The farmer in this morning’s parable is rich, without, apparently, gaining his wealth illegally or deceitfully, taking advantage of others for the sake of personal greed. So far, so good.
His land produces abundantly, over-abundantly, necessitating building bigger barns. So far, better.
Wisely, he looks to the future, storing abundant provisions, preparing to “relax, eat, drink, be merry.” So far, best!
Then not so good, but bad. He dies. His fortune left for others, who, perhaps as the one who wanted Jesus to arbitrate an inheritance dispute between siblings, inspiring him to tell this parable, will argue over who gets what. Worse than bad, the chilling epithet, “You fool!” This now poor farmer is a parabolic, symbolic everyman for all who, to paraphrase Colossians, set their minds only on earthly things and not heavenly things.
The farmer is a fool because his god is wealth and himself. Listen to him. “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops? I will do this. I will pull down my barns and build larger ones where I will store my grain and my goods.” His eternal mistake, his preoccupation with self. It never seemed to occur to him that his riches might be employed in part in the service of others in greater need. A deadly mistake compounded by his false belief that his wealth could secure his future. Listen again. When he spoke to himself by the name of that incorporeal, immortal element of existence, “Soul,” he gave voice to his conflation, his confusion of earthly and heavenly things.
Our day is more sophisticated than Jesus’ first century era. (How’s that for a declaration of the obvious?) Through technological advances, we, especially westerners, live longer and healthier, learn more quickly with storehouses of information literally at our fingertips, a mouse-click away, work efficiently, accomplishing more in less time, communicate instantly and widely (sometimes with TMI!), accelerate the production and distribution of goods and services, and, thus, elevate our standards of living.
So far, so good.
There are downsides. All opportunities come with obstacles, potentialities with problems. Longer living increases the cost of health care. More information overruns our capacity to know anything at depth. Quantitative production does not necessarily spell quality. Instant communication dwarfs our patience, intensifying our hunger for immediate gratification and enables us to be in touch without touching, thereby reducing over time our capacity for empathy. And standards of living still vary widely along the lines of economics and race, across the boundary between the first and two-thirds worlds. Yet would any of us freely relinquish technology’s gifts?
However, one thing throughout time remains constant, unchanged and unchallenged. We humans are mortal. With birth eventually, inevitably comes death. In between, with much of chance and circumstance, even our choices beyond our complete control, our lives are characterized by uncertainty and fragility. The farmer is a fool, for in making his wealth and himself his god he conferred infinite value on finite things.
I’m not rich in relation to the wealthiest folk I know. Still, regarding educational achievement, material attainment, and standard of living, I’m richer than billions of people in this world. And more than I care to admit, though honesty compels the confession, I fall prey to the hollow promise of the temptation to cling to things for security and to believe that more is better.
For this reason, I reflect repeatedly on Pontheolla’s and my trip nearly a decade ago to KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa…
There, in some places, we experienced the immediate juxtaposition of exquisite natural beauty and excruciating human poverty…
There we were humbled by the generosity of hospitality of our sisters and brothers of the Zulu and Xhosa tribes who freely gave us everything of their next to their relative nothing…
There I learned the lesson that in poverty one can discover a wealth of liberation from any illusion that material things equal salvation.
Will I relinquish my earthly possessions (though in death I will, I must)? No. I’m not Francis of Assisi. Should you divest yourselves of your material abundance? No. Nevertheless, I do believe that Jesus calls us always to consider how we view our things. Can they provide comfort? Yes. Do they make us righteous, in right relationship with God, others, and ourselves? No. Our human dignity, personal worth, and individual value are the fruits of our creation and, thus, the gifts of God and God alone. To live that way with our minds set on heavenly things can transform our perspective on our material wealth, making us more generous toward others…
And whenever that happens, I can hear the voice of Jesus, saying, “Amen!”
Illustration: Parable of the Rich Fool (1627), Rembrandt Harmenzoon van Rijn (1606-1669)