The situation Jesus faces is clear: this man’s father died and left the land as an inheritance to his sons as a single unit. That way, it will support both without the problems that would come with dividing it. The expectation is that they will cooperate, so that their father’s purpose will be honored, but for whatever reason, one of the brothers is refusing. According to the law, if one heir wanted the inheritance divided, the division must be granted. Like the widow with the unjust judge, this man is legally in the right.
And yet: note how he approaches Jesus. He isn’t asking Jesus to mediate between himself and his brother; he isn’t putting himself under Jesus’ authority to decide the case. He tells Jesus what to decide. He’s already made up his mind that he wants the land divided—and no doubt what piece he wants—and is trying to use Jesus to make his brother give him what he has already decided he’s going to get. Thus, while this unnamed man is crying out for justice—and in a legal sense, is justified in his cry—his perspective is completely self-centered, and completely lacking in any sense of self-criticism. He’s decided what justice is due him, he’s decided what his rights are, and he doesn’t care a whit about anyone else’s rights or what justice might be due anyone else—or, apparently, about his relationship with his brother.
As the missionary and theologian Lesslie Newbigin observed, “Each of us overestimates what is due to him as compared with what is due to his neighbor. . . . If I do not acknowledge a justice which judges the justice for which I fight, I am an agent, not of justice, but of lawless tyranny.” This perfectly describes the petitioner, and it’s why Jesus responds to his demand for justice with disapproval. This isn’t the response this man expected, knowing Jesus’ concern for justice, but it’s the response he gets, from the first word. He begins his statement “O man,” which indicates disapproval and complaint. He continues, “Who made me a judge and divider over you?” This man wants Jesus to finalize the broken relationship between himself and his brother with total legal separation; we might say he wants Jesus to grant him a divorce from his brother. Jesus isn’t interested in playing that role—he wants to heal relationships, not end them.
Instead of granting the request, he sets out to help the petitioner see that, as one commentator says, “there is a greater gain than getting an inheritance and a greater loss than losing it.” He begins by saying, “Take care! Be on your guard against every kind of insatiable desire”—not just greed, but sexual desire, lust for power, any kind of desire—“for life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Jesus’ statement is general and addressed to the whole audience, but his implication is pointed: even if the petitioner gets everything he wants, it won’t solve his problem. As the Egyptian scholar Dr. Ibrahīm Sa‘īd observes, where the petitioner has asked Jesus to be a judge between him and his brother, with this statement Jesus moves instead to be a judge overthem. “He judges the motives of their hearts,” says Dr. Sa‘īd, “not their pocket books.”
Having made this statement, Jesus expands on it with a parable. There was a rich man whose land, one year, produced a bumper crop. He didn’t do the work, he didn’t need the surplus, he didn’t even have any place to put it, but the conditions were right, and he got it anyway. Now he has to figure out what to do about it.
He shouldn’t have had to do it alone, though. In that culture, the leading men of the village spent most days sitting at the gate of the village discussing everything that was going on, every problem in the community and the nation, and every issue they faced. Even the smallest decision would merit hours of discussion—that was the fun part—and any decision of any significance would be made in that setting. Jesus’ audience would expect this rich man to go down to the gate and talk the situation over with his friends. Someone there would suggest that if he can’t fit all that food in his barns, he should give it to the poor. As St. Ambrose observed in the fourth century, the rich man hasstorage available in the mouths of the needy. But none of this happens.
Instead, we see this rich man dialoguing with himself, in isolation from his community. He has no close friends, no one he can trust to share this decision. As Kenneth Bailey puts it, “He has the money to buy a vacuum and live in it,” and that’s just what he’s done. Of course, when you consider how selfish he is, this isn’t surprising. He never considers this surplus as God’s gift to him, or as an opportunity to provide for others; the surplus is simply histo use for his own self-indulgence. His only concern is how to preserve it for his own use. If he doesn’t have enough space in his barns to store it all, he’ll simply make more space so he can keep it all to himself.
Note his language—my crops, my barns, my grain, my goods—and, finally, my self. He doesn’t see his things as God’s gifts to him, but rather as his by right; and it would appear that he sees his self in much the same way. Thus he can say—again, to himself; there’s no one else to share his celebration—“Self, you have it made. You have enough to kick back and party for the rest of your life. Live it up!” He belongs to no one but himself, is responsible to and for no one else, and cares about no one but himself; he has many years of ease and pleasure ahead in his own little vacuum.
Or so he thinks. He’s forgotten or ignored the one person against whom his wealth means nothing: God. As the rich man kicks back, God looks down and says, “You fool! This very night, your life is required of you; and all these things you have prepared, whose will they be?” The word for “fool” here has the same root as the word the NIV translates “be merry.” That word means to have a life which is good to the core of your being. This word “fool” is the negation of that—it means to be empty and pointless to the core, without mind, wit, spirit, emotions, anything. It’s an extremely strong word. From a biblical perspective, it’s about the harshest insult possible.
It’s also, from God’s perspective, completely deserved. His response to the rich fool shows two gaping problems with this man’s plans. First, he believed the lie that his life was his own, when in reality he had it on loan from God. Now the loan is being called, it’s time to give an account of how he used it, and all his riches will do him no good at all. His plans have come to nothing, because they assumed the one thing none of us can control: time. He thought he had it, but his time has run out. He stored all his treasure in barns on earth, and now he’s leaving and they’re staying and that’s that.
Second, the question “Whose will they be?” bites deep for this isolated man. He had no one to share his decision, no one to share his celebration, and no desire to share his wealth. He planned alone and built alone to indulge alone, and now he will die alone, with no idea what may become of his hoard. He probably had family, and no doubt several people waiting to lay claim to everything he owned; a power struggle was imminent, with no way to tell who would win, and all he’d built could be ruined in the process.
And with that, the text stops, and we’re once again left hanging—with the parable and the frame story both. We don’t know how the rich man responded, and we don’t know how Jesus’ petitioner reacted to the parable. The response is left to us. Jesus’ point is clear, however: this is how it is with those who spend their efforts storing up treasure on earth for themselves, rather than offering their treasure to God by serving him. Life may seem good along the way, but in the end, it will all be wasted.
The problem with both Jesus’ petitioner and the rich man of the parable is that they’re putting material things first. They’re looking for life in possessions, pleasures, power, and pride, and that’s just not where true life is to be found. They’re putting their trust in wealth, which cannot support their trust. If you need wealth to do what God has commanded you to do, he can and will provide it—out of nowhere, if he so desires. More often, of course, he provides just enough for the next step, not one great windfall but a hundred little gifts; but all the wealth of the world is at his full command, and he can do with it as he will. Which includes, for those who put their faith in it, wiping it away. That too can and does come out of nowhere. God calls us to value the things that matter—our relationship with him, first and foremost, and our relationships with those around us—and to trust him for the rest. He calls us to put first things first.