Parable of the “Rich Fool”
the past ten years we’ve been hearing that the provincial government has to
continue cutting the provincial budget on big-ticket items.
Hospitals, schools, universities, municipalities: they may receive a
little more from the present government than they received from the previous,
but the cuts in provincial pay-outs can’t be reversed entirely, since the
province is now paying out one million dollars per
hour more than it takes in. The
gravy-train has derailed, and the government is hoping that the residents of
Even as we admit that the gravy-train has derailed
we should also admit that there never was as much gravy in the train as we
wanted to think or were led to think. For decades we Canadians have spent vastly
more money on ourselves than we ever earned. Collectively we have lived beyond
our means for years.
In saying this I don't mean that all
of the material prosperity we soaked up came to us only
because we were living beyond our means. A few years ago our
"means" were genuinely greater. For instance, for years 20% of
Then will our children find life financially leaner
than we have known it? On average,
yes. You see, ever since
Confederation (1867) each generation of Canadians has been approximately twice
as wealthy as the previous generation. I
am twice as wealthy as my parents; they were twice as wealthy as their parents.
Then our children should be twice as wealthy as we.
But here the pattern is broken. Social
scientists tell us that the next generation, on average, won’t be twice as wealthy as we are.
In fact, for the first time in
Is this bad? Is
it bad to have fewer trinkets and toys? As
a matter of fact the leaner finances for most Canadians will be a spiritual
boon. Material superabundance, Jesus reminds us everywhere in the written
gospels, is a spiritual threat; a grave spiritual threat, graver even than
material scarcity. In fact our Lord maintains that material superabundance is
the gravest spiritual threat of all.
How grave a threat? What kind of threat? Jesus
answers our questions in his parable that generations after him have called
"The Parable of the Rich Fool".
-- “The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully, and it made the rich
man richer still,” the parable begins. “And the rich man -- now super-rich
-- thought to himself...” He thought to
himself? The Greek verb is DIALOGIZOMAI, from which we derive the English word
"dialogue". The super-affluent man dialogued with himself; he debated
with himself; he deliberated with himself; he weighed all the considerations; he
approached the topic from ever so many angles. So intent is he on dialoguing,
debating, deliberating with himself; so consumed is he with weighing, assessing,
calculating, estimating, measuring; so preoccupied is he with his fortune that
he's -- just that: preoccupied, consumed.
He can't think of anything else besides his new-found fortune. He doesn't care to think of anything else. He doesn't even think there might
be something else to think about.
exactly is preoccupying him? One
matter: how he might hoard for himself what's been dumped in his lap.
The first thing we notice about the fellow is that his possessions absorb him.
He can think only of what he owns: how to measure it, how to maximize it, how to
multiply it -- ultimately, how to preserve it and protect it and protract it.
He's a hoarder; he gives nothing away. There isn't an ounce of generosity in him
for the simple reason that he doesn't care a whit about anyone else, so
“thingified” is his heart.
The second thing we notice about him is that he's an egotist. In the space of a
few lines, according to the parable, he speaks of himself, “I,” repeatedly;
“I,I,I” eight times over.
The third thing we notice about him is that he's a secularist. The world he
lives in is a world bounded by the material, the human, the finite. There's no
vertical dimension to his world, no room for anything other than the horizontal.
Matter, mammon, man; human history understood no more profoundly than the
never-ending scramble for social ascendancy. He doesn't regard all of this as supremely important; he regards it as solely important, since for him this alone constitutes life.
As if it were going to last forever! As if his
one-dimensional life were going to last forever! As if his secularist viewpoint
were the only possible viewpoint for anyone with even a modicum of intelligence!
As if? But secularists never say "as if", just because it never occurs
to them that their one-dimensional universe might be merely their invention;
just because it never occurs to them that their perception might be arbitrary,
shallow and false.
The man our Lord speaks of in the parable -- thing-absorbed, egotistical
and thorough-going secularist; this man has a problem. He himself is aware that
he has a problem. His one problem, he
thinks, is this. “Now that I, an affluent fellow, am
affluent, how am I going to retain my increased, socio-economic advantage? Right
now I am financially privileged. How can I perpetuate it?” The man has a
problem, and the thinks that this is his only problem.
Very soon, of course, Jesus Christ will let us all
know, all us hearers of the parable, what the man's real problem is. And what is his real problem? What his real problem
is he can't even guess.
-- “But God said to him.” BUT GOD SAID TO HIM.
His real problem is that God has spoken to him. Suddenly the vertical
dimension to all of life (he never dreamt there was a vertical dimension to all
of life) thrusts itself upon him. It was there all along, of course. Now,
however, it's staring him in the face. Now it’s as undeniable as it is
unmistakable. BUT GOD SAID TO HIM --
and obviously God said it in a very loud voice. Suddenly the fellow's world is
exposed as too small, too narrow, too shallow, too
anaemic, too flat. When
God speaks, the universe expands in a hurry; when God speaks, the universe
expands hugely; it expands immeasurably as surely as God himself is
immeasurable. It isn’t merely that “a new dimension,” even a vertical
dimension, has been added; it's rather that when God speaks, all
of life is revolutionized.
Think of the woman at the well in John 4. She meets
Jesus and chitchats humorously with him, banters with him, even flirts with him.
She's enjoying it all, never expecting it to end on a jarring note, when
suddenly Jesus breaks off the banter and says, “Go call your husband.”
She stares at him, knowing that he has seen through her disguise. He has
crumbled all the defenses she has spent years perfecting. And all he has done is
speak to her. “Go call your husband.”
“I don't have a husband,” she barely croaks out; “Do we have to
talk about this?” When the woman
encountered Jesus at the well she thought she had a problem: she thought her
problem was that she lacked a bucket of water for household tasks. That's why
she had gone to the well. Once the master has spoken to her, however, she's
aware that her real problem is something else, something eversomuch deeper.
The man in the parable we are listening to today:
“BUT GOD SAID TO HIM.” Said what? What
did God say?
In modern English a fool is someone who lacks sound
judgement. Then is this man merely possessed of unsound
judgement? No. There's more to be said. In older English
“foolish” means “mad, insane.” “Foolish”
is derived from the French word “fol,” and “fol” means mad, insane,
psychotic. The mad person, the psychotic person, is someone whose
reality-testing is severely impaired.
“But God said to him, ‘You fool.’” The man
didn't merely lack sound judgement; rather, with respect to the reality of God
his reality-testing was severely impaired. With respect to the reality of God
his perception of reality was skewed, so badly skewed as to be non-existent.
What he had always regarded as self-evident (a one-dimensional universe) was now
exposed as untrue. What he had regarded as reality (a life whose only purpose was greater and greater ease born
of greater and greater affluence) was now exposed as illusory. On the other
hand, what he had always regarded as illusory
(the truth of God and the penetration of God and heart-seizure at the hand of
God); this was now exposed as real.
Wherein had he been a fool? He had certainly been ungrateful. When his
bumper crop had come along it had never occurred to him to think of (let alone
thank) the one who sustains the universe and sends seedtime and harvest.
Moreover, his head and his heart had become
thoroughly “thingified.” He had
planned to store up goods for his soul, for his innermost life, stupidly
thinking that goods had anything to do with his innermost life.
Moreover, he had planned to take his ease, never to
work again. Most importantly, he gave no consideration to kingdom-work, the sort
of thing Jesus meant when he said, “We must work while it is day, for the
night comes when no one can work.” He hadn't had a clue about kingdom-work and
hadn't wanted to have.
God had said more to him than “You fool!”,
however. God had also said, “Tonight you must die.” The fellow had never
factored his mortality into what he was making of his life. If he ever thought
about dying at all he dismissed the notion as soon as it intruded. He was too
busy planning how to hoard to bother with having to die.
Therefore he was a fool twice over.
God had said even more to him: “All that stuff
that has cluttered your life and corroded your heart -- who gets it now? If you
have lived for it, then you have lived
for nothing, because now you must surrender it.” And so he was a fool three
-- Needless to say,
the point in learning wherein the rich fool was a fool is to be sure that we
don't follow him foolishly ourselves. The point in learning wherein he thought
he was rich only to find himself poor; the point is to become rich ourselves.
Jesus concludes the parable by urging us to become “rich towards God,” rich
in God. In other words, our one good, our eternal good, is to be rich in God.
I crave such richness myself. I continue to crave
it for two reasons. One reason is that I have “tasted” (to use a vivid
biblical expression); I have “tasted and seen that the Lord is good.” (Psalm
34:8) The taste I have had (and enjoy now) isn’t the taste of a tiny tidbit on
the tip of the tongue. The taste I have had has satisfied me so thoroughly as to
leave me wanting to look nowhere else and pursue no one else. And yet as often
as I have tasted, the taste has left me hungering for more: always satisfied,
never satiated; always supplied, never surfeited. In all of this I have never
doubted that it is GOD with whom I have to do, not my overheated
imagination, not a fantasy, not a projection from an unconscious
“wish-list.” How do I know it is
GOD with whom I have to do? Encounter with God is self-authenticating.
Since God is who he is, there is nothing above him -- and therefore nothing
above him by means of which he is proved (or disproved). Because there is
nothing above God, nothing greater than God, there is nothing apart from God
that can authenticate him; and when he seizes any one of us, there is
nothing apart from him that is needed
to authenticate him. Were we to ask a Hebrew prophet of old how he knew that it
was God who had seized him, the
prophet of old would have said two things: one, our asking the question suggests
we are not yet “seized” ourselves; two, seizure at the hand of God is as
self-authenticating as seeing an object convinces us of the object's size and
colour and shape. When we see an object we are convinced without further
argumentation as to its size and colour and shape.
It’s difficult for me to say more without
exposing myself to the charge of spiritual exhibitionism. At the same time I
cannot say less without failing to testify of him whom Jeremiah says is fire in
his mouth, before whom Daniel could only fall on his face, and for whom David
cried out as he cried out for nothing else.
Many times from this pulpit I have said that the
characteristic of the Holy One of Israel is that he speaks.
Not that he yammers, not that he jabbers or blabbers or chitchats, but that he
speaks. Then has he spoken to me? Yes. Many different words. A word of judgement
upon my sin, which word has left me weeping brokenheartedly, like Peter, except
that no one else was around to see it, not even my wife. He has also spoken to
me words of pardon, of encouragement, of direction, of exhilaration. The
psalmist says, “At God’s right hand are pleasures for ever more,” and I
have found the psalmist true a hundred times over. A relentless word from him, a
summons that I have found inextinguishable and inescapable since I was 14, is my
vocation to the ministry.
Because I have “tasted and seen that the Lord is
good” I cannot doubt him but can only want more of him. This is one reason I
crave being richer in God, as Jesus urges us to be.
The second reason is that I have been drawn into
the heart and head of several people who were immersed so deep in God they
exuded it. Simply to have encountered these people was to know they weren’t
misled themselves and wouldn’t mislead others. When they spoke to me of God
they spoke naturally, unselfconsciously, without affectation or artificiality or
One such person was the late Ronald Ward, professor
of New Testament at the
In this respect Ward resembled the apostle Paul.
Paul's vocabulary wasn’t stunted in the least, yet rich as it was it
couldn’t do justice to the fathomless riches of Christ. For this reason when
the apostle could say no more he used the word “unsearchable” or
“immeasurable;” “the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Eph. 3:8) or “the
immeasurable riches of his grace.” (Eph. 2:7) No
wonder he could speak of himself and others as “having nothing, yet possessing everything.” (2 Cor. 6:10) To
be exposed to men and women like this is to crave being rich (or richer) in God.
thing I never want to do is suggest that all of this is reserved for the clergy.
The fact that I speak about it from a pulpit doesn't mean for a minute that you
are excluded from it. On the contrary, I speak knowing that hearers in front of
me will resonate as the same truth reverberates within them.
he [the preacher] proclaims Christ there will be an answering note in the hearts
of those who have tasted that the Lord is gracious. When he mentions the wrath
of God they will be with him in remembering that they too were once under the
wrath and by the mercy of God have been delivered. When he speaks of the Holy
Spirit they will rejoice in Him who brought Christ to their hearts with His
fruit of joy. When he speaks of the church they will dwell on that vast company
of the redeemed which has responded to God's call and has received Christ, the
multitude which no man can number of those who are His peculiar treasure. When
he speaks of the word of the cross they will welcome the open secret of the
means of their salvation. And when he gives an invitation to sinners to come to
Christ, they will create the warm and loving atmosphere which is the fitting
welcome for one who is coming home.”