First Reading – Ecclesiastes 1:2; 2:21-23 Second Reading – Colossians 3:1-5, 9-11 Gospel Reading – Luke 12:13-21
This rich man’s world is small, just him and his possessions, and now he learns that he is to lose his life. What good are his possessions now? Jesus sums it up in two words: You fool?” And, continues with the reason – “This very night your life will be taken away. To whom will everything belong then?!”
The man is rankled over a continuing disagreement with his brother. He figures he can follow the customary practice of taking his dispute to the rabbi, the teacher he has heard everyone talking about. Of course, he expects a settlement in his favor. But Jesus refuses to take the case and instead gives the squabbling brothers a parable to “mull over.” What is the point of Jesus’ story about a wealthy landowner and why does he call him a fool?
Jesus’ lesson holds a warning against covetousness – a wish to get wrongfully what another possesses or to begrudge others what God has give them. Jesus restates the commandment. The commandments are not a multiple-choice list of good ideas – they are to be applied to all. In this little parable Jesus probes the listener’s heart – where is your treasure? The thing we most set our heart on is our highest treasure.
In interpreting this parable to discover what it is we treasure most, it’s critical to assess carefully what the farmer’s error is. He is not portrayed as wicked – that is, he had not gained his wealth illegally or by taking advantage of others. He’s not portrayed as particularly greedy. Indeed, he seems to be somewhat surprised by his good fortune. So, what’s wrong we might ask with building larger barns, renting a storage unit, getting a POD in the back yard to store away some of today’s bounty for a leaner tomorrow? Hanging on to clothing we’ve outgrown, rarely ever wear, haven’t seen since we moved in two years ago and persons who have less than we do would appreciate having it; or stockpiling furniture that serves only as a “catch all” because it’s just too nice to give away…Requesting more allowance than we actually need and giving none to charity – or accepting money gifts from lay people giving them the impression that our community does not take care of our needs. We might answer that none of this sounds so terribly wrong compared to the horrors of violence…except for two things.
First, notice what the farmer’s consistent focus is throughout the conversation – it’s all about 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.”
The relentless use of the first person pronouns “I” and “my” betray a preoccupation with self. There is no thought to using the abundance to help others, no expression of gratitude for his good fortune, no recognition of God at all. The farmer has fallen prey to worshiping the most popular of gods: the Unholy Trinity of “me, myself and I.”
This leads to, and is most likely caused, by a second mistake. This farmer is not foolish because he makes provision for the future; he is foolish because he believes that by his wealth he can secure his future.
There is danger in thinking this parable applies only to “those rich people.” To put the matter more pointedly, thinking of those rich fools enables me NOT to think of myself as a “rich fool.”
We cannot separate the warnings from the words of Jesus that follow. What’s his transition word? He begins with “therefore,” indicating that what He is saying is based upon what He has already said. Note, too, that in the text Jesus warned against “all kinds of greed” which suggests that greed has a variety of forms, some of which may tempt the rich and others that may tempt the less affluent.
Jesus’ response indicates that the man’s request was his error. But, what this man wants is a judge, not a teacher. Other teachers might be tempted to pronounce on such cases, but Jesus knew that this was not within the realm to get in the middle of a family squabble. This young man, itching for a flight, may have gotten the floor, but he did not get his request. What he got was far more than he asked for, but certainly what he deserved.
Jesus used the opportunity as a “teachable moment.” The whole exchange and the lesson stresses that life does not consist in things. It does not even consist in many things. The parable tells of a rich man, who is not rich enough. Jesus, the teacher, did not judge, but He did teach. In this parable He was not primarily teaching teachers how to teach, but rather teaching all of us how to live. To borrow the paraphrases Joe Biden’s words in his speech at the Democratic convention, referring to his wife who was a teacher: “teaching is not what Jesus did; it’s who He was.”
S. Roberta Bailey, OSB, Prioress