to have become so emotional about a table or a lamp. What makes these fights about inheritance so powerful is that we want to be valued and loved and when we do not receive a fair portion of the inheritance, we feel devalued, unloved, and disrespected. This is what I experienced.
So I am sympathetic to the man who came to Jesus to get help because his brother was not being just in sharing the inheritance with him. (Luke 12:13–21)
“Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.
This was not a strange request. This is what prophets did. They traveled from town to town and settled disputes. This is what Moses did for Israel when he led them through the wilderness. This is what Samuel was doing when he met Saul and anointed him to be king. Whenever there was a dispute, it was brought to the leader to settle. This man in the crowd decided Jesus was a prophet and so he made his request.
Normally Jesus showed a great deal of compassion to those who suffered and here there is a man who was suffering. The text does not give specifics about his situation, but I am assuming, because of the nature of inheritance, that he was not looking simply for the money. In addition to the money he was looking for justice. He wanted his share of his father’s estate. He wanted to be valued and loved.
But Jesus who showed so much compassion to people, did not show it here.
he said to him, “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?”
This is not a gentle response and Jesus’ use of the term “man” is a rebuke. Jesus is clearly irritated by the question and as his response to the request he first gives a warning and then tells them a story.
he said to them, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”
What did the man think when he heard Jesus say this? If I had asked Jesus to tell my sisters to share the inheritance and Jesus had said this to me, what would I have thought?
I would have said that I was not coveting. It was not an issue of the money. I would be fine without it. That is true, but it is not entirely true. Because whenever we say it is not about the money, it really, deep down, is at least partly about the money. There is always that part of it.
I might have admitted this, but would have pressed the point that more than the money it was the principle of justice that bothered me. And I would have said it was the sense of rejection from my mother and her sister that was the issue. When my sisters did not share what they received with me, their inaction told me they agreed that I deserved the rejection of my mother and aunt.
But do you see that I have not listened to what Jesus said?
“Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”
Jesus is telling me that my life does not consist in the abundance of my possessions but I have not paid attention. I am still looking for him to agree with me about the injustice of my situation. I keep pressing my case, caring deeply about the inheritance.
And so Jesus tells his parable because stories have a way of reaching us that teaching does not. I can dismiss a teaching but stories have a way of sneaking truth into our hearts. Especially in emotionally charged situations, stories bring truth to our hearts.
16 And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, 17 and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ 18 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.
So far, Jesus is describing a wise, prudent businessman. His management of the land paid off and with a good growing season, he exceeded his expectation of what he would harvest. Storing his crops would allow him to sell what he had produced at the optimum time when he could get a good price. This would allow him to buy more land and have an even bigger crop in the future. This is what good businessmen do. They make wise decisions like this and they expand their operation.
I have a niece whose husband has a dairy farm. In a highly efficient process, he milks 600 cows three times a day. When I visited him last year, he told me he had room in his milking parlor for 300 more cows and then he would buy another piece of land and begin a second dairy farm. He is a successful dairy farmer.
If there had been business schools at the time of Jesus, they would have asked the rich farmer in Jesus’ story to come and give lectures.
This is not a parable critiquing the process of building a business. This is not a text to use to say that business is evil and being wealthy is ungodly. The Bible does not say that. The problem with this man comes with the next part of the story.
19 And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” ’
His bumper crop was not the problem. Expanding his operation was not the problem. Generating wealth is not contrary to living a life pleasing to God.
Here is the problem. Where was the rich fool’s trust?
The Rich Fool’s confidence and trust rested on what could easily be taken away. To use another of the parables of Jesus, his house was built on sand and when a storm came, the sand under his house washed away and his house collapsed.
History is full of people who thought they would have an easy life because of their financial situation and then the stock market crashed or there was a war or a plague, or a heart attack or some other unforseen situation. How many of the 325 people in the first class section of the Titanic were sailing to the US without a worry in the world when it hit an iceberg and sunk?
The Rich Fool did not give thanks to God for what he received. He did not consider how God might want him to use his wealth. Everything centered on him. It was my crops, my barns, my grain and my goods.
The rich fool looked into the future and saw his own ability to take care of himself. He said to himself he would never have to worry because of all he had accumulated.
But God had the last word. God always has the last word.
God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’
If this life were all there was, the Rich Fool had made a brilliant decision. But there is a life after this life. And while he was successful in this life, he failed miserably in preparing for the next life. He died a rich man and went to his next life a pauper.
Jesus ended his parable with this lesson:
21 So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”
When we put all of our energy and attention on how to be successful in this life and do nothing to prepare for an eternal life where none of what we have accumulated will have any value, we may be short-term geniuses but we are long-term fools.
Let me lay out for you three great truths from this parable.
First, the parable of the Rich Fool makes us aware of the foolishness of putting trust in what will not last.
In the Peanuts comic strip, Woodstock, the bird friend of Snoopy, says in one panel, “Never fall in love with a snowflake.” When it is cold outside and snow is falling, you can hold out your hand and the flakes of snow will sit in your hand so you can see them, but inevitably the warmth of your hand will melt the snowflake and it will be gone. Snowflakes have beautiful designs and they say no two snowflakes are exactly alike. They are beautiful but they do not last.
Wealth lasts longer than a snowflake, but not as long as eternity. There is a Chinese proverb that says: “Wealth does not pass three generations.” Even families with huge fortunes see their fortunes dwindle over time. Even huge amounts of wealth do not last.
The Rich Fool had great wealth, but who possessed what he owned when he died? The parable does not tell us who inherited what he owned, but what is certain is that the Rich Fool was no longer the owner of all he had accumulated.
I preached from James in the beginning of the year and we read this passage: James 1:9–11
Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, 10 and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. 11 For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.
Wealth is like an ice cube on a hot summer day.
John Ortberg wrote a book titled: At the End of the Game It All Goes Back in the Box. When you play Monopoly and win, you end up with all the properties, all the houses, all the hotels and all the money. You have won! You have everything! But then you put all the cards and houses and hotels and money back in the box and put it away in the closet.
No matter how successful you are in life, no matter how much you accumulate, you will die and you will be put in a box and lowered into the ground. You will not be able to take with you any of what you have accumulated. And then, what will you have as you face your future?
Jim Elliot was a missionary to the Auca Indians in Ecuador and in 1956 was killed by the men he was trying to reach. His wife published excerpts from the diary he kept and this is one of the lines he wrote that has become quite well known.
“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
That is truth with a capital T.
A second truth from this parable is that you do not own what you have. What you have belongs to God and you are merely a steward of what you have received.
The Rich Fool said, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops? 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.’
My crops, my barns, my grain, my goods. He is completely self-absorbed. There is not a hint that he is thinking of anyone but himself, not God and not others. Who had his gold before he did? Where did the gold come from? Who had his gold after he died? Go to a museum and you can see artifacts that someone thousands of years ago took pride in owning. But this ownership is long gone and we do not even know the name of the owner. How meaningful was this ownership?
Most of what we say we own will disappear someday into a junk pile and be buried in the earth. It came from the earth and it will return to the earth so why do we say we own it?
We have some things in our possession for the short, borrowed time our souls live before returning to the dust but they will be someone’s possession after we die. So the question then becomes what do we do with the possessions while we have them?
Let me suggest two actions to take with the possessions we have. First, we need to be thankful that we have been given those things.
There is no acknowledgment that the Rich Fool ever stopped to give thanks to God for the abundant harvest. He had not sent the rain that watered the crops. He had not created the seeds that were sowed. He had not created the soil for the crops. He had not prevented flooding or storms that would have destroyed his harvest. There are so many ways he was dependent on God for his crops and yet he did not stop to say, “Thank you.”
James wrote: (James 1:17)
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above,
When we acknowledge that, we will give thanks for what we receive. We will pray with gratitude for what we have.
A poor man might pray: “O Lord, I don’t know where I will find food tomorrow. I am eating the last of my food today and I trust that you will provide for me what I need tomorrow. My life is in your hands. I thank you for what you have given me for today.”
This is how Jesus instructed us to pray. (Matthew 6:11)
Give us our daily bread.
Give us the food we need for each day.
Whether we have food just for today or for the next hundred years, we need to be grateful for what we have received.
Secondly, because we have been given the things we possess by God, we need to use what we have received for God’s purposes.
Once again, there is no indication the Rich Fool ever stopped to think about how he could use his wealth for God.
Where do you think Jesus got the idea for this parable? In the creative process, Jesus saw something, heard something and then got the idea for the stories he told. Do you think Jesus got the idea for this parable from his encounter with the rich young ruler? Remember, that the rich young ruler came to Jesus asking what he needed to do to have eternal life. Jesus looked into his heart, saw his attachment to his wealth, and told him to sell all he had and give it to the poor. Then he could come and follow him. This was a very likeable young man with much to admire and it must have pained Jesus to see him walk away, unable to give up his attachment to his possessions.
I wonder if Jesus thought about this young man and told this story to express the folly of holding on to wealth. The young man walked away from eternal life for the sake of wealth he would one day lose anyway. That was a foolish decision.
Jesus does not ask everyone to give everything to the poor, but we do need to ask God what he wants us to do with what we have. How can we share what we have? Who does God want us to help with what we have? These are the questions we need to be asking.
When Jesus walked on this earth, he fed the poor, healed the sick, cast demons out of the possessed, comforted the grieving, touched the untouchable, valued the unrespectable, encouraged the hopeless.
We are to do, in his name, what he did. We are to use our resources: our money, our talents, our time, to love people the way he loved people. God does not bless us so we can sit in the privacy and comfort of our homes and enjoy the blessings. God blesses us so we can bless others.
The parable of the Rich Fool makes us aware of the foolishness of putting trust in what will not last. We do not own what we have. What we have belongs to God and we are merely stewards of what we have.
The third truth from this parable is that when you stand in front of a king, make a request only a king can grant.
If you had a private meeting with the king or president of your country and you could ask him for anything, what would you ask him? How absurd would it be if you had this private meeting, sitting on a comfortable chair in his plush office and when he leaned toward you and asked, “What can I do for you?” you said, “Can I have a pair of shoes?”
When the leader of your country can do so many things for you and all you ask for is a pair of shoes that will wear out and be thrown away, you have trivialized your request.
The man who was listening to Jesus and wanted him to intervene in his inheritance conflict with his brother had no idea who Jesus was. The truth is that no one really knew who Jesus was until after he resurrected from the dead. But if this man had known Jesus as Paul knew Jesus, would he still have asked for something so trivial as help in getting his share of the inheritance?
Paul wrote that Jesus is: (Colossians 1:15–17)
the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
When you stand before the pre-existing creator of the universe and you ask for help in getting some money that will soon slip through your fingers and be worthless, you are completely missing the mark.
No wonder Jesus was exasperated. I can hear him saying, “Do you want a better job? Here, take it but it will be taken from you and then what will you have? Do you want more money? Here, have more money but you will die and then what will you do with your poverty? Do you want more people to like you? Here, be famous. But where you are going your fame will not go and then who will recognize you when you knock on the door and want to come into paradise?
I am not saying we should not pray about all the things that make us worried and anxious, even little things. But if the little things are the most important things in your life, then you are in trouble and asking Jesus the wrong questions.
Today we remember Jesus as he rode a donkey into Jerusalem. He was greeted with praise because people thought he was going to finally lead a revolt that would drive out the Roman occupiers and restore Israel to the glory it experienced when David was king.
But they did not know who he was. Now, because of the testimony of the writers of the New Testament documents, we know who Jesus was and who Jesus is.
Jesus stands before you and tells you, “You know who I am so ask me for something only I can give you. Ask me for something that will last for eternity.”
What request do you have for Jesus? In what way do you want his help? On what are you most focused?
How can I work alongside you as you build your kingdom? How do you want me to use my time, talent and money to encourage others to follow you? Please help me to have more faith, to trust you more. Please help me to hold on to you, despite not understanding what is happening in my life.
These are worthy requests.
I missed a great opportunity to be a witness for Jesus when I angrily argued with my sisters that they do the just and fair thing and share the inheritance they received. Because of my focus on what so quickly fades away I fought for money when I could have demonstrated my faith and allowed Jesus to be seen in me. Jesus could have used me to encourage my sisters who do not know Jesus to become his followers but I failed.
Don’t make that mistake. Don’t be distracted.
What are you doing with what God gave you? Are you fighting with someone over things that will not last? Are you thankful for what God has given you? How can you use what God has given you to help build his kingdom? How can you use what God has given you to bless your brothers and sisters in Christ?
“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”