By Timothy E. Kimbrough
“‘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.”
A moment comes in many relationships when the couple, romantically inclined, becomes so consumed with one another that they can think of nothing else. This desire, this attraction, this infatuation is the fodder for much love poetry. The one so afflicted wakes in the morning with nothing else on his mind but to see his lover again — to bask in her beauty, to hear her speak, to watch as her hair is blown about by the wind. Just to be near her is all he can think of. She has become his world for the moment.
The high school student is distracted from his studies and sports when this season of obsession visits his front door. The college student may not sleep for days nursing the fixation on the goddess across campus. The young adult may find the infatuation vexing as she seeks to balance the demands of boss, job, rent, and parents. Still, she prefers this love-sickness to life without it. The older adult (who has perhaps experienced this once or twice before), who may be married when this infatuation strikes again (only this time with someone not his wife), may pine for the good old days of believing his life somehow incomplete without the indulgent rush of this fascination with another.
The biochemist might write this cycle of obsession off as hormones. The psychologist would certainly want to consider patterns of attachment disorder in his patient. The theologian would bring an application of “the fall” to bear on the otherwise irrational behavior. But however described or addressed, the pattern remains vexing, consuming, paralyzing, and at times celebrated.
We can also become single-mindedly consumed with other matters of the heart: hate for someone who has wronged you or persists in being an annoyance; the desire for revenge when an injustice has reared its head; the insistence that inequity be corrected; and anything that has to do with money. That’s right, anything financial, large or small, looming or far off, having to do with stock-market values or the cost of a dozen eggs. And whether it is conditioned by our culture and economy or inherent to the human endeavor, this obsession with money doesn’t wane with the passing of time or the maturing of a relationship.
It stands alone and is no respecter of existing wealth. The poor, the working class, the middle class, and the wealthy may be equally fixated day in and day out on the place of the dollar in their household. The poor worry if their next meal will come at the end of the day. The working class look for second and third jobs, concerned that this month’s rent is already due. The middle class is always considering “Plan B,” lest they be laid off. And the wealthy worry about losing their wealth, bad investments, and the hangers-on at the front door looking to take advantage of their neighbor’s hard-earned storehouse.
The power of latter-day capitalism’s peculiar gift — debt — cannot be overlooked here either (if only mentioned as a footnote). Many are the men and women given to a fixation on money by way of their debt. What once was said of a lover can just as easily be said of your debt. It is the last thing you think of when you go to sleep at night, your companion as you wake in the morning, and the haunting associate who will not leave your side throughout the day.
The rich man in the parable that Jesus tells us is consumed by his money. He has had such a great success in business that he needs to redouble his storehouse, and so plans are made to tear down the old barns and to build newer and bigger ones. The message seems plain enough.
But note the intriguing preamble to this parable. Jesus refuses to wade into the arbitration of an inheritance controversy. Someone wants Jesus to apply his Solomonic wisdom to a family squabble over fairness and the equitable distribution of wealth. Was Jesus shying away from controversy? That’s never seemed to be a problem before. Was he uncomfortable talking about money? Strike two (as we’ll see in a moment). Perhaps he wanted to keep his teaching on a broad and very general plane. Strike three. Check with the rich young ruler on this one.
I think he refuses here because he deems it the wrong question to ask. Fair distribution is still about the money. Who gets what (even if the one without is getting his fair share), and in some fashion this makes the question still about the money and about greed. No, says, Jesus, I’m no judge of such affairs. Instead, be on your guard for any circumstance where money seems to be the driving force.
If you hear this parable on the foolish rich man from the context of the affluent society in which we live, you may be tempted to read this as a condemnation of wealth and ill-gotten gain or simply the incongruence of full storehouses and the plight of the poor. Remember, however, that many of the first hearers of this parable were peasants, workers who lived day in and day out wondering about how they would provide for their families.
Later in this same passage, Jesus tells them not to worry — do not be anxious — about what they will eat or what they will wear. For life is more than food and the body more than clothes. Given that the first hearers were most assuredly worker peasants, we are not afforded the luxury of believing that this parable would simply have us moderate our affluence for the sake of the poor. No, Jesus means to challenge everyone’s fascination with money, rich and poor alike!
The rich man is deemed foolish not because he is wealthy or because the accumulation of wealth assumes ill-gotten gain. He is not deemed foolish because he was prudent in the stewardship of his resources, providing for lifelong distribution. No, he’s foolish because his world began and ended with him. He didn’t take the long view. He had not factored death into the equation, and certainly not the service of God.
Every single action he had taken had been in his own interest. He was the center of his world. “And the rich man 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.’”
This rich man hadn’t taken the time to read the Book of Ecclesiastes: “As goods increase, so do those who consume them. And what benefit are they to the owner except to feast his eyes on them?” (5:11). He had not read the lament and prophecy of the Psalmist: “Do not be envious when some become rich, or when the grandeur of their house increases; For they will carry nothing away at their death, nor will their grandeur follow them” (49:16-17). Or if the rich man had read these passages, he hadn’t taken them to heart. He is foolish because he has, by his actions, said in his heart, “There is no God.”
From the vantage point of your deathbed, what will finally matter? How many storehouses of grain will be left behind for your friends and relatives to fight over? Will it matter what you wore? What you ate? Who you knew? Whatever else you may have accomplished? No, Scripture says over and over and over again that these will be of no consequence. Instead, as you breathe your last breath let the testimony read: he sought the kingdom of God. She longed above all else to be rich in the things of God.
When St. Paul lists actions and attributes characteristic of the nonbeliever — the desire for indiscriminate sex, impure thoughts, greed (notice how the consuming character of greed and sexual anarchy are placed side by side — both sins of the heart and sins of allegiance), anger, wrath, malice, slander, abusive language, and lying — all of these will draw you away from becoming rich toward God. All of these will distract you from seeking the kingdom of God.
In order that whatever we do be a thank offering to God, Paul suggests that Eighth Day living, resurrection living, child of God living be characterized by compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.
In other words, when greed is not a factor in your life, then forgiveness can flourish. When you are not first motivated by lust, then the peace of Christ may find a home in your heart. When you are not given to lying and dishonesty, then the admonition of a brother or sister in Christ will not come as a threatening power play against you but as a witness for the word of Christ that would dwell in you richly.
In many ways our hearing of this Gospel lesson is made poor by ending it at verse 21. The next nine verses squarely place the emphasis on pursuit of the kingdom of God and help us avoid the temptation of marginalizing the foolish rich man’s idolatry of self — the plight of rich and poor alike who would exchange the cross for the idol of greed on the altar of their hearts.
Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable are you than birds! Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? Since you cannot do these very little things, why do you worry about the rest?
Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith! And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. For the pagan world runs after all such things, and you know that you need them. But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.
It’s almost as if Jesus is pleading with us here. I see him with tears in his eyes, so convicted of his message and yet somehow so certain that it will led him and us to the cross. Can they not see the idols they use to replace their God? He cries,
O you of little faith, learn from this parable, learn from the misfortune of the foolish rich man. Set your whole being on the kingdom of Heaven. If you’ve never heard it before or if you’ve never had ears to hear, then listen today: There is no home but the kingdom of God. There is no peace except in the love of the Father. And there is no treasure to be gained save in the riches that lead to Calvary and beyond to God.
And the rich man boasted. 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.
The Very Rev. Timothy E. Kimbrough is dean of Christ Church Cathedral in Nashville.