Parable of the Rich Fool

Actor Jim Carrey as Ebenezer Scrooge

This is Part 6 in a series about reclaiming the true meaning of Jesus’ teachings (Part 5 here). Today I’ll cover The Parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:16-20).

The Parable

The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store up all my grain and my goods. And I’ll say to myself, ‘You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’

The Explanation

Jesus keeps it short and sweet (Luke 12:21):

This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.

The Meaning

This parable is a classic example of the foolishness of greed and covetousness: despite his best efforts to hoard every last kernel of grain, the rich man ends up losing it all through death. He’s a fool because he has no fear of God (Proverbs 1:7 and Proverbs 14:16), and as a result his life is meaningless (Ecclesiastes 2:18-19, Ecclesiastes 5:10, and Ecclesiastes 5:15).

This parable perfectly illustrates Jesus’ warning (Matthew 6:19-21,24):

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal, but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also…No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”

This man ended up trusting his material wealth rather than God, and money became his idol (Colossians 3:5). It is only after death that such people realize that they haven’t been storing up wealth after all, but merely worshipping a false god who cannot save them.

The Application

Some people mistakenly believe that it’s a sin to be rich, and they may try to use this parable as evidence to support their claim. However, it’s not the money itself, but how you obtain the money which can be sinful:

  1. Are you earning money dishonestly? For example, are you stealing, cheating, not paying fair wages, not paying workers on time, or teaching falsely in the name of God for filthy lucre? (Ephesians 4:28, Proverbs 20:23, Leviticus 19:13, James 5:4, and Titus 1:11)
  2. Are you investing in sinful activities such as pornography? (Matthew 5:27-28)
  3. Are you looking for shortcuts to avoid work? For example, are you gambling, fighting over an inheritance, or idly living off of the hard work of others? (Proverbs 13:11, 1 Corinthians 6:1-8, and 2 Thessalonians 3:10)
  4. Are you being irresponsible with someone else’s money? For example, are you not paying the bills you rightfully owe or abusing bankruptcy laws instead of working hard to repay your creditors? (Psalm 37:21)

To be fair, the rich man in the parable seems to have earned his wealth honestly. However, the wickedness of his heart is revealed by the manner in which he manages his money. Therefore, this is a warning to all Christians, myself included, that we need to evaluate how we’re stewarding our financial resources to ensure that money doesn’t become our idol. Here’s a checklist:

  1. We should rejoice if we’re in the midst of a long streak of financial success. However, we should avoid the temptation to trust in our own ability to make money or in the bullish economy more than we trust God. Our ability and the economy may fail, but God will never forsake us (Psalm 9:9-10, Psalm 84:12Psalm 118:8-9, and Proverbs 3:5-6).
  2. It’s prudent to save money for emergencies, because we don’t want to go into debt or be a burden to anyone if we can help it (Proverbs 6:6-8 and Proverbs 22:7). However, our trust should always be in God rather than in our emergency fund (Proverbs 18:11).
  3. It’s also a good idea to save money for retirement, but just like the rich man in the parable, we’re not guaranteed tomorrow. Therefore, we must strike a balance between saving too little and saving too much. By saving too little, we become a burden to our children, who should be saving for their own retirement. By saving too much we become misers, accumulating way more than we’ll ever need.
  4. Now that the Mosaic Covenant has been fulfilled and replaced with the New Covenant, Christians are no longer obligated to tithe. However, giving should be something that we do naturally as a result of our changed heart. Therefore, we can look at our giving as a way to confirm that we are indeed in the faith. For example, we should be making our giving a priority rather than an afterthought (1 Corinthians 16:1-2). In addition, we should be giving an amount that stretches us a bit beyond where we’re comfortable and forces us to rely more on God for our daily bread (Matthew 6:11).
  5. We should examine our giving not only in terms of how much we give, but also in terms of our attitude towards giving. For Christians, giving should be a joy rather than an obligation—a way we express our gratitude by sharing God’s blessings with others (2 Corinthians 9:7). That’s why Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (Acts 20:35) In addition, our giving shouldn’t be a means to an end. For example, we shouldn’t be giving to buy our way onto the board of elders of a local church, but we should give quietly so God gets the credit (Matthew 6:1-4).
  6. Furthermore, we should examine our giving not only in terms of a percentage of our income, but also in terms of what we’re able to give. For example, Christian A is making $1M per year, donates 10% of his gross income ($100K), and drives an $80K sports car. Meanwhile, Christian B is making $50K per year, donates 4% of his gross income ($2K), and drives a $5K commuter car. Although Christian A is donating a bigger percentage of his income as well as spending less on his transportation than Christian B, does Christian A really need that sports car, or could he donate more of that money? This is an extreme example, and I’m not saying that Christians aren’t allowed to spend any money on entertainment. I’m just pointing out that that when we’re at the Judgement Seat of Christ, we’ll have a hard time explaining that sports car to Jesus. We don’t want to feel regret because like Oskar Schindler we realize that we could have done more.
  7. Finally, we should make sure that we’re giving in a way to grow the Kingdom of Heaven (1 Timothy 6:17-19). For example, although donating to a research hospital might put us closer to curing cancer, it doesn’t have a direct impact on anyone’s salvation. There’s nothing wrong with giving to secular charities, but we shouldn’t overlook our responsibility to support our local church and pastor as well as missionaries and evangelistic outreach programs (1 Corinthians 9:7-141 Timothy 5:17-18, and Philippians 4:15-19).

Before I end my rant about money, I’d also like to point out that this parable doesn’t just apply to individual Christians, but to church congregation as well. For example, modern churches are often extremely wasteful in their spending on fog machines and laser light shows, but all they really need is a building. Or they pay the charismatic pastor an exorbitant salary because the entire congregation is built on his personality, and when he leaves the church may not survive. Or they take out loans they can’t afford and then expect the congregation to bail them out. Or they get so focused on serving people’s physical needs (a good thing) that they forget to share the Gospel and serve people’s spiritual needs (a far better thing).