The Rich Fool

Scriptures: Ecclesiastes 5:1-20; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21

John D. Rockefeller lived from 1839 to 1937. In 1916 he became the first person in the world to reach a nominal personal fortune of one billion dollars. He was the founder, chairman and major shareholder of Standard Oil Company. By the time of his death, it is estimated that his net worth was $392 billion dollars. If you adjust for inflation, he is often regarded as the richest person in history.

As a youth, though, Rockefeller reportedly said that his two great ambitions were to make $100,000 and to live to be 100 years old. He believed that “God gave me money,” and followed John Wesley’s dictum: “gain all you can, save all you can, and give all you can.” Rockefeller was a religious man and always gave a tithe to the church, and also support efforts in education and medicine.

But even with all that giving, it is reported that at one time Rockefeller was asked about wealth, “How much money is enough?” His reply was, “More than I have.” “More than I have,” with all of that money. I think this attitude shows that, in some way, there was still an element of greed in his heart.

I mention this because of the parable today. This dramatic little story, from the gospel as recorded by Luke, comes right after Jesus chastises an impatient young man for being covetous, or greedy. The young man came and asked Jesus basically to be a judge and tell his (presumably) older brother to split the inheritance and give him his portion. (Kind of like the prodigal son, only the prodigal son went to the father instead of to the older son.) And Jesus told him to beware covetousness. He didn’t want the inheritance for a good reason.

Because of that, most people tie this in with the parable. This point should not be forgotten, and will be touched on later. Still, what caught my attention was something else. This is a story about a man who, by all standards of measurement, would be considered a highly successful person. Yet Jesus called him a fool. Not a crook, not even covetous, not inhospitable, but a fool.

Jesus didn’t call the man a fool because he made his money in a dishonest fashion. There is nothing in the parable to indicate that this man was dishonest and that he made his money through conniving and exploitative methods. In fact, it seems to reveal that he had a modicum of humanity, and that he was a very industrious man. He was a thrifty man, apparently a pretty hard worker. So Jesus didn’t call him a fool because he got his money through dishonest means.

And there is nothing here to indicate that Jesus called this man a fool because he was rich. Jesus never made a universal indictment against all wealth. It’s true that one day a rich young ruler came to him, raising some questions about eternal life and Jesus said to him, “Go sell all that you have, and follow me.” But in that case, Jesus was prescribing individual surgery, if you will, and not setting forth a universal diagnosis. The man’s goods were his Achilles heel.

And yet this, the man in this parable was called a fool. I think that there are three reasons that Jesus (and God in the parable itself) called the man a fool.

Number one, Jesus called this man a fool because he was so self-centered and conceited. If you read that parable in the book of Luke, you will discover that this man utters about sixty words. And do you know, in those sixty words he said “I,” “me,” and “my” more than fifteen times. Almost thirty percent of his speech was about himself. What is the unholy trinity – me, myself, and I?

It was all about him. His barns, his food, his own self-indulgence. It reminds of the passage in James 4:13-16, where he warns about someone self-centered boasting in the future. He warns against somebody saying “I’m going to go to this town on this week, and within a year I’m going to have a successful business.” Such boasting, he says, is rooted in arrogance, and such boasting is there called evil.

This man was as self-centered as they come,m it seems. He said he didn’t know what to do with his goods, he had so much. I could think of a few things! There are a lot of places to go, and there were a lot of things that could be done. There were hungry stomachs that needed to be filled; desperate people who needed help. In Jewish law, there was an obligation to help those who were poor and desperate. It was part of the law.

I would note that America is also rich in goods. We have our barns, and every day our rich nation is building new and larger and greater barns. We spend millions of dollars a day to store surplus food. It’s said that we can feed the world, if we could just get the distribution worked out.

But there are so many needs out there right now. Not just the disasters, from the wildfires and the hurricanes, which we respond to pretty well, and we and want to continue to do – we’ll be hearing about the church hit by Hurricane Harvey once again during the Minute for Mission, and have an opportunity to give.

But I consider the longer term things. “Food insecurity” is common around here, and in many rural areas. The backpack program was designed to give kids a meal over the weekend because many of them don’t eat on the weekend.

Everyone claims, “I to want to help the homeless,” but apparently it is “just not in my back yard!” So often, we in America would rather send money than personally involve ourselves in the rescue and mission.

Number two, this man was a fool because he failed to realize his dependence on others. He doesn’t acknowledge or even seem to realize all the help he must have had to bring in such a large crop. No consideration of bonuses, or even a party for them to celebrate the harvest. There is no way he could do it on his own.

Most of you who are older and have been farmers know what I mean about the need for teamwork and cooperation. Last week, Pauline and I took two days and we went to Kalona, because they were having their Fall Festival and Pauline wanted to go. We went into a couple of museums there (she went into a lot more than I did), and one of the things I saw was the hand grips that you put on, with a blade along the thumb, so that as you were picking corn, you sliced the ear off the stalk.

I remember, as a youth, having husking parties where we would strip corn. Nowadays I realize that you have these combines. I sat in one once in amazement, watching the ears all get sucked in at once, and then kernels went out one side and the cobs went out the back, and it’s all done for you. That’s an amazing thing and that’s great. But teamwork, and an understanding of others’ help, is something that we grew up with.

I don’t subscribe to the modern ideology of “You didn’t build that,” but I think that most small businesses and entrepreneurs are very aware of just how much their success depends on the help and good will of others. They put in their long hours – sixty, seventy, sometimes eighty hours a week – in their small business, and they make sure their employees get paid first. They need to be appreciated for that, and they should take pride in their accomplishments. But they are aware that they can’t do it alone.

That’s something that’s kind of a dichotomy here, a paradox, in the Midwest. We are so self-sufficient – so independent. We don’t want anyone else’s help, even though we’re glad to give help. The most common answer I get when I ask somebody how they’re doing is “OK.”

It seems sometimes in work environments as well, some don’t want to share credit either. I’ve come to realize there are a lot of fools around, because they fail to realize their dependence on others.

Finally, this man was a fool because he failed to recognize his dependence on God. If you look at the passage there, and his self-centeredness, it almost seems like he talked like he regulated the seasons. The man talked like he gave the rain to aid in the fertility of the soil. That man talked like he provided the dew, and even the sunshine. He was a fool, because he ended up acting like he was the Creator, instead of the creature, the one who was created.

I’ve said, all through my pastoral career, and will continue to do so, that the Bible is as relevant today as it was back when it was written, because human nature hasn’t changed. This man-centered foolishness is still alive today. In fact, it has gotten to the point today that many are even saying that God is dead, that he has no place in the public square, and many would say that he has no place in the personal life either.

The thing that bothers me about this is that they didn’t give me full information, because at least I would have wanted to attend God’s funeral. And today I want to ask, who was the coroner that pronounced him dead? I want to raise a question, how long had he been sick? I want to know whether he had a heart attack or died of chronic cancer. How did God die, and when did he die?

Those questions haven’t been answered for me, so I’m going on believing and knowing that God is alive. That he is present and eternal. That in the Son suffered and died for us to cleanse us of our sin and he was raised again, he was resurrected and glorified so that we might have new lives, be new creatures in him, and have eternal life ourselves. That he is with us.

As long as love is around, God is alive. As long as justice is around, God is alive. There are certain conceptions of God, perhaps, that needed to die, but not God. You see, God is the supreme noun of life; he’s not an adjective. He is the supreme subject of life; he’s not a verb. He’s the supreme independent clause; he’s not a dependent clause. Everything else is dependent on him, but he is dependent on nothing.

God is still around. One day, you’re going to need him. The problems of life will begin to overwhelm you. Disappointments will begin to beat upon the door of your life like a tidal wave or a hurricane. And if you don’t have a deep and patient faith, you aren’t going to be able to make it. A faith that keeps its focus on God even in the good times, remembering to give him praise for his blessings, and thanks for the mighty things he has done for you.

And on that day when Jesus comes again, or you see Him face to face in death, if you have focused on God, you will hear those words, “Well done, my good and faithful servant,” rather than “You fool.”

Now how do we prepare ourselves for that meeting? Again, we want to give thanks to God, all the time and everywhere. Paul, in his epistle, says that we should be praying continuously, giving thanks.

Even during this time while I’m talking and you’re listening, there can be prayers going on in the back of your head. You can be praying for the pastor and his talking. You can be praying for the people in the congregation. You can be giving thanks to God for the community of faith that you have.

We need to give thanks to people for help. And not just a cursory “Thank you, appreciate it greatly” but a heartfelt understanding of their sacrifice and what they gave to you, whether it be time, or talent, or treasure. We, as a church, were designed to be a community, not individuals. We are there, built to lift each other up, support one another, strengthen one another, so that we might be a faithful and better witness to God and his love.

You prepare as you share with people, share out of your blessings and your bounty. If you look, all throughout your life, you can look for the blessings that God has placed there. You can see God in every action of life. Sometimes it’s kind of hidden, sometimes you have to look backwards with 20/20 hindsight. But you can find it.

And you share that with people. You share these things with those who are in need. You share with those who are desperate. You share with those who are your church family. And you do it so that ultimately you can share the gospel and good news of Jesus Christ, about his death and his resurrection.

You know, it’s really not foreign to us Presbyterians to do so. We are probably one of the greatest denominations, as far as worldwide evangelism and mission. Not to be overly proud, but we “own” South Korea. With Presbyterian missionaries who went there and spread the Christian faith, South Korea is essentially Presbyterian. They have a church that has over fifty thousand members, and over seven services every Saturday and Sunday, between the two. (Imagine where we’d try to put them all…) Amazing.

But you know, not just overseas, we can do it here, at home, right in our own back yard, in our own community, sharing with people about Jesus.

The last thing we can do is enjoy God’s blessings with humility. We don’t need to worry that God’s going to be angry because we were successful. It’s OK to be proud of your achievements. It’s OK to enjoy your goods – as long as your goods don’t own you. As long as there is contentment there, that there is enough.

It’s easy to fall into that trap. I’m a guy. I like my gadgets. I like my tools and stuff. Recently we bought a battery-powered reciprocating saw so I didn’t have to have a hundred-foot extension cord behind me when I was trimming some of the bushes. And I admit that yesterday we went to Wal-Mart, and I intended on getting a particular electronic device, and somehow when I was there, there were also these accessory things that you have to get with them, you know?

I ended up spending twice as much as I intended. We can all fall prey to that. It’s OK to enjoy those things, as long as they don’t own us. As long as they don’t become the end. The means to enjoy God’s blessings, yes, but not the end in and of itself.

So stay humble. Stay focused on God. Remember his blessings to you. Enjoy what he gives you, and share generously. And when you do, you share the love of Jesus, reflect the love of God, and bring praise and glory to his name. And that is why we’re here.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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