Riches of Grace - A Reflection on the Parable of the Rich Fool

Riches of Grace - A Reflection on the Parable of the Rich Fool

"Wealth creation is not an end in itself. Our wealth is only real wealth if it is enough and no more and if it is shared and not horded."


Ecclesiastes 1:1-9, 12-14; 2:18-23

Luke 12:13-21


I recently watched a film called ‘Laughter in Paradise’.  It was made in 1951 and starred some veteran British actors – Alistair Sim, George Cole, Joyce Grenfell, Audrey Hepburn.

It is a comedy about a man who was a famous practical joker.  The film begins with the man on his death bed. In his will, he leaves £50,000 to different relatives.  However, there was a catch.  Each had to perform a task completely out of character. His rather timid Bank clerk nephew had to hold up the bank with a water pistol.  His snobby sister had to work as a maid for a month without being sacked.  His philandering cousin was told to marry the first single woman he spoke to.

The story unfolds as each of them struggles to fulfil their task.

Spoiler alert. 

Once they gather to tell of their successes and make their claim – it is revealed that the joker was actually broke and had nothing to leave them.

Normally, it is not contentious who will inherit from someone who dies but it makes sense to leave a will so that your wishes are clear.

Having sat on the board of charities, I have been aware of a number of situations where relatives have contested someone’s stated desire to leave money to a favoured charity. 

These can be difficult situations and need to be dealt with sensitively.

Jesus is asked to address one of those situations.  He is talking with a crowd of thousands but one person gains his attention.  The man is in the middle of a family argument about inheritance.

‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’

Jesus has the good sense not to intervene in this family row.

Instead he does what he does best, which is to turn the question around. To look at things from a different, if not the opposite angle.

And he tells a story.

Before we look at the story, let me just give a preliminary.

Jesus lived in a tribal society. Whilst the eldest son would inherit the title of head of the family, this did not mean that the rest of the family lost out.  On the contrary, the land remained in the possession of the extended family.

Wealth was shared.  If you remember, the protestation of the elder brother in the Parable of The Prodigal Son was that the younger brother had ‘devoured the property’.  It had been divided.

The man who addressed Jesus is asking for the property to be divided.  Like the prodigal son, he would break the family tradition and the cultural code and weaken the clan’s hold on the land.

He was asking Jesus to affirm his right as an individual in contradiction to the need of the clan.

Our human rights are an important topic in our contemporary world. Different sides of the political discourse look at them from different angles.

You can hear it in the debate about abortion, the right to strike, and freedom of speech.

Individual rights are important but Jesus is telling us that there is more to it. Our rights as individuals matter but not at the expense of the community.

So Jesus tells us a story of a rich man.  A man who spends his life getting richer and richer and richer.  He builds a barn.  Then when his business grows he knocks it down and builds a bigger one. 

He captures the market and expands the business until he belongs to the super-rich. 
I drove up the M1 this week and you pass these massive warehouses for Amazon.  Adding warehouse to warehouse, market to market.  Or supermarket to supermarket.  At one point Sainsbury’s had so much money that they had to open their own bank.

We are familiar with this approach to business.

But this man decides that he has done his share and take some time to enjoy the fruit of his labours. Now he is going to spend it.  He will start off in Harrods on a shopping spree.  Fly to the south of France in his private jet.  He will call in at Monte Carlo, then tour the Mediterranean in his yacht.  He will relax, eat, drink and be merry.  Hedonism rules.

Then God plays the practical joke.  ‘This very night your life is being demanded of you.’  Time is up. The man spent his life amassing things which in the end proved valueless to him.

Throughout the parable the man only thinks of himself. 

See how it is constructed – we read….

The man ‘thought to himself’

Then he says ‘what should I do? I have nowhere to store my grain. I will build a bigger barn.’

Then the really sad thing - He says ‘soul , you have ample goods ….’

Soul! – not wife, or lover, or child, or friend or neighbour.

He is only himself.  His money has cut him off from the clan, the tribe, the community.

Which, of course, is just what the prodigal son did and what the man in the crowd was asking Jesus to support.

We don’t need to focus on the irony of the story. The really sad thing is not that the man did not have the chance to spend his money but that he had no one there to inherit it.

God says: ‘you fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’

The money has left him without a community. Without an heir.

Pushing for self all the time.  Focusing on possessions, things, keeping up with the Joneses (hard task!) just takes us away from living life with a quality of relationships.

All these things take us further from God and not closer.

The Gospel says it: ‘So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God’.

Jesus is warning the man in the crowd against greed.  I don’t think that any of us would regard greed as an attractive virtue.

But the man in the crowd doesn’t think like that.  He is standing up for his rights.  Even though it was not normal or desirable, it was lawful to divide property.  He had the right to do so.  And was asking Jesus to affirm his right as an individual.

In telling the parable, Jesus is saying to us all – you may have the right but think about the cost.

I have been following the story of a Canadian oil company which has been drilling in an area of ecological importance in the Kavango region of Namibia. 

They have made sure that they have the legal right to do it. 

Their legal right allows them to change the nature of the land use.  To impact on the water basin.  To displace large herds of elephants and pollute the land disrupting the indigenous population. 

Having the right to do something does not make it right.

We need rights but we also need community. 

We need resources but we need to leave an inheritance.  The teaching of Jesus of Nazareth is crucial, urgent, and fundamental.

As individuals we have the right to food, shelter, healthcare, education, work. As a human species we do not have the right to deny future generations an inheritance.

Wealth creation is not an end in itself. Our wealth is only real wealth if it is enough and no more and if it is shared and not horded.

Don’t you just love the opening to the book of Ecclesiastes?

‘Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher’.

It is a real antidote to human pomposity and pride.  We busy ourselves. We stress ourselves. We think we need more and more things. But in the end, the sun rises and the sun sets.  The earth goes on giving and will continue to do so with our without the human species.

Vanity – how much of our contemporary living is just vanity.  How much of the things that we think we need do we really need?

How vacuous is the political discourse, appealing to the basest of instincts of the electorate rather than the long term interests of future generations.

Vanity, vanity.

In his letter to the Galatians [1] Paul calls greed idolatry.  Greed is being rich toward self but poor toward God. Too much of our idolatrous consumption is wasteful and costly.

We are paying the price for that greed in 40 degree heat, wildfires, and drought. 

It is vanity which keeps putting off the inevitable change and adaptation which our society urgently needs.  It is not only practical change which is needed but a revolution of ideas and values.

There is no better place to begin that revolution than the book of Ecclesiastes and Luke chapter 12.

On a few occasions, I met Dame Steve Shirley.  Her name is Stephanie but she used the name Steve in order to get appointments in the male dominated business world when she started her own business.

She came to this country as a child refugee from Nazi Germany.  She would say, ‘when I was 25 I decided I was not going to be poor anymore.’ She began her business in IT from home when she had her child.  She successfully built her business which was floated on the London Stock Exchange and she became very rich.

She explained that she thought it was the insecurity of her childhood as a refugee which made her feel that she need money. She was very good at making lots of money.

And having amassed a significant wealth, then proceeded to give it away and has become one of Britain’s great philanthropists.  She has a neuro-divergent son so has been totally involved in supporting the National Autistic Society and set up a school for neuro-divergent children. And, her business always employed women working from home as she had needed to do.

Maybe the author of Ecclesiastes would still spot the vanity in her story but I would rather have that than wasting billions on joy trips into space.

Jesus once again gets it. His teaching is vital for our contemporary world.

As individuals, we have rights and we have creativity but they are given to us to serve the whole not to divide.

To be in right relationship with God is to be aware of the vanity underlying our contemporary world and the vanity which we fail to spot in ourselves.

We have inherited the world our creator has made and we are called to leave an inheritance for future generations which is wholesome and harmonious.

When God does call us, then let us pray that we leave an inheritance of love and discipleship.  Pray that we have contributed to a world that is cleaner, greener, more equitable, more generous.  May our trust fund be the God whose rich treasury of grace is available freely and equally to all.


[1] Galatians 3.5

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