Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The parable of the rich fool

15 And he said unto them, Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.

16 And he spake a parable unto them, saying, The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully:

17 And he thought within himself, saying, What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits?

18 And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods.

19 And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry.

20 But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided?

21 So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God. (Luke 12:15-21)

It is easy to dismiss this parable as one applying to the rich and not to ourselves. However, I think that Jesus set a rich man as the main character in order to exaggerate the characteristics that he wished to decry in order to make them more obvious and to show the end consequences. The piercing question, “whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided?” could be said to a poor man or a middle class man as well as a rich man. People at all heights on the socio-economic latter can be equally obsessed with their possessions, equally covetous for more, and equally chagrinned if they were to be told their life would end that night.

But I’m going at this a bit out of order.

The rich man’s solution to an incredibly bounteous harvest seems like common sense from a worldly standpoint. He’s acting under the assumption that he still has many years to live and provide for himself. He’s very prudent in temporal things, as we can see throughout the parable. He works hard at farming, and the ground brought forth plentifully, so we see he understands the law of the harvest. He is careful to provide proper storage for his goods, with proper-sized barns. He understands the principle of delayed gratification, as he understands the more he works now, the more he’ll have later to enjoy. He knows how much he needs in a year to have a high quality of life, and he can tell that after this harvest he has enough that he probably doesn’t have to work again for the rest of his life. The problem is, he thought of it as all his own, all so he could take it easy, eat, drink, and have fun. He forgot it was a stewardship given to him by God. It is interesting this man was already rich before the bounteous harvest, and his bounteous harvest made him obscenely rich.

The wake-up call comes when God says to him, “this night thy soul shall be required of thee.” Suddenly the assumption that he has to provide for himself for many more years is no longer valid. Suddenly it is clear that he won’t even need any of what he has stored up. (If he were to decide to dispose of his possessions in charitable giving in one day, would he be able to accomplish it all? Or would it have been better for him to be giving all along? Clearly giving all along is the better way.)

This parable throws into sharp relief the conflicting requirements between the need to provide for oneself and the importance of being ready to leave it all behind and meet God. We don’t know how long we will live, but we also don’t know how soon we will die.

Said another way, we live now according to our perception of the future. We save carefully to prepare for later years when we will not be able to work. But we forget that our mortal future is only temporary and we don’t know how long it will last. Provision for a long mortal future does not guarantee we will actually have that time. The greatest future we have to prepare for is eternity. If we only prepare for the future of our mortal life, we demonstrate shortsightedness.


Do you see the dot in the middle of those lines above? The dot is like our mortal life. The lines are like eternity.

I think one of the ways we can stay prepared is by staying de-cluttered. There’s a lot here that can apply to clutter.

What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits? – When we have no room for all our stuff, it is a good indication that we need to let go. The world’s solution is to get a bigger storage space, but this parable suggests it’s better to give away the surplus and donate to charity—“be rich toward God,” in other words.

Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years – So often, the things we are hanging onto are not for use now, but for later at a time when we anticipate we will be able to use them, or for a time that someone else will be able to use them! This parable suggests that if we were to suddenly pass away, there would have been no point in storing those items. (Not only that, but the haunting question “then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided?” hints that our specific wishes for that stuff we were storing probably wouldn’t be known by those trying to dispose of it. They may do something completely different with it from what we wanted done.) The rich man may have been keeping things to bequeath to his children, but this parable suggests the time to give is now. What if instead we keep around only the things we are using now.

I think the parable also shows the difference between providing for oneself and covetousness. The man in the parable was already rich beyond providing for his ordinary human needs, but he had to have more. Likewise, it is possible to figure out how much we really need to live and calculate how much is needed for that part of our mortal future when we won’t be able to provide for ourselves.

Ultimately, this is the punch line of the parable—“a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.” What did the rich man’s life consist of, minus his riches? We may never know, since this was a parable, but it is a good question to ask of ourselves—“What does my life consist of, minus my possessions?” It is a very important question to ask because at some point we will die, and our spirits will be separated from our bodies and will have nothing more to do with the material world, for a long, long while. What will our spirits do to spend the time between death and resurrection without any things to use and play with? We’ve been told that we will join the throng of teachers preaching to the spirits who are in prison, but are we prepared to do that? Will that be an activity congenial to us there if it is not now? We’ve been told we will join our departed families, but are we prepared with the social skills and communication skills to appreciate and use that time together?


Ramona Gordy said...

Amen Sister
Thought provoking,my soul is pricked because of these words. A tie in to past posts concerning our relationships to clutter and things.
So, my best friend and I are having a yard sale this weekend. Wow,an opportunity go clear out my heaps of excess stuff. Oh yeah and some easy cash, right? So my dear friend, says that she will donate all proceeds to the Breast Cancer walk. GULP!! My husband (bless his heart) said that I should consider that to be an option too.
So in reading your post,I recognize this as a "hit me between the eyeballs" ephiphany. The stuff I will sell at the yard sell has been buried, stored, laying around, not living up to its full potential. Feelins of guilt because of this, promises to control coveteousness. I think that donating the proceeds of these items, will do fine.
Thank you

Michaela Stephens said...

RGG, I'm so pleased that you are making that decision! I hope you tell me about how it went and how you felt afterwards.

Bonnie said...

I REALLY love this. The point about being obscenely rich, one that I make in poverty alleviation very carefully, seems so obvious to me but so ludicrous to my business associates. Sigh. Thanks.