Keith Reeves, professor of biblical studies, Azusa Pacific University
Note: This is the first part of a two-part article.
Consider the lifestyles of four rich men: a fool, a tormented man, a sad man, and a man who is saved. Luke spends much of his time talking about rich men; one of his main purposes is to bring the “gospel of Jubilee” to the rich. We will look at two of those “lifestyles of the rich and foolish” in this first of two parts, and two more in the second part of this article.
Note: Consider using Darrell Bock’s short and powerful talk “Luke and Money” as a classroom tool!
Why is this man a fool?
Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:13-21)
This parable is told in direct response to a fight over an inheritance. When someone in the crowd asks Jesus to intervene in that conflict, he initially responds by telling that individual he is not a judge or an arbitrator. Then he says to the crowd: “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
Life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.
Jesus then tells the parable. On the surface, many of us – especially those of us from a western, North American perspective – would look at this man and say he was a smart financial planner. He took some of his excess and set it aside. In fact, as we see many people around us failing to practice the virtue of frugality and squandering money instead of saving it, we might scratch our heads when we see that Jesus says this man who saves up for a rainy day is a fool!
But a couple things must be noted here. The initial statement was that life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. The man who asked the question had lost his father; his dispute over the inheritance was getting in the way of his relationship with his brother. Wealth should not come before family.
The point of the parable is located at the end of the parable: “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” This man was not rich toward God. There is no reference in this story about any generosity on this man’s part. He doesn’t share any of his great harvest, but keeps the entire harvest for himself. No offerings to the temple. No helping those who are less well off. He is not rich toward God.
But is it wrong to save money or invest for retirement? Was our culture misguided in the past when it lectured us to “save up for rainy day”?
Here we need to be aware of a key difference between the economic context of the New Testament and the modern economy we live in. The rich fool was not doing the same thing we do today when we put money in the bank or in an investment portfolio.
The rich man was hoarding – gathering more goods then he needed, in order to feed his pride and create a false sense of security. Those goods went to waste. A storehouse full of grain just sits there; it doesn’t create any more grain. In fact, it is likely that much of that grain would be destroyed by mice and mildew. This is treasure where moth and rust will corrupt.
A retirement account is not hoarding, it is productive capital. The money in a retirement account is actually working to generate additional wealth – it gets invested in businesses and other potentially fruitful enterprises. Putting money in the bank or an investment account serves the public good by making capital available to others! So it would be a mistake to conclude that the parable is against saving.
This rich man is a fool because he is not rich toward God; his hoarding is a sign of that.
The Rich Man and Lazarus
Why is this man in torment?
There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house – for I have five brothers – that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ (Luke 16:19-31)
This parable follows the parable of the dishonest manager and Jesus’ statement that “you cannot serve God and wealth.” Luke also lets the reader know that this is part of a conflict with Pharisees who were ridiculing Jesus; he notes that they loved wealth.
The rich man is judged, essentially, for ignoring Lazarus. The rich man had a responsibility to help Lazarus. But what is the extent of that obligation? Jesus has a somewhat carefree attitude toward wealth, and is not opposed to using some of it for non-utilitarian causes like celebration. So to what extent does a person have an obligation to use wealth for others?
John Schneider, in his book The Good of Affluence, suggests we use the concept of moral proximity. We are more responsible to those who are in our moral sphere of influence. As Schneider points out, what makes the behavior of the rich man in this parable so problematic is not that he had wealth or that he enjoyed it. Rather, it was his spiritual obliviousness to the tremendous human suffering that was very near to him.
The rich man fails to help not a generic category, “the poor,” but a human being who has a serious need and who is directly in front of him. In the parable, the rich man even knows the beggar by name. His name is Lazarus, and he is lying at the man’s doorstep.
So why is this man in torment? He had a callous disregard for the suffering that was directly in front of him. He ignored a suffering that he knew by name.
In a modern age, where we can be aware of poverty on the other side of the world through television or the Internet, are there limits to our obligations? On the one hand, we have the parable of the Good Samaritan; on the other hand, Jesus’ statement that the poor will be with us always. We have enormous wealth and power to help others, but we have also discovered that giving resources indiscriminately can do more harm than good, undermining local community and relationships of interdependence.
Many Christians have attempted to draw firm lines on this topic, but most Christian writers acknowledge that each situation requires a thoughtful response. We clearly have a greater responsibility to our own family members than to total strangers. We also have a greater responsibility to those who have a closer physical proximity to us than those who are far away. The concept of varying degrees of responsibility can also be seen in Paul’s comment in Galatians 6:10: “So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.”
If we don’t want to be featured in Jesus’ eschatological “Lifestyles of the Rich and Foolish,” we must be rich toward God by actively using all our resources in ways that accomplish his purposes, especially to come to the aid of those who are physically or morally close to us – whom we can help without hurting.