The parable of the Rich Fool is one of the most ignored of Jesus’ parables, many collections of Parable interpretation barely mention it; mostly, I suspect because its meaning is thought to be obvious: Greed is Bad.
But its much more nuanced, complex, than that. Uniquely, this parable is the only one in the Gospels in which God is a character, and indeed says something. Several of Luke’s parables begin, ‘a certain rich man…’ (eg, ‘had two sons’ = the Prodigal Son.) More of that later. Unusually, the subject of the first sentence of this parable is not a person, but a place: ‘the land of a certain rich man produced abundantly.’
Stories about the relation of death, and its inevitability and unpredictability, and a relation to what to do with one’s possessions, occur elsewhere in Luke’s gospel, and its sequel, the book of Acts. But this tradition is a long one in Judaism, going back to Solomon and the book Qoheleth (which means ‘collector’ whether of students, or sayings, parables), which we know as Ecclesiastes, the Latin translation of the Hebrew ‘Qoheleth.’ And by complete coincidence, happens to be our Old Testament reading. There too, the theme is about the shadow of death and what to do with one’s possessions – much more obviously later in the book. Talmudist Daniel Boyarin, (speaking of a later time in Jewish tradition) quotes Song of Songs Rabba: “until Solomon invented the mashal, (the parable, no one could understand Torah at all.” Luke is clearly in conversation with the Wisdom tradition.
Our gospel begins with someone asking Jesus to intervene in a family dispute about an inheritance. Jesus refuses to get involved, and tells our Parable of the Rich Fool.
The abundance is an unexpected gift (from God?), but the man’s response is rapid.
The question ‘what shall I do?’ is common in this kind of parable.
Sadly, our Rich Man thinks it’s all about him; he seems incapable of thinking of anyone else. Nor does he think about giving something back to God; which some suggested ways to deal with wealth would be.
He says “And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’”
This account is bursting with hubris; we can sense already that this will to end in tears.
That is why God calls him a ‘fool’ (a term often used in Wisdom literature).
‘This very night your life is being demanded of you.’ in Greek, it says literally: ‘On this night they are demanding your life from you…’ The text doesn’t say who ‘they’ are; and I don’t know either. We could speculate….
What a waste.
Why does God call him a ‘fool’? There are a number of ways in the gospels and Acts to suggest what to do with ‘riches’: because when you’re dead you won’t be able to do anything about your wealth: to share with others, to give to the poor: that is alms. The Rich young ruler was encouraged by Jesus to sell everything and give to the poor. But he couldn’t. The Early Christians, in Acts, held things in common, shared their goods, and collected for the poor widows, and Paul collected money from his converts in Asia Minor, for the victims of famine in Palestine. Clearly this is a common solution as to what to do with wealth. Or, in the Wisdom literature to make a will.
When I read our gospel, I couldn’t help being reminded of one-time owner of the Daily Telegraph, Sir Frederick Barclay, who fell out with his twin brother and business partner, and is now in dispute with his wife. He claims that he can’t pay his wife the tens of millions the court has told him to pay her, because all his money is in trusts or handed over to his daughter. So, he is in contempt of court. We await a decision as to his ‘punishment’.
There seems to me to be an echo, a parallel with this parable here.
But for us? We could see everything that we have as a gift from God, and any excess, we might see as a way to give back to God, by giving to those in need. Indeed, as Solomon says elsewhere, ( 1 Chronicles 29:14):
14 “But who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able to make this freewill offering? For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you.
This very night they are demanding your life from you…’
Some Wisdom literature encourages making a will. Or various forms of charity to the poor especially.