The Rich Fool

Luke 12:16-21

19 August 2001

Greyfriars Church


It has been well said that the world's financial markets are driven by two things: greed and fear.

The free market-driven economic boom of the late 1980s gave us the slogan of the age: "Greed is Good!" , epitomised by films like Wall Street, along with the line "lunch is for wimps" . After the fear-driven crash that it led to—and the stories of stockbrokers jumping from the windows of their offices—we like to think that we've now moved on to a less materialistic and spiritually deeper age. But this is simply not true: greed and fear continue to drive the world's markets, as the very recent rise and fall of the tech stocks has revealed.

This should come as no surprise to us. Greed and fear are deeply rooted in our sinful hearts, and they have been for thousands of years. In this chapter 12 of Luke's gospel we find Jesus tackling them head on. So please keep your church Bibles open at page 1045

In verses 13-21, which we had read to us, Jesus discusses greed. Prompted by a dispute about an inheritance he says Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.ref and goes on to tell the parable that we heard.

In verses 22-32 he deals with fear. He repeatedly says "do not worry" , and in verse 32 says Do not be afraid, little flockref.

He deals with these two together because greed and fear are flip sides of the same coin: a lack of trust in God.

Since our morning series is on Jesus' parables I'm only going to deal with the greed side of things in the parable of the rich fool. If your problem today is the other side, fear, then your homework is to look at the second part of the text. But keep listening, because you will find that many of the conclusions are the same.

So let's look at this fellow in the parable. First, he is a financial success story, and that's my first heading:

A financial success story

By our standards and the standards of that day the guy in this parable had made it, hadn't he? He'd achieved that great financial goal that we all aspire to; he'd stashed away enough money to put his feet up, to retire, and take it easy.

He'd had a good year; his farm had produced more grain that he knew what to do with. There was so much of it that to store it all he had to tear down his existing barns and buld bigger ones, and he had acquired so many great possessions as a result of his windfall that he had to store those in the barn as well. Perhaps he had a particularly fine collection of chariots. Anyway, now he could relax. He'd achieved financial security. He could say to himself those wonderful words, You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merryref. This guy had made it!

Now, I have a confession to make: I am an avid reader of financial news. I know it's not everyone's cup of tea, but I just find it fascinating, all the ups and downs of the stock market, the arcane financial instruments like derivatives and zero dividend preference shares, and the complex tax avoidance schemes. I often turn first to the financial pages of the newspaper, sometimes even before the sport pages.

One of the types of article you sometimes find in these pages is the "Money Makeover", where a panel of experts advise someone on how best to invest what they have. What would such a panel make of our Rich Man?

The expert from BarcWest had this to say, Mr Richman should be commended for his ample provision for his retirement. However we are concerned that his portfolio is overweight in grain, and that he is therefore overexposed to the volatile commodities markets. We recommend diversifying, perhaps into promising new technology markets such as bronze-making and aquaducts.

All the expert from Midlifax had to say was this, In view of the harsh local tax regime we suggest Mr Richman move some of his barns off-shore to take full advantage of the available tax breaks.

I think it's pretty unlikely that we would find any serious criticism of him in the article. In this day and age, there's seen to be nothing wrong with this rich man's lifestyle.

And the same would have been true in Jesus' day as well. Right up to verse 19 of the parable, Jesus' listeners would have been unperturbed. They might even have thought, "This man is an example to us; Jesus is giving us something to aspire to" .

They would have seen nothing inherently wrong with this man being wealthy. After all, wealth and riches, especially in the Old Testament, are a sign of God's blessing, and the early church certainly had well-off members. No, this man's wealth was not what Jesus had in his sights, and we should not be embarassed about the wealth that God has given to us.

In addition, Jesus' audience would have seen nothing inherently wrong with this man making provision for his future. Don't the Proverbs say that we should learn prudence from the ant, storing up provisions in the good times to live off in the bad? No, this man's prudence is not what Jesus had in his sights, and we should certainly be careful to take measures to ensure that we and our families are provided for if we should fall on hard times.

Furthermore, Jesus' audience would have seen nothing wrong with this man enjoying his wealth. They might have thought of Ecclesiastes chapter 5, where the philosopher says,

When God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work—this is a gift of God.ref

Christians are not ascetics: we are allowed to enjoy what God has given us.

No, then as now, up until the end of verse 19 nothing would have been seen to be wrong with this man's lifestyle. He is a financial success story.

However, as usual in Jesus' parables, he's inserted a wicked twist in the tail in verse 20. This rich man might have been a financial success story, but he also had a false sense of security. And that's my second heading:

A false sense of security

If you study the really, really tiny print at the bottom of financial advertising you will usually find a phrase which says something like this: "Past performance is no guarantee of future returns" . Well, never has that been truer than for this man. All his carefully made investments are about to be wiped out overnight.

You fool! God said to him, This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?ref

In a world where death is the end and there is no life to come, this man's behaviour makes perfect sense. And that is just the kind of world that many people believe we are living in. In this worldview a person's life does consist of the abundence of his or her possesions. But we know that there is more to come. One day we will come face to face with God, and those who belong to Jesus will go on to eternal life with him.

This man is a fool because he has neglected to invest in the life to come. He's put everything he has into one singularly terrible investment—an investment in the things of this world—and one day it will be literally wiped out; he will be left with absolutely nothing. And there won't be anyone to sue for compensation.

Don't you think it is ironic that this man has striven to provide financial security for himself, but he had neglected to insure against the one event that was certain to happen to him: his appearance at the Day of Judgement? His earthly security was a false sense of security; when the things of this world were taken away from him he had nothing left.

And that's a danger for us too. This is the attitude that Jesus had in his sights as he told this parable: the arrogance of trusting on our own provision for ourselves on earth, but neglecting the far more important matter of trusting in God. It's a consequence of forgetting verse 15: a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessionsref.

That's why it's hard for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Because a well-off person does not need to rely on God to cope with this life, it's so easy for him or her to forget to rely on God for the life to come. That's why, I believe, in this wealthy country that we live in spiritual awareness is at an all-time low. Everyone has forgotten how to trust in God, because from day to day they just don't need to. But the Day will come when they have nothing else to rely on.

What will you be relying on on that day? Are you in danger, perhaps, of having a false sense of security, because your job and your investments and your house insulate you from the need to trust in God? Wouldn't it be unspeakably awful to appear before God on that day and hear him say not well done, good and faithful servantref but you fool!ref

That brings me to my third and last heading: This man was a financial success story, but he had a false sense of security. Now I want to show you a far superior strategy.

A far superior strategy

Virgin Finance's current advertising slogan is "you could be better off if you see things differently" . This statement is truer than they know. A Christian must see things differently from the world. In verse 21 Jesus insists that we must not merely store things up for ourselves, but we must be rich towards God.

Of course, the only way that we can be rich towards God is to make Jesus our Lord, loving him and obeying him. If we make sure that we are rich in that way then we will truly find that we have everlasting treasure and security in heaven.

How can we know if like this man we are merely storing things up for ourselves, or if we are really being rich towards God? Well, I want to suggest to you three tests that we might apply; three behaviour patterns that can help us to see if we are really rich towards God, or if we are only storing things up for ourselves. Think of them as three dials on the dashboard indicating your spiritual state of health. These three dials are labelled: generosity, stewardship, and carelessness. I'll deal with them each in turn.

Generosity with what we have

The first dial is generosity. The Bible is clear that someone who is rich towards God will find themselves being a cheerful giver. If we put a true value on the things of this world in relation to the things of the next then we will be happy to give away what we have, because our security comes from trusting in God. The state of our giving is a very good indicator of our spiritual health.

On the other hand, if we find that we are reluctant or grudging givers then that may indicate that we are more interested in storing things up for ourselves than in being rich towards God.

Practically speaking, then, how much giving is healthy; how generous should we be?

Well, the Bible seems to teach that a Christian should give a tithe, a basic 10% of income as a foundation to his or her giving. But that 10%: should it be out of our gross income, our net income, or our disposable income? And doesn't our income tax fulfill the Biblical function of the tithe, anyway?

If these are really issues for you, then perhaps that in itself is a suggestion that you are overly concerned about storing up for yourself, and not being rich towards God, like the pharisees who weighed even their spices to give precisely a tenth away. Let our tithe be whatever we have prayerfully resolved between ourselves and God it should be.

So, the tithe—whatever we have decided between ourselves and God it is to be—is the foundation of our giving. It's been suggested to me that we should give our tithe to the church, and what we give over and above that is where the real measure of our generosity begins, and that seems right to me.

So I encourage you to go home today and review your giving. It's probably the surest indicator of whether you are storing things up for yourself or being rich towards God. Sacrificial giving is a direct measure of how much we are prepared to trust in God rather than ourselves. For Jesus it's so important that in verse 33 he urges both the greedy and the fearful to sell their possessions and give to the poor.

Stewardship of what we have

If the first dial on the dashboard is labelled generosity, then the second should be labelled stewardship. By this I mean what we do with what we have.

The point is that all of our money and possessions come from God in the first place; they've been given to us for a purpose. The rich man in the parable had forgotten this purpose: he had just stored things up for himself so that he could take life easy; eat drink and be merryref.

But God's purpose is a bit different: he urges us to invest what he has given us here in things that will last forever; to provide for ourselves a treasure in heaven that will not be exhaustedref as it says in verse 33.

What is this heavenly treasure, and how can we invest in it?

Well, I think that to a large extent it is the relationships that we build that will last into eternity, and it is those whom we bring to God who are our treasure in heaven.

At the end of what is at first sight a rather peculiar parable in Luke chapter 16 Jesus says, I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellingsref.

Jesus is clearly not talking about the kind of easy-come, easy-go friends that you acquire by buying a round of drinks at the pub. No, he's talking about using what we have to invest in our relationships, to build them and to enrich them. This is good stewardship of what God has given us.

So, if you find that you are often using your home to welcome people and as a place where those in need can find a refuge then perhaps you are rich towards God. If, on the other hand, your home is your castle where only the carefully selected may enter, and then only after they have taken their shoes off, perhaps you are more interested in storing up things for yourself.

If you find that you are always giving people and their furniture lifts in your car, and you are happy to lend it out to whoever is in need, then perhaps you are rich towards God. However, if you really want that new car as your status symbol, your sign to the world that you have arrived, if you find yourself thinking things like, "Ha, he's only got a Ford Fiesta" , then I'm afraid you are probably storing things up only for yourself.

If you find that you are happy to lend out your power tools on a regular basis to whoever asks, then perhaps you are rich towards God. If the very idea fills you with horror, then... and so on and so forth. You get the idea, don't you?

The point is that those who are rich towards God will be using what he has given them to build up their relationships with others, not to horde material things for themselves. It is the quality of our relationships that will last into the hereafter, especially when they point people towards Jesus himself. The other things may be gone tomorrow.

Carelessness of what we have

So, the first two indicator dials I've called generosity and stewardship. The third is called carelessness: carelessness of what we have.

Now, I'm not using carelessness in the sense that we should go around dropping things and spilling them all the time. I'm using it more in the sense of "I couldn't care less" . That is, we should not be too concerned about our possessions; or we should take no heed of them.

To be careless about our possessions shows that we understand that they are only of this world, where things decay and rust, where things break and get spoilt, where things get lost and stolen. If we are people who have learnt not to care too much about these things then we are perhaps learning to be rich towards God rather than storing thing up for ourselves.

Let me give some examples.

Alice invested money in a technology fund that crashed, and now she's left with just 30% of what she started with. "Oh, well" , she said, "you win some and you lose some" and she put it down to experience.

Bob came out of the supermarket to find a great dent in the side of his brand new car. "Bound to happen eventually" , he thought to himself. "What does it matter anyway, it's only a box on wheels after all."

When Camilla's husband dropped her favourite vase on the kitchen floor, smashing it into a thousand pieces, she said to him, "Don't worry love, that's what it was destined for anyway" .

That's how you and I would have reacted in each of these little scenes, isn't it?

The point is that each of these people had a carelessness of their possesions that came out of their understanding that what we have in this world is impermanent. They will decay, degrade and be destroyed. So what's the point in clinging on to them?

This is a truly liberating attitude, if we can cultivate it, which ought to give a wonderful freedom from being possessed by one's possessions.

If you find that you are careless of your possessions, in the sense that you are not greatly upset when you no longer have them, then perhaps you are rich towards God. Otherwise, take care that you are not merely storing things up for yourself.

In summary, to be greedy is one of those irregular verbs. It goes something like: I am prudent, you are acquisitive, he is greedy. We are not objective judges, so how are we to tell if we are really just being prudent, or if we've become greedy people. Well, I hope that these three little indicator dials will help you to work out whether you are truly being rich towards God, or merely storing up your possessions for yourself: generosity, stewardship and carelessness. I urge you to check them often.


To conclude, this man's mistake was to forget that a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessionsref, and, driven by greed, he stored things up just for himself, without being rich towards God.

You and I may or may not be financial success stories, but, whatever our circumstances, let us not, like this man, have a false sense of security, but let's take that far superior strategy of investing for ourselves in permanent wealth; the treasure in heaven that comes from loving and serving the Lord Jesus.