Jesus is a story-teller. Throughout the New Testament Gospels he rolls out tales that intrigue. And even scandalize. These parables, generally speaking, serve a special function; they communicate some key insight about God’s Kingdom and God’s values. The lessons of Jesus’ parables tend to elicit one of three reactions. They can be welcomed by those who embrace God’s priorities. They can be resisted by those whose attitudes and lifestyles can’t but be disrupted by the parable. Lastly, they can be entertained, by those who are open to change. This is the reaction of people who may be on the brink of transition. People who may be comfortable in their own kingdoms, but who finding something appealing about God’s kingdom
I’ve been thinking about one of Jesus’ more jarring parables, a story found in Luke 12. In it, he calls a man a fool. This declaration catches us off guard because the man is otherwise quite successful. He’s prosperous and clever. He runs a farm that is immensely fruitful. It’s a case study for a well-run business. In the story, his land produces so much food he is unprepared. So he ends up building more and bigger storage barns. Out of this success, the farm magnate is ready to ‘eat, drink, and be merry’. But that’s not where the story ends. Instead, it ends with death hovering on the doorstep. In this moment, God says to him: “You fool—not next year, not next week, not even tomorrow…but tonight your soul is required of you!” And so, at the height of his prosperity, the rich man perishes.
Think about this story. Think about the man at its centre. If he lived in Vancouver today, he’d be considered a big shot. He would abound with social prestige and community influence. He’d live at the top of the Shangri La. A box at Roger’s Arena would have his name on the door. No doubt, he’d have a tab at Hawksworth’s. Most people would probably admire him, because he’d have lots of money. This man would be an object of envy, an exemplar of the good and desirable life.
One day we’re all going to need God’s help. The problems of life will begin to overwhelm us. Disappointments will beat upon the door of our lives like a tidal wave. If we don’t have a deep and patient connection with God, we will be overwhelmed.
And yet, a Galilean peasant—our own Jesus!—has the audacity to call him a fool. Why? In one of his reflections on this parable, Martin Luther King Jr. suggests that there are at least three reasons.
Firstly, the rich man allowed the means by which he lived to outdistance the ends for which humans should live. He had plenty of means for living. He didn’t know the meaning of want! But, his vast wealth had no greater purpose than himself and his own provision. This is a man who looks at suffering humanity and isn’t concerned in the slightest. He builds barns instead of food-banks. He stores money in the Caymans instead of creating jobs. He gives his wife and children extravagant gifts; yet, he probably doesn’t give any of them the things they most need: love and affection. In his life, the means of living enormously outdistanced the true ends of living well. Jesus describes these ends as the love and service of our neighbours. This is why he calls the man a fool.
Secondly, the rich man fails to realize his dependence on others. If you read the parable carefully, you’ll see that the man utters about 60 words. In this concise discourse, he uses the terms “I” and “my” more than 15 times. This man is a fool because he used “I and my” so much that he lost his capacity to say “we and our.” He talks as if he could build his barns alone and till his soil all by himself. He is oblivious to the fact that personal wealth is always a result of the commonwealth. How easy it is for us to forget this! No matter where we are today, somebody helped us get here. There are a lot of fools around because they fail to realize their dependence on others. Jesus thus speaks justly about the rich man. Might he speak equally justly about us? About our attitudes?
Thirdly, the man is called a fool because fails to recognize his dependence on God. He talks like he regulates the seasons. He speaks as if he gives the rain to unlock the fertility of the soil. As if he is the source of the dew! In short, he is a fool because he ends up acting like he is the Creator, instead of a creature.
This human-centred foolishness still abounds. Many people are quick to forget about God. They want to get rid of him. But it can’t be done. And here’s the thing: one day we’re all going to need God’s help. The problems of life will begin to overwhelm us. Disappointments will beat upon the door of our lives like a tidal wave. If we don’t have a deep and patient connection with God, we will be overwhelmed. Do you know this? Do I know this? It’s a question I ask myself often.
I am a fool? If so, I want to be a fool for Christ (1 Corinthians 4.10), like the Christians of the New Testament. And many more since then. Not a fool in God’s eyes.