Radical parables from Luke: 2. The rich fool
How can we turn what we do into what lasts? The question haunts all history. By Terry Young
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You can read this parable here, or listen to it here (2:18 in).
I thought Matthew was the Parable Man until I discovered that Luke tells the most. He is also business savvy and seems to use terms linked to business, for instance, in the parable of the minas, we have pραγματεuομαι and διαπραγματεuομαι, both about transacting or gaining from trading. I’m not an expert, so use BibleHub to follow up.
We are familiar with agricultural imagery: sowing, growing, harvest. So, is the rich fool (Luke 12:12-21) another farming parable?
Clearly there is a wealth connection, since the question that triggers Jesus’ answer in the form of this story is about an inheritance. The parable is about money!
Yet money is mysteriously absent from the parable. In fact, money could have solved the lucky farmer’s problem, had he simply sold his extra harvest. We know from the parable of the minas that he could have stored the money or put it on deposit, presumably making a return.
Instead of converting something that would inevitably rot in the end into something more durable, the farmer goes to elaborate lengths to hang on to the grain that he grew in his fields. It’s not just that he wants an easy life on the back of his bounty, he wants to see that bounty for years to come, high against the horizon.
Our farmer wants to wake up to satisfying scenery and there’s nothing wrong with a great view. This morning, a friend in Nepal sent me a picture and short video: stunningly snowy mountains collared in clouds with lush greenery in the foreground sloping down to a silvery river that snakes away, far away, to an unseen sea.
Back to the story! I wonder if the first listeners were scratching their heads, remembering how they had handled bumper harvests in the past. Presumably, some would have enjoyed a larger meal table with more friends and laughter. Maybe some had sold their excess produce on occasion to buy an animal for the farm or something for the household. Perhaps they felt this story was going wrong well before Jesus pulled the trigger.
Our farmer wants to retain his wealth in its bulkiest and most perishable form and plans to do so in a spectacularly expensive way: by demolishing and rebuilding. That way, the profile of his success will show up on the skyline, even as he eats into his stores to enjoy the fruit of his success. Maybe a carpenter from Nazareth would like this solution but were northern farmers really that profligate?
We seem to be a long way from home, but Jesus is still answering a version of the question that came out of the crowd: not how do I get my inheritance, but how do I make an inheritance last?
Clearly, this is not about coins being good and corn being bad since Jesus warns that all wealth is vulnerable to decay (search online for moths and rust). But currency is a clue: since gold is more easily stored and traded than grain. Maybe Jesus is pointing to something more durable, still.
How can we turn what we do into what lasts? The question haunts all history.
In Luke, the parable of the minas follows, rather than precedes this one, so Jesus is presenting an idea he will return to later – how the irrecoverable shreds of what we do now can be caught and converted into things that really last.
Nothing is harder to hang onto than a gesture, a look, an action. Yet the utter magic of farming (and business) is that they turn what cannot be captured into what can – things that sustain or delight us. Jesus is telling us that we need something even more mysterious than crops or coinage.
In a moment that comes to all parables, Jesus flips it into the air. We see an illuminating flash when the farmer’s dreams die overnight. No silos in the sunset, feasting into the future, or landmarks left behind. Nothing. However, an impoverished elusive something remains with that soul of his which God demands that he return.
In this series we talk about relaxed reading and radical reading. The relaxed read is straightforward: this is a call to conversion. It’s a call to restore the missing spiritual dimension, to realise that we won’t live forever and to live less materialistically. Make your decision and move on!
The radical read requires reflection on what Jesus means when he calls us to turn the fragments spilling irrecoverably from our lives into things of eternal worth. Some have pursued this by renouncing all possessions and turning to a life of contemplation. This may have been right for them, but it doesn’t fully match the experiences of the people in the parables.
Others have given up all prospects of making that pile and turned their back on the workplace to go fishing with Jesus for people, whose eternal souls they valued above their own lives.
I recently watched SparkLit’s awards on-line from Australia and downloaded the winning book ahead of the announcement, on the basis that it sounded interesting. Natasha Moore’s For the love of God reviews the best and the worst of the past 2,000 years, as Christians have grappled with turning their now into a lasting hereafter. Some results – schools, hospitals, literacy – have been spectacularly successful even by secular standards. Others… well, read the book. It’s a real puzzle!
The trouble is, if we want to invest in eternity, how we apply our wealth and the things we convert it into will look very different from any investment we would normally recognise. It’s a crazy idea, but it seems to be at the heart of Jesus’ parables, particularly in Luke: there is a world coming and what you do now cannot make much long-term difference here – but it can make a difference there.
I haven’t cracked this strange idea, but I’m working on it and I hope it grabs your attention, too.
Professor Terry Young is an author and member of a Baptist church. He set up Datchet Consulting which combines his experience in industry and academia. This is the second in a series on the parables in Luke.
Radical parables from Luke:
1. The minas
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