The Divine Lamp

The unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple…Make thy face shine upon thy servant, and teach me thy statutes

Father Fonck’s Notes on Luke 12:13-21, The Parable of the Rich Fool

Posted by Dim Bulb on July 28, 2010

Note: the following focuses on the Parable of the Rich Fool (verses 16-21), but the author first set the context.

13  And one of the multitude said to him: Master, speak to my brother that he divide the inheritance with me.
14  But he said to him: Man, who hath appointed me judge or divider over you?
15  And he said to them: Take heed and beware of all covetousness: for a man’s life doth not consist in the abundance of things which he possesseth.

16. And he spoke a similitude to them, saying: The land of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully.
17. And he thought within himself, saying: What shall I do, because I have no room where to store my crops?
18. And he said: This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and will build larger; and into them will I gather all my produce and my goods.
19. And I will say to my soul: Soul, thou hast plenty of goods laid up for many years; take thy rest; eat, drink, make good cheer.
20. But God said to him: Thou fool, this night they require thy soul of thee: and whose shall those things be which thou hast provided?
21. So is he that lays up treasure for himself and is not rich towards God

After Christ, in the presence of a great multitude (Lk 12:1), had addressed words of encouragement to His disciples, exhorting them to constancy when persecuted by earthly rulers (v. 1-12), there approached Him “of the multitude” (v. 13), evidently therefore not one of the disciples, with the request: “Master, speak to my brother that he divide the inheritance with me” (v. 13). He was, perhaps, a younger son whose eldest brother had refused to give him the portion of his father s property to which he was legally entitled. According to the Law, the first-born son received a double share of the paternal inheritance (Deut21:17). When there were several children in a family, different rules, according to the Rabbis, applied to the division of the estate; for example, if there were five sons, it was divided into six portions of which the eldest received two, that is, one-third of the whole. In such divisions of property, doubtful cases of disputes might easily arise, more particularly if one son from covetousness sought to defraud the other of his portion, or to withhold from him what was his right.

“The teachers in Israel” remarks Sepp, “were frequently called upon to act as executors and arbitrators in matters relating to inheritance; indeed, people often named them in their wills, from a desire to have proper advocates and pleaders before God.”  Unfortunately he cites authority only for the latter statement, whilst evidence in support of the former would have been of special importance for our text. We cannot find any reference in Edersheim or any other commentator to this frequent appeal to the Rabbis as arbitrators in disputes concerning inheritance.

In the present instance, the cause of the dispute is generally ascribed to the covetousness of the younger brother. But St. Augustine acquits the supplicant of all guilt, and holds the unjust elder brother answerable, a hypothesis which accords quite as well, if not better, with the text: “Quam bonam ergo causam habuerit iste interpellator, advertitis. Non enim rapere quaerebat aliena, sed sua a parentibus sibi relicta quaerebat; ipsa Domino interpellate et iudicante poscebat. Habebat iniquum fratrem, sed iustum iudicem invenerat contra iniquum fratrem” (Sermo 107, 2).

Christ, however, firmly refused the supplicant s appeal; for he was not appointed arbitrator in such purely worldly matters. The provisions of the Law and civic judicature amply sufficed for the settlement of such. But this anxiety regarding earthly goods, in which perhaps God was lost sight of, and in a greater degree the covetousness, no matter whose the guilt, which was the underlying cause of the dispute, afforded our Lord an opportunity to utter a warning against covetousness and against all inordinate attachment to worldly possessions. His divine heart, so filled with love and inflamed with zeal for God and for man, profited of every occasion to elevate the minds of His hearers from earthly to heavenly things, from the concerns of time to those of eternity. Therefore, He said to them –not the disciples only, but also to the people (cf. v. 22): “Take heed and beware of all covetousness: for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of things which he possesses” (v. 15). The necessaries of life are all that each one needs for daily sustenance, and we must not look for that superabundance which exceeds these necessaries and which covetousness (πλεονεξία pleonexia , the desire of having more) foolishly ever seeks to increase, without taking heed of what is the most important and most necessary of all things.

Christ sketches briefly and in sharply-defined outlines the foolishness of those men who, absorbed in earthly pursuits, forget God, in the parable of the Rich Fool, which, as well as the preceding admonition, He addresses to the multitude.

The image which He sketches consists of two parts. It illustrates briefly for us the foolishness and the sinfulness of the rich man s behavior; the folly and the uselessness of such behavior are then pointed out to us by means of the
sentence pronounced by the divine Judge.

“The land of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully” (v. 16). In Palestine, where agriculture was everywhere amongst the Jews the prevailing occupation, wealth consisted chiefly in landed possessions. Although it was not yet harvest- time (v. 17), still the flourishing conditions of the crops gave promise of an abundant yield and in this sense the fields already were bringing fruits in abundance.

The harvest promised to exceed all expectation, so that, probably, the old barns would not suffice to hold it. The man’s perplexity is expressed in a short monologue, similarly as in the parable of the Unjust Steward (Lk 15:3 et seq.). Brief monologues occur frequently elsewhere, particularly in the parables recorded by Luke (Lk 11:24; 12:45; 15:17).

We must not picture the barns as being underground storage chambers, although these were not unknown amongst the Jews. The pulling down and the rebuilding does not accord with the idea of such corn stores. On the other hand, we must not represent to ourselves the building of these barns as being done in a finished and up-to-date style, indeed, such an idea is wholly inconsistent with the short space of time that remained until the harvest would be over. If a conclusion from present conditions is permissible, then the ancient granaries in Palestine were built, according to the part of the country, either with a framework of clay and rods, or with firm stone walls and a flat roof; some times, perhaps, a large penthouse resting on stone pillars or wooden supports sufficed, this being surrounded by a light fence of stones or hurdles. Owing to the want of information it would be difficult to assert anything more definite about them.

In the rich corn-growing land of Egypt, as we learn from the monuments, the ancient chambers for the storage of corn were merely square pieces of ground, enclosed, and with no other opening than those in the flat roof, one or more through which the corn was put in or taken out. Access to the roof was gained from outside by means of a ladder.

The fact that the only way of getting out of his dilemma which suggested itself to the man was to pull down his barns and build larger ones is quite in keeping with the conditions prevailing in the country in ancient times. He never thought of selling off the surplus of the abundant harvest. Great corn merchants were scarcely anywhere to be found who would buy the corn, and in his own country it would be difficult also to find purchasers, owing to the increased fertility of the land in such a good season. Exportation, on account of difficulties of transport and the immense supply of corn in a year of such rich harvest, would probably not prove very remunerative. Thus, the rich land-owner had no other alternative, that is, at least according to his reasoning.

But he might easily have found a better way out of his difficulty by distributing from his superabundance to the hungry and the needy. Such a thought as this, however, never occurred to him, as we see even more clearly from the conclusion of his monologue. When he has gathered into the new barns all that the old ones contained, together with all that had accrued to him during the year, he will say to his soul: “Soul, thou hast plenty of goods laid up for many years; take thy rest, eat, drink, make good cheer” (v. 19). Thus does he disclose the workings of his mind, which, wholly absorbed as it is in earthly things and occupied with the thought of his own enjoyment, reveals the man who thinks neither of God nor of his necessitous neighbor.

And precisely herein consists the sinfulness of his actions. Of itself and in itself, his prudent care for the future and the storing of the produce of his land would be neither foolish nor blameworthy. But to forget God wholly; to give Him no place in our heart; never to think of sharing our superabundance with our fellow-creatures; to seek only ourselves and the gratification of our passions, such conduct is contrary to God s ordinances and therefore foolish and sinful.

A distinction is made between the soul, as the source of one’s desires, and the person who enjoys the good things desired. Thus the soul is spoken to, as we find frequently in the Psalms (Ps. 41 (42:6, 12); Ps 101 (Hbr. 102, 1, 2, 22), etc.). The words “to speak to his soul” are also often used as a mere Semitic paraphrase of the reflected verb “to speak to oneself.”

In the second part of the image, without any transition, the foolish and impious words of the heedless rich man are contrasted with the sentence pronounced by God: “But God said to him: Thou fool, this night they require thy soul of thee” (v. 20).

The man is called “fool” ἄφρων (aphrōn), as the impious are frequently designated in the Greek rendering of the Old Testament (the word is used for thirteen different Hebrew terms). In the preceding words, in which he expressed his sentiments, he had indeed shown his foolishness. It is now still more plainly manifest, as the Lord by His sentence makes known to him the utter futility of his care and trouble. He had striven and labored for years solely to increase his possessions, to provide for himself in the future a life free from care, a life of rest and undisturbed enjoyment. And now just as he hoped he had attained his end, he was to learn that all his eager toil and striving have been in vain. In an instant, everything is snatched from him by the hand of Him of whom he never thought, and yet from whom he cannot escape.

We are not told by whom the soul was required. Many interpret the words as meaning the angels. It is thus that Antiochus, the Monk of Mar Saba, understands the text of his thirteenth homily. 1 In any case, the words are used chiefly with reference to Him who alone has the right to require the soul, and who is pointed out to us in the parable as the absolute Lord of all mankind upon whom alone depend life and death. It will be best to understand the soul in the sense of the life which is, as it were, entrusted to man as a loan; still the interpretation which explains it as meaning the immortal soul must not be wholly rejected, in so far as the latter is not separated from the personality, the individual ego, but is regarded as part of the man who is composed of soul and body.

The “speaking” of God to him must be understood as part of the simile, and not as a historical fact, although many assume that here there is really question of God speaking, if not actually, at least by inspiration, or else by means of an angel or Prophet. But we may also understand the “speaking of God” in the parable to mean sudden death, willed and sent by God Who reveals His Will in such happenings.

The parable concludes with the question: “. . . and whose shall those things be which thou has provided?” (v. 20 b). It points out the uselessness of all the labors of the rich man who could take nothing away with him. He might even have had no son to whom as his heir he could leave his name and his property. In any case all was now useless to him and of no value.

Nothing more is added concerning the fate of the foolish man in eternity, for this does not belong to the lesson of the simile.

Our Lord, in the choice of His image and of His words, probably had in view some passages in the Old Testament, more especially the verses in Ecclesiasticus: “There is one that is enriched by living sparingly (that is, by his carefulness and avarice), and this is the portion of his reward. In that he says: I have found me rest, and now I will eat of my goods alone: And he knows not what time shall pass, and that death approaches, and that he must leave all to others, and shall die” (Eccl 11:18 et seq. Greek, Vulg. 5:18-20; cf. 5:1, 9; 34:3; Job, 27:16-20; Ps 48:17 et seq.; Eccl 2:1 and the Midrash).

But all these passages in the Old Testament, and many similar ones in the Talmud also, are wanting in the lesson which Christ regarded as the chief object of the parable. Even though the arrow may have been taken from the Jewish quiver, still it was the hand of the Lord which directed its aim (Edersheim).

Christ Himself, in a few words, adds the lesson which is to be drawn by all from the parable: “So is he that lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich towards God” (v. 21). The “lays up treasure for himself,” in contrast to the “rich towards God,” and in reference to the parable just proposed and the preceding warning against avarice, can only be understood of that inordinate striving for riches which causes man to neglect his duties towards God and his neighbor. Such a covetous miser will sooner or later meet with the fate of the man in the simile. The Lord will come, like a thief in the night, at the hour when he is least expecting His coming, and will snatch him away from all his treasures. Of all his care and labor nothing will remain to him but the bitterest disillusion, for now he must go before his God with empty hands.

On the other hand, “rich towards God” describes the winning and the possession of such riches as are of value in the sight of God. These words refer especially to the good works by which men in the fulfilment of God s will heap up for themselves merit and imperishable treasures. They also contain a reference to the good use of wealth. Taking into consideration the conduct of the foolish man and the standard according to which the Lord will judge him, some would explain the words exclusively in the sense of the good use of wealth. However, the change of construction and of the term, and a comparison with other passages would seem to admit of them being interpreted also in the sense of good works in general.

εἰς θεός (eis Theos) is variously rendered. Some, instead of :for God,” prefer
“with reference to God,” or again they accept eis in the sense of en, “in God,” “in the eyes of God.” But the essential meaning of the sentence is not thereby altered.

The lesson of the parable is accordingly closely allied to the exhortation in the Sermon on the Mount: “Lay not up to yourselves treasures on earth: where the rust, and moth consume, and where thieves break through and steal. But lay up to yourselves treasures in heaven: where neither the rust, nor moth consumes, and where thieves do not break through, nor steal. For where thy treasure is, there is thy heart also” (Mt 6:19-21. Cf. Lk 12:33 et seq.).

Professor Jiilicher, as usual, endeavors to discover in the form of the parable as given in the Gospel an older one traceable to Christ. The latter had, he tells us, directed His simile against a religious fault, whilst Luke points the narrative against a moral failing. He finds in particular “that the connecting of verse 13 with verse 16 and those that follow by means of verse 15, is unmistakably artificial,” and he maintains that “we may once more with full deliberation regard verse 15 as one of the many composed by Luke to form a connecting link and which, together with verse 21, was to form the framework for verses 16-20, which may perhaps have been a wholly disconnected and loose piece of work” (II, 615). Let it suffice once more to point out the arbitrary fashion in which the Evangelists are corrected.

Practical applications for every member of Christ s kingdom are derived easily from the parable and the lesson which He added. As the divine Teacher opposed the lesson of humility to Pharisaical pride, and to Jewish self-seeking the disinterestedness that was utterly free from self, so did He also require from every one of His followers individually renunciation of heart from all inordinate attachment to earthly goods, in contrast to the worldly efforts and aspirations of the majority in Israel who were wholly absorbed in the pursuit of earthly riches.

Christ Himself makes known to us all the first warning contained in the simile, in the words: “Take heed, and beware of all covetousness” (Lk 12:15). We must beware, in the first place, of inordinate and unrighteous striving after the acquirement and the increase of earthly riches, and next, of the inordinate desire of hoarding what we have acquired, and of too great attachment to these exterior goods.

The best means by which to prevent this inordinate, irregular attachment is the entire or partial surrender of our possessions, whether by the acceptance of voluntary poverty or by the practice of charity towards the poor and the needy. Such is the recommendation of many homilists, from the time of St. Basil, including the Saint himself, when referring to this parable.

Our Lord adds a further warning as a conclusion to be drawn from the simile, more especially by the disciples: “Therefore I say to you, be not solicitous for your life what you shall eat; nor for your body, what you shall put on.” And then having fully illustrated this exhortation, He adds: “But seek first the kingdom of God and his justice, and all these things shall be added unto you” (Lk 12:22-31). Thus shall they become truly “rich in God.”

A solemn memento mori is also obvious in the parable, with all the lessons which the eloquent preacher who wields the sickle can impart to each of us.

We find these and various other applications from this simile expounded most admirably in the inexhaustible treasury of the writings of the Fathers of the Church. Amongst these commentaries the fine homily of St. Basil deserves first place:

“There is a twofold manner of trial, either by tribulation which purifies the heart as gold in the furnace, testing its true worth by means of patience, or, as not seldom happens, by earthly prosperity which for many becomes the touchstone. For it is just as difficult to keep from becoming depressed in spirit by misfortune, as it is to avoid being exalted by prosperity. Job, that invincible combatant, affords us an example of the first kind of trial, whilst in the story of the rich man which has just been read we have an example of one who was tried through his earthly prosperity. He possessed, indeed, much wealth, and hoped for still more, since God in His goodness did not at once from the outset condemn him because of his ingratitude, but continued to increase his possessions, that, being wholly satisfied, he might be moved to mercy and charity.

“Wherefore, then, did his fields yield in superabundance, since he would not use this superabundance in good works? It was that the longanimity of God, Who extends His goodness even to such men, might be the more royally manifested. ‘For He makes his sun to rise upon the good, and bad, and rains upon the just and the unjust.’ But this goodness of God only entails worse punishment on the impious. He pours His rain over the earth which is cultivated by avaricious hands; He lets His sun shine that the seed may grow and that the crops may produce a rich harvest. These gifts all come from God: fruitful earth and favorable weather, productive seed, the helpful labor of the oxen, and all besides that the farmer needs for the prospering of his work. And what did the man give Him in return? Hard-heartedness, want of charity, greed, avarice, this was what he offered in return to his benefactor. He had no thought for his fellow-men; he did not think it necessary to share his superabundance with the starving, and he paid no heed to the command: Cease not to do good to the needy, and to give alms. And the voice of all the Prophets and of all teachers found no hearing. But the barns were bursting because they could not hold the quantity of the fruits of the earth, yet the covetous heart had not enough. . . .It seems to me that the passion of cupidity in such a soul is like that of the glutton who would rather burst in his gluttony than give anything to the poor.

“Think, man, think of the Giver! Remember who thou art thyself; what is intrusted to thy stewardship; from Whom thou hast received it; why thou wert preferred before so many. Thou art the servant of a good God, a steward for thy fellow-servants. Beware that it does not happen to thee as to this man; for to this end was this written that we may take heed not to act in a similar manner. Take example from the earth, O man! and, like it, bring forth fruit, lest thou be worse than an irrational creature. The earth causes the fruits to grow, not for its own enjoyment, but for thy service. But thou ever receivest the reward of thy well-doing, for the merits of benevolence return to the giver.” The earnest admonition against avarice and covetousness concludes with a reference to the Last Judgment when it will not be thieving or robbery that will be the cause of condemnation, but the hard-hearted refusal of charity. The Saint adds at the end: “I have said what I consider necessary for salvation. Thou hast good things promised before thine eyes if thou wilt obey; or, if thou wilt not, the punishments that are threatened. Mayest thou be preserved from experiencing these in thyself! Change, therefore, thy disposition and turn thy wealth to such account that thou mayest attain to heavenly riches by the grace of Him who has called us all to His kingdom, to whom is due honor and glory for all eternity, Amen” (M. 31, 261-77).

5 Responses to “Father Fonck’s Notes on Luke 12:13-21, The Parable of the Rich Fool”

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