Hosea 11:1-11 – Assyria will rule over Israel because they refuse to repent.
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23 – Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? 23For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.
Psalm 107:1-9, 43 – Consider the Lord’s loyal love. God delivers.
Psalm 49:1-12 – Hear this all you people, rich and poor together. There is no amount of money worth your life. The wise and the foolish both die and leave their wealth to others. Do not be afraid when some become rich, when the wealth of their houses increases. For when they die they will carry nothing away; their wealth will not go down after them. Mortals cannot abide in their pomp; they are like the animals that perish.
Colossians 3:1-11 – Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. There is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!
Luke 12:13-21 – The Parable of the Rich Fool. ‘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.”
Ecclesiastes 1-2: Vanity of Vanities
Ecclesiastes, קֹהֶלֶת (qōheleṯ), Ἐκκλησιαστής in the Greek Septuagint, was likely composed 450–200 BCE. Tradition holds King Solomon as the author, but the document is too late for that, historically. The book is anonymous. The author does not identify herself. Ecclesiastes is quoted by Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Abraham Lincoln, Burns, Hemmingway, George Bernard Shaw, Ray Bradbury, and Pete Seeger and the Byrds in their hit, Turn, Turn, Turn.
This week’s reading includes selections from the first two chapters of Ecclesiastes. This text is particularly appropriate, along with Psalm 49, if one is tackling the Luke 12 Rich Young Ruler gospel text.
2 Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity…
12 I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, 13 applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. 14 I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind…
18 I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me 19—and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish? Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. 20 So I turned and gave my heart up to despair concerning all the toil of my labors under the sun, 21 because sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. 22 What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? 23 For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.
The theme is clear. Everyone dies, both the wise and the foolish. You work your whole life long and then end up leaving everything to those who have not had to work for it. This is pointless.
Job ruminates on the same idea (Job 1:21):
Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there…
Psalm 49 picks up identical themes. Note verse 10. The wise and the foolish die and leave their wealth to others.
1 Hear this, all you peoples; give ear, all inhabitants of the world,
2 both low and high, rich and poor together.
3 My mouth shall speak wisdom; the meditation of my heart shall be understanding.
4 I will incline my ear to a proverb; I will solve my riddle to the music of the harp.
5 Why should I fear in times of trouble, when the iniquity of my persecutors surrounds me,
6 those who trust in their wealth and boast of the abundance of their riches?
7 Truly, no ransom avails for one’s life, there is no price one can give to God for it.
8 For the ransom of life is costly, and can never suffice
9 that one should live on forever and never see the grave.
10 When we look at the wise, they die; fool and dolt perish together and leave their wealth to others.
11 Their graves are their homes forever, their dwelling places to all generations, though they named lands their own.
12 Mortals cannot abide in their pomp; they are like the animals that perish.
Abraham Heschel says the Jewish people invented the prophetic way of being in the world. He says it was an ethical breakthrough for the human species. This prophetic tradition calls for justice, concern for the poor and marginalized. These passages from Ecclesiastes, Job and Psalm 49 fall in line with that prophetic tradition.
We work our whole lives, but in the end death comes, and much of our work comes to naught. We plant, harvest and gather our wealth into barns, but rich and poor come to the same end. So why not look to higher things?
The author of Colossians encourages the same thing. Set your sights higher.
2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, 3 for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory. (Colossians 3:2-4)
Jesus talks about the birds in the Sermon on the Mount. They neither plant, nor harvest nor gather into barns, and yet God takes care of them. God will take care of you too. So don’t worry so much about your life. Stop scrambling, chasing after wind. Seek first the kingdom of God. Higher things.
Luke 12: The Rich Fool and Barn-Building
Let me start with a reminder that we are in the “travel narrative” section of Luke (roughly chapters 10-19). We are between his earlier ministry in Galilee to the north and moving toward the events that will take place in Jerusalem, in the region of Judea, to the south. Jesus has been rejected by a Samaritan village (Luke 9) and he has sent the 70 out (Luke 10). He has been questioned on how to inherit eternal life, and drawn out the answer: Love God and neighbor. He has answered the question of “who is my neighbor” by telling the story of the Good Samaritan. Then Jesus encountered Mary and Martha, which focused on loving the Lord. The Good Samaritan focused on loving neighbor. Last week we had the teaching on prayer, and the story of the Friend at Midnight.
Mikeal Parsons suggested that these were Jesus’ teachings on three classical virtues:
- philanthropy (Good Samaritan),
- hospitality (Mary and Martha), and
- friendship (Friend at Midnight).
This week and the next, we have teachings on stewardship, or use of wealth. I would suggest that we use these Sundays to talk about how we use our God-given resources for God’s purposes in the world. We need to have the courage to talk about one of the taboos in our society: money. If the only time we talk about money is when it’s time for the budget, people might think that’s all we care about. They might miss the reason Jesus talks so much about use of wealth: spiritual care.
Here’s this Sunday’s story from Luke 12:13-21. As usual Jesus tells a story in response to an ethical encounter.
Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” And 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.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then 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. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But 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?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
Our story begins with a classic triangle. We discussed triangles a couple of weeks ago in a story of two other siblings: Mary and Martha. Martha told Jesus to tell her sister Mary to come and help her. Jesus didn’t take the bait then, and he doesn’t now. He was gentle with Martha. Not so much in this story of two other siblings.
“Tell my brother to split my inheritance with me.” He has a case. His brother should share the inheritance. The boys would split the inheritance, with the elder brother, as the new patriarch, inheriting a double portion.
Nevertheless, Jesus will not intervene. Jesus’ response is, to paraphrase, “Who made me the boss of you?” Well, he is a rabbi, a teacher, they are probably thinking. He’s too smart to get sucked into the family squabble. Too many families squabble about inheritances. It can destroy relationships. Parsons (Luke: Paieia series) says that in the Greco-Roman agrarian society, wealth was more likely to be inherited than earned. The death of a relative may be your only shot. Jesus chooses not to arbitrate a domestic dispute.
Jesus recognizes the issue for what it is: greed. His response to the plaintiff: Beware of greed. Jesus is always warning us of the danger wealth and greed present to our spiritual lives – heck, to our lives, period. Instead of taking sides, Jesus does what any good rabbi would do. He tells a story.
A man (Ἀνθρώπου), perhaps better rendered a person, has a bumper crop, more than can be stored. What does one do when one has more than one needs? Save it for a rainy day. Can one ever have enough? Can one be completely financially secure? So, the wealthy landowner tears down old barns, and builds bigger ones, to store the (perishable) crops. Then the landowner sits back and tells his soul (ψυχη), “Soul, you’re set for life. Eat, drink and be merry.” How right he was. He was set for the rest of his life, which be only a few more hours.
God says, “Fool, tonight your soul is required of you.” The word translated “fool” is αφρον. φρονέω means “to think.” So αφρον means “unthinking.” From the Classical Greek of Homer to the Koine Greek of the New Testament, αφρον can mean thoughtless, mindless, senseless, arrogant, filled with pride, foolish, presumptuous. It is most often translated “foolish” in modern English.
We never know when our lives will end. We don’t like to think about it. Even though everyone else in history has died, we prefer to think we will be the exception. A friend of mine, a beloved Methodist minister, recently received news that his cancer is back. It’s a tough blow. Some have time to come to terms with their mortality. Others will die instantly and never know what hit them. What if today was your last day? How would that affect the way you allocate your resources? Do you have a plan for how your assets will be allocated when you die? Do you have a will? If you want a say, you need a will, otherwise the state will decide for you.
The story is about greed. We know this because Jesus said so: “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
Be. On. Your. Guard.
Augustine translates it, “Be on your guard against all covetousness.” Think the 9th and 10th commandments.
Jesus has already warned us, earlier in Luke’s gospel. Unlike Matthew, Luke’s Beatitudes are followed by woes (Luke 6):
‘But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
‘Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
‘Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
Nothing sucks the life out of our spiritual lives like greed. As Jesus will say later in this chapter, a text that we will read next week: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” If you are going to love the Lord with all your heart, and your neighbor has yourself, your money will follow. Actually, Jesus says it the other way. “Follow the money.” Wherever your money goes, your heart will follow. That’s probably your god. Our spending choices reveal our priorities. More about that next week.
Life does not consist of your belongings. Life is more than stuff. You are more than your stuff. Stuff is not bad, but if it becomes the center of our lives, God is dethroned.
Jesus has just taught his disciples to pray for their daily bread: food, clothing and all we need from day to day. He now warns them that life is more than food and clothing. Consider the ravens. They don’t plant or harvest, and yet God cares for them. Matthew use the more general “birds of the air.” Luke chooses the raven, an unclean animal (Lev. 11:15). Coveting and greed will kill you in the end. In the next verses which we will read next week, Jesus will offer an antidote to our ever-so-natural tendency toward greed.
Patristic commentary on this text supports this interpretation. Those who spoke the language in which the New Testament was written and lived in cultures similar to those of the authors, hear in this text a critique of greed. Our Catholic colleagues tend to reference Patristics more often than we do. Luther was immersed in them. If you would like to find the thoughts of Augustine, Ambrose, Cyril, Bede and others on Luke quickly, here is one website you might check out.
This commentary by Thomas Aquinas takes several verses at a time and then offers commentary by various ancient writers.
“What shall I do? asks the farmer.” Gregory offers, “O adversity, thou child of plenty.” Adversity is the byproduct of plenty for Gregory. It does strike me how much anxiety we have in our culture. For a society that has so much, we seem to be in chronic distress.
Gregory also adds, “If everyone receiving what is sufficient for his own necessity would leave what remains to the needy, there would be no rich or poor.”
Basil: “Art not thou then a robber, for counting as thine own what thou hast received to distribute?”
Basil: “It is the bread of the famished that thou receivest, the garment of the naked which thou hoardest in thy chest, the shoe of the barefooted which rots in thy possession, the money of the penniless which thou hast buried in the earth.”
Chrysostom: “Now it behooves us not to indulge in delights which fattening the body make lean the soul…”
Let us not over-spiritualize this parable. The earliest commentators on the Bible did not.
The rich farmer wants to store perishable crops, but it is he himself that is perishing. He would have done better to share his bread with the hungry. God calls him a “fool.”
So what are you doing with your wealth? Are you storing perishables while you yourself are perishing? How are you giving to the needy, whom Jesus constantly brings up in the gospels? What do you do when you have a “bumper crop?” That is, what do you do when you get a bonus, or a raise, or a significant job opportunity that pays more than your current job?
It stands, of course, that the preacher must lead by example. Our preaching about generosity, sharing, simplicity, and attending to those in need, will sound hollow if our lives preach a different message.
One last thought.
Does Jesus discourage saving in this passage? It may seem like it at first brush. The Scriptures as a whole, however, encourage saving, just not hoarding. Joseph is commended, in the Genesis story, for interpreting the dream with the seven fat cows, and seven lean cows. He is praised for saving during the time of plenty, so that the people have food during the ensuing seven years of famine. If we are called to care for the poor, we need to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Jesus does not say anything bad about saving. He does, however, have a running critique of materialism.
Save, but then use your resources to bless the poor. In the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, Jesus does not criticize the rich man for having wealth. He criticizes him for not using his wealth to bless those who suffering, right in front of his nose. Jesus is not addressing saving for a rainy day, in my view. More likely, Jesus is critiquing hoarding, and materialism. So don’t ditch your 401k just yet. If you’re following Christ, make sure you are serving those in need.