Luke 12:13–21 . . . Bible Study Summary with Questions
The Problem and Remedy of Greed
Greed has been an ongoing theme in Jesus' training of his disciples. Sometimes it's implied, other times its spelled out. He's telling a parable in today's passage — short and to the point. He describes a man who became increasingly wealthy. Jesus can hardly be addressing us! (Or can he?) In all probability, he's directed this parable to all of his hearty disciples. Most of us would be hard pressed not to admit that we, as individuals, are affluent (i.e., rich). And our nation, in comparison, is exceedingly blessed, albeit materially.
Furthermore, we can't separate Jesus' warnings and instructions from his advice to his disciples (vv. 13–21). In v. 22 (covered next week), Jesus' words to them begin with a "Therefore," indicating that what he's saying is based upon what's already been emphasized in today's passage. Note, too, that Jesus warned against "all kinds of greed" (v. 15), suggesting that greed has a variety of forms, some of which may tempt the rich while others may tempt the less affluent.
“Make My Brother Divide the Inheritance!” (vv. 13–14)
Jesus has been teaching for some time about his kingdom. The great crowd that had been pressing on the Lord Jesus and his disciples was still an unruly mass. This one person's request that Luke records for us is likely one of many. Suddenly, someone in the back calls out and interrupts the whole group with a question. Not a question, really, but an insistence that Jesus straighten out the man's legal affairs. It was rude and out of place. The man who called out might have been a younger brother who doesn't feel that he's getting his due. Inheritance in Israel was devised to keep land within the family, rather than let it go to other tribes or individuals. The first-born son would receive double the inheritance of any of his younger brothers; he'd serve as the patriarch of the family and executor of his father's real-estate inheritance.
As Jesus had done often when asked a question, he again throws back a direct question to the questioner (v. 14), one who's interrupted the Lord and made undue demands. Jesus asked the man who it might have been that appointed Judge Jesus to hear this case. Jesus isn't questioning his own role as Judge of the Living and the Dead (2 Timothy 4:1); he's questioning the man's motives.
First, look at what the man says, "Tell my brother to . . ." He has the audacity to command Jesus to tell him what to do. Second, he's already decided what he wants and he's looking for a judge who sees it his way. Instead of going to the approved legal structure of his neighborhood, he attempts to get Jesus to take jurisdiction over the case. But Jesus will have nothing to do with it and rebukes the man's inappropriate overture. Jesus' role was to teach the kingdom, not to judge petty probate cases.
The Problem and Its Remedy (v. 15)
Our Lord wasn't looking for an opportunity to publicly humiliate this man. Neither was Jesus, as a teacher, willing to let this teaching opportunity pass without using it as a "teachable moment." Thus, his response in v. 15a exposes the sinful motive behind the man's request: "Then he said to them, 'Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; . . .'" The words of our Lord were, of course, heard by the disciples and likely by others in the crowd. Jesus' eyes were likely riveted on this man and his brother, both of whom were probably guilty of greed: one (the older brother, who'd be the executor of the will, as it were) for not giving his brother his due; the other for demanding that he get his entitlement now. Jesus' words spell out the evil motive behind the man's request: Greed.
Assuming that the sin underlying the man's request was greed, Jesus the Teacher goes on to spell out the principle that reveals the man's values as not only being wrong but foolish. This principle is this: "Life does not consist in an abundance of possessions." Jesus isn't teaching that life doesn't consist of possessions; he's saying that even if one could amass a large accumulation of possessions, it would not produce an abundance of life.
Where Had the Rich Fool Gone Wrong? (vv. 16–21)
In an agrarian society where most in the villagers were subsistence farmers, agricultural success is a natural example for Jesus to use (v. 16). This is a story about a hypothetical, rich farmer. Jesus' listeners knew of rich farmers; they could grasp this concept immediately. Though his crop is plentiful, the size of the harvest has created a pleasant problem: lack of storage.
The rich farmer's insistence that he tear down his current barns indicates that he didn't want to build on his fertile land, but rather put larger barns in place of his present ones. His abundance, of course, is far greater than what he needs for his own household. So, instead of selling his grain on the market during a good harvest year, or donating large quantities to needy concerns, he aims to hold the grain for the future when he can get higher prices. He's a shrewd agribusiness man!
Jesus doesn't fault him on his agricultural acumen but on his independent attitude (v. 19). The man actually believes that his riches will now insulate his life from hardship. God isn't in his equation at all! Sadly, the man's focus is squarely on "Goods rather than God." We may be critical of this man of riches. But we're probably a bit uncomfortable with the man's portrayal, since many of us are working for just such a scenario when we'll take life easy, not have to scrimp, and continue to live our lives in luxury as we eat, drink, and keep happy. What a rich life some of us have already begun to live!
[You can see in Warren's commentary on Jesus' Parable of the Rich Fool how Jesus, in this "wisdom and folly" parable, depicts the futility of the belief that wealth can secure prosperity or good life and help admit one’s access to heaven.]
So, where had the rich fool gone wrong? It's possible that this parable reveals several "foolish" elements in this man's thinking and actions. Consider these possibilities:
(1) The rich fool was foolish in failing to recognize from where his wealth had come. He didn't seem to recognize the source of his prosperity. Indeed, from what we're told, the rich fool had no regard for God at all.
(2) The rich fool erred in his understanding of the purpose of wealth. He thought that wealth was to be stored up and saved, rather than be used. He further believed that wealth, when it was to be used, was to be used for one's own comfort and enjoyment. It never occurred to him that when his existing barns couldn't hold any more, he could have given away some of his wealth.
(3) The rich fool was foolish in that he saw his possessions as his security thereby ceasing to be productive. He'd be at ease once his bigger barns were built and his crops were safely stored inside them, along with his possessions. He's looking forward to eating, drinking, and enjoying the finest things for the rest of his life.
(4) The rich fool was foolish in his presumption. He presumed two things about the future, both of which were false: (1) He presumed that he'd continually possess his wealth; (2) he presumed that he'd be alive in the future to enjoy his possessions. Someone else got his possessions. He didn't live to enjoy what he'd stored up for himself.
(5) The rich fool was foolish in holding a short-sighted view of the future that excluded the kingdom of God. He lived his life in the light of a future that didn't include God's kingdom, death, or upcoming judgment. The rich man's future lasted only as long as his earthly life lasted.
(6) The rich man was a fool in the way he defined life and how he thought life was to be obtained. To the rich fool, "living" or "life" was defined in terms of ease and pleasure; not just of eating and drinking, but doing both enjoyably. Life was to be obtained by putting oneself and one's wealth first. The rich man lived his life exactly opposite to the way that Jesus taught his disciples and us to live.
How do you become rich toward God? In the gospels we see a contrast between laying up treasures in heaven vs. laying up treasures on earth for ourselves. So far as Jesus is concerned, we're to lay up treasures for heaven by humbly living for him now, by giving to the needy, praying, fasting, doing good deeds, and so on. Our worthwhile acts lie in contrast to selfish actions designed to create and enhance our own earthly wealth. Hearty disciples: Greed won't help get us to heaven.
Jesus wasn't primarily teaching teachers how to teach. He's teaching us how to live. Therefore, let's focus on those principles that underlie our text and should govern the way we live.
-- Our view of the future determines our actions today. The rich fool was correct to live his life in the light of the future. He was foolish in his concept of what the future held, assuming that he'd be alive in the future to enjoy all that he'd stored up. His grasp of the future didn't include God or God's kingdom. The expression "eat, drink, and be merry" is based upon the rich fool's perception of what his future held. For the Christian, their view of the future is what enables them to die now, knowing that they'll eat and drink enjoyably in the kingdom of God.
-- Our definition of what constitutes life is central and crucial to the way we live our lives. "Life," as God views it in today's verses, seems to be one's physical life. To the rich fool, life seems to be more a qualitative matter, i.e., living life in luxury, high on the hog. The rich fool presumed that he'd have long life. Thus, he prepared to live "the good life." Ironically, he died a fool, leaving his treasure and pleasures behind.
-- Our life doesn't consist in the abundance of things, even for those who can accumulate much. How easy it would be for us to think that this principle that Jesus first taught to the two brothers and then to the rest, applies only to those who are rich by our definition. The rich man here is greatly blessed, so much so that he doesn't have enough room to store his possessions. Today, we have so many possessions but no place to keep them. The rich fool in our text tore down his barns and built bigger ones; we don't hesitate to rent a mini-warehouse. Storage warehouses aren't to be condemned; we must, however, prayerfully ask the Lord Jesus to teach us how the principle that he's laid down by him today applies to us. May we learn how to be rich in our Lord God, amen.
- Q. 1 When you consider how the rich fool had gone wrong, what was his primary error?
- Q. 2 Is it more likely for a poor man or a rich man to become greedy? Why do you say that?
- Q. 3 How does one become rich towards God? (v. 21)
New International Version (NIV)
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The Parable of the Rich Fool
13 Someone in the crowd said to him, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me."
14Jesus replied, "Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?" 15Then he said to them, "Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions."
16And he told them this parable: "The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. 17He thought to himself, 'What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.'
18"Then he said, 'This is what I'll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. 19And I'll say to myself, "You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry."'
20"But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?'
21"This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God."