Luke 12:13-21 - The Rich Fool
13Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” 14But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” 15And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” 16Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ 18Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 20But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
Context: In this section of Luke’s gospel, Jesus is trying to help people see how radically different life is when it is lived according to the ways of God. In Jesus’ day as to a large extent in our own, society was built around patterns of security and social position related to economic status. Wealth was very, very important. It was believed that wealth was a sign of God’s pleasure and of the wealthy person’s righteousness. Enormous time and energy was spent trying to gain and maintain wealth, often to the exclusion of the needs of others.
Inheritance Laws: Because of the importance of wealth and social status, much attention was given to the distribution of estates. The law provided that when a man died his estate went to his sons, with the eldest receiving a double portion. If he had no sons, his property was divided equally among his daughters with the stipulation that they marry within the tribe so that his wealth would never leave the tribe. Obviously, in this passage the man who comes to Jesus to ask for help is a younger son who does not believe that his older brother is giving him his fair share. It was common for rabbi’s to render judgement in cases like this. Jesus’ however, perceives that this man is coming out of a sense of greed and not injustice so refuses to become involved. He uses this request as an opportunity to teach about behavior in the kingdom.
Kingdom values: Here Jesus warns against greed and a life that is centered around wealth and accumulating more. The problem, of course, is not wealth in and of itself, but rather, what wealth can produce in the way of skewed priorities and blindness to the needs of others. The issue is what takes up most of a person’s time, attention and heart. God’s love, will, ways and priorities are to occupy the central place in life.
Vs. 13 – teacher – lit. rabbi. Rabbis were basically teachers of the Law. They would render judgments about interpretations of the Law. Those interpretations had authority and were often used to settle disputes.
Vs. 15 – greed – excessive reprehensible desire to acquire.
Vs. 16 – produced abundantly – This indicates that he was a successful businessman. There is no indication that he was dishonest or that he was wealthy because of illegal or unjust practices. He was probably a hard working and careful manager.
Vs. 17 – thought to himself – this phrase reminds us that the secrets of our hearts are not hidden from God. What we think, God knows.
Vs. 18 – my, all – These words are the keys to understanding this passage. This man is overly concerned with his stuff. The repeated use of ‘my’ also indicates that he has failed to grasp the basic Biblical concept of stewardship. That is that all possessions belong to God and are held in trust by us for God’s use. The word “all” alerts us that he is not planning to use any of his wealth for the good of others.
Vs. 19 – soul – This is a very important term in both the Old and New Testaments. The soul refers to the totality of the human being. It is a holistic word, which refers to physical life and vitality, feelings, wishes and will. It is the essence of a human being.
Merry – from the Greek word euphoria.
Vs. 20 – fool –In the Bible a fool is a person who does not possess nor desire the wisdom of God. A fool is thoughtless, self-centered, and indifferent to God.
This very night – This is a poignant phrase in light of the man’s plans for many years. There is NO hint here that his death comes as a punishment for his greed. It is a reminder than none of us knows the number of our days and therefore we should not waste them.
Vs. 21 – rich toward God – In our context this phrase has a very specific meaning. Rather than a call to piety or prayer, it is a call to a different attitude toward wealth and a commitment to works of charity, service and justice. See Luke 12:41-44.
Questions for Personal Reflection
1. What role does money truly play in your life? How much of your time and energy is used in acquiring and/or maintaining your things?
2. What does it take to make you feel secure?
3. Have you ever been involved in a dispute over an estate? What was that like? How did you feel?
4. In what ways does this text call you to examine your behavior or priorities?