The Parable of the Poor Rich Man

This coming Sunday is the 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time with the gospel taken from Luke 12 and, in large part, addresses our relationship to the riches of this life and what constitutes real treasure “in what matters to God.” The parable is not, however, unique to Jesus – consider this passage from Sirach 11:18-19

18 A man may become rich through a miser’s life, and this is his allotted reward: 19 When he says: “I have found rest, now I will feast on my possessions,” He does not know how long it will be till he dies and leaves them to others. 

It is possible Jesus’ parable finds its roots in Sirach even if it is not directly dependent upon it. The parable stands within the Wisdom tradition of Israel in which it is held that having or seeking wealth can be a person’s downfall (cf. Ps 49:1-20; Sir 31:1-11 – as well as outside the canon of Scripture in 1 Enoch 97:8-10; 98:3).

The parable warns against covetousness (12:15) and greed (12:21), set with the larger framework of the dispute over inheritance and a series of sayings concerning anxiety over the necessities of daily life, such as foot and clothing (12:22-31). The immediate context is the dispute and the declaration by Jesus that the measure of a person’s life does not consist of the abundance of his or her possessions.

The inner monologue on the part of the landowner is characteristic of at least some of Luke’s parables (cf. 12;45, 15:17-19; 16:3-4; 18:4-5; and 20:13). It gives the reader access to the thoughts known only to the man and to God. The rich man has a situation he needs to face – with the bountiful harvest he simply does not have storage space. So he develops a plan of action – build additional storage space – something Joseph prudently chose to do in his time (cf. Gen 41:48) – nothing wrong with the decision.

We might question why he wants to build larger barns – why not simply build additional ones? These questions are not addressed in the parable, nor are they normally in such a genre. It is typical for parables to portray and “all or nothing” activity.

In v.19 the monologue reveals a smug self-assurance that he has provided for him and his family in such a way that they shall want for nothing. Notice the repeated my (four times in vv. 17–19 while I occurs eight times in the Greek) which points to an ingrained selfishness. Not recognizing the benefice of God, it does not occur to him to praise God or to share with the larger community.  The man is not concerned about using his wealth wisely. He is trying neither to serve God nor to help other people. One commentator titled this parable as “How to Mismanage a Miracle.” He relates the surplus and storing of food to the Joseph story in Egypt. In that case, the food during the time of plenty was stored so that it might feed all the people during the future famine. In the parable the “miracle” harvest is stored for the owner’s own enjoyment not for the community. An abundant crop was a sign of God’s favor.

The rich man of our story is not even concerned to have a richer and fuller life for himself. He is concerned only with self-indulgence. His well-satisfied response is to “rest, eat, drink, be merry!” for the years to come. The rich man expresses a clear Epicurean thought in v. 19 with a major exception. He only remembers the good part of the philosophy and ignores the negative. The Epicureans sought to live the good life of eating and drinking now, “for tomorrow we die.” The same thought is expressed in Isaiah 22:13b: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (quoted in 1 Cor 15:32). This man thinks he can live the good life now, because he thinks his future is safe and secure in his new storage bins. He gives no thought to death.

God’s answer in v.20 underscores the foolishness of the rich man as this very night the man not only loses all his possessions, but also his very soul. Green (The Gospel of Luke, 491) comments:

This farmer has sought to secure himself and his future without reference to God. This is the force of the label given him by God, “fool,” used in the LXX to signify a person who rebels against God or whose practices deny God [footnote: See e.g., Prov 14:1; Jer 4:22] — a usage that coheres with the representation of “greed” (v. 15) as a form of idolatry. He did not consider that his life was on loan from God. Failing to account for the will of God in his stratagems, he likewise failed to account for the peril to life constituted by the abundance of possessions (v. 15) and for the responsibility that attends the possession of wealth. He thus appears as one of several exemplars of the wealthy over whom “woe” is pronounced in the Gospel of Luke (cf. 6:24). Such persons are not simply those with possessions, but more particularly those whose dispositions are not toward the needs of those around them, whose possessions have become a source of security apart form God, and, thus, whose possessions deny them any claim to life.

Cuplepper also notes that the Greek word, apaiteo used in v. 20 (“demanded”) can refer to the collection of a loan. Interestingly, the only other use of this word in the NT is Luke 6:30 where believers are not to ask for their goods back.

What happens to his property?  One assumes he has heirs, harkening back to the dispute between the two brothers. But the question is never answered as it is not the important question at hand. It is not what matters to God.

And as with most good parables, the parable does not answer the very question it poses: what is important to God.  The parable is meant to draw in the hearer to answer that question based on the Word of God, prayer, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  How would you answer?

Conclusion: The rich man would be the envy of most people — so wealthy that he does not have room to store his goods. But he is a fool because in the midst of his good fortune he has lost the sense of what is really important. He imagines that he can control his life. Possessions create this kind of illusion. The rich man is really poor in the sight of God. He does not even think about the possibility of sharing what he has with others. The implications of this story will be carried further in the tale of another rich man (16:19–31).

Luke has joined together sayings contrasting those whose focus and trust in life is on material possessions, symbolized here by the rich fool of the parable, with those who recognize their complete dependence on God (Luke 12:21), those whose radical detachment from material possessions symbolizes their heavenly treasure (Luke 12:33–34).

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