Read: Luke 12:13-21
The scene is a typical rabbinic one. The teacher sits amid the crowd and they challenge him with various legal and ethical quandaries. While Jesus is not a rabbi in the strictest sense, his reputation for authority has spread and now someone in the crowd approaches him.
“Teacher, settle this family dispute, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” Now, we know nothing of this man, whether he is entitled to his fair share or not, whether he is just or a thief, we are given nothing of the circumstances. But Jesus seizes the opportunity to teach about what makes a life, or, more precisely, what life isn’t made of. Jesus says that life does not consist of the abundance of one’s possessions. Then he illustrates his point with a story.
A rich man has a good year. He wants to hang on to what’s his; he gets great satisfaction from his abundance. God steps in and announces that the man is going to die and the things, in which he once had so much satisfaction, are nothing.
Note two things from the outset: it is the land, not the man that produces abundantly. Second, the man is rich before the land has a good season. These are red flags for Jesus’ hearers. “AH!” they say, “This man is doubly blessed by God, rich and with good, fertile land.”
Then the rich man begins to deliberate: What shall I do with my windfall?” To the ideal man of Jesus’ listeners, the man should of course give generously to the widows, and the orphans and to the undocumented immigrants of his community because they are the ones who are on the fringes of the economy, they have no place in the system. God clearly lays this plan for the poor out again and again in the voices of the prophets.
But it isn’t to be. The man says, “I’ll do this, I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and I will store up all my goods.”
How extravagant. It’s not enough that he builds an extra barn. No, he is going to tear down his barns. Then he will build bigger ones. This is where we see Jesus as the great storyteller. He has baited his audience with a man who, by all available evidence is blessed twice over by God, only to blow it. I can only imagine the mischievous joy that Jesus experienced in turning the blessed character of the rich man into such a dolt.
Jesus’ listeners, shake their heads in disgust over the rich man’s crass denial of God’s will. One man in the audience spits on the ground and says, “We don’t do that!”
Jesus nods gravely, and then continues…
The rich man then makes an introspective turn, “Soul, you’ve done alright, you’ve got everything you’ll ever need, relax, eat, drink, and be merry.” This spiritual turn inward is what gets God’s attention, indeed, God finishes the famous maxim, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you WILL die! And what will you do with all that stuff?”
This is a lesson we all need to hear, again and again: Life is not what we have. But it’s not that simple, Jesus adds a conclusion that is supposed to summarize the entire parable, but to me it just confuses things: “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
Rich toward God? What does it mean to be rich toward God? If this is a summary of the parable, maybe we’ve been looking at it only in one way, maybe the parable of the Rich Fool is about more than the accumulation of things. I think that part of the answer lies in how the man addresses his soul. This is the part of the parable where the man goes from being a greedy jerk, to setting up a personal theology based on his own desires. “Soul, you have ample goods, laid up for many years.”
What does a soul need ample goods for? A soul only really needs the minimum of goods to keep its body healthy. I’ll repeat that, a soul doesn’t need much to keep its body healthy.
The bumper sticker says, “I am a spiritual being, having a physical experience.” This belies our sometimes overly spiritual bearing. Although we believe in the incarnation and the ascension, and all that they entail for us, too often we want to escape the body. But the church teaches that it goes the other way too, our souls have bodies. Part of the parable is a teaching on incarnation, flesh and spirit are intertwined and not opposites, but poles along the great spectrum of being. And for that we say, thanks be to God.
But the fatal mistake of the rich man is that he thinks his soul can be satisfied with more. More stuff, more doing, more searching, more saving. The rich man is under the impression that he can find spiritual fulfillment within himself, on his terms, with what he’s got. Thus, the rich fool is a kind of narcissist.
Narcissus: one of the great love affairs, the love affair between himself and himself. Most of us know the story of the man who was in love with only himself. But that is not the whole story; the myth says that many loved him. The problem was that Narcissus loved no one, indeed he was known as the scorner of love. Thus he was cursed to love only himself. Cursed. And what a horrible curse: to have love solely for oneself. The ages have memorialized Narcissus with the flower that blooms near the reflection of water, forever cursed to gaze upon his beloved.
The rich fool is our Narcissus, finding spiritual satisfaction within himself, he stands cursed. The rich fool goes inward when he ought to go outward. The Christian life is a matter of introspection, at times, but always at the service of going out. In terms of physics, the life of the spirit is centrifugal and not centripetal. We go out continually from a strong force at the center, casting a wider and wider circle. Being rich towards God is about letting go of everything, whether for our soul or its body, so that we can become more like God: spontaneous, generous, merciful.
Being rich towards God means taking every part of our lives to him. So take your disputes to God. Take your greed to God. Take your abundance to God. Take your deliberations to God. Take your foolishness to God. Take your soul and its body to God. Take your very life to God, who demands it.
Yet, God doesn’t simply take away what we bring to him. God is not greedy. God transforms and blesses what is brought to him. Just like the prayers, and the bread and wine we are about to offer, God works to make holy whatever is brought to him.
When we kneel to confess our sins, and when we receive the sacrament, may we all be rich toward our God, offering ourselves, our souls, and bodies to Him who transforms and makes all things holy.