The point of the story is clear when we look at the setting and the conclusion.
The setting is a discussion with a man in the crowd. There was a problem in his family. He had a brother, most likely an older brother, who was to share the family inheritance with him. For some reason the brother did not want to do this so the man has decided to ask Jesus to intervene.
It seems that it was not unusual for a Jewish religious teacher to be asked for a ruling on the law, but Jesus made it very clear in his answer that he had not come to take on a role like a magistrate working in a petty claims court, settling family disputes.
But he didn’t leave the question there. He saw the question as an opportunity to address a bigger problem: greed.
The man may well have had a legitimate claim against his brother, but did Jesus detect that he – and his brother – were too attached to wealth? Was that the underlying problem?
The Apostle Paul would later write that the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil (not that money is the root of all evil). Might this man’s family life have been different if he and his brother had been less concerned with the acquisition of things?
Nor was it just the man in the crowd; or the man in the crowd and his brother. Evidently Jesus knew that greed was a sufficiently widespread problem to merit a general, powerful lesson: the lesson of the rich farmer.
Take care, and be on your guard against all kinds of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.
There is more to life than the things you possess. Greed – the desire to keep on having more – tells us otherwise. The rich farmer is a sobering illustration of what happens of what happens to someone who thinks that what they acquire for themselves is the sum of the value of their life. It is not true that whoever dies with the most toys wins.
Materialism tells us that the only thing that matters is matter. If you can touch it or put a price tag on it, it matters. Everything else takes second place (if it is given a place at all). If materialism is right, the only way to live a meaningful life is to live to get your hands on as much as you can. The more things you have, the more value you have as a person.
We are in danger of granting tacit acceptance to this kind of thinking when we talk about someone’s “net worth.” It’s a term that describes the value of that person’s material assets. How much money do they have in the bank? What is the value of their share portfolio? What is their property worth?
Jesus is saying that you cannot measure someone’s worth in material terms. How many lives of people who sit proudly in the upper sections of a rich list are no more than chaff when it comes to God’s assessment of them? Remember his verdict on a man whom we would have naturally termed a success: “fool.” Devastating.
But greed is not the reserve of the super-rich. In fact being wealthy is not necessarily an indicator of greed. Greed is much more pervasive. It speaks to us all. We’ll be happier, it whispers, if we can get a bit more than we already have.
It is the problem of materialism. There is another, more fundamental, side to us. We are spiritual beings, made in the image of God. It is a mistake to think that things can fill part of us that only God can fill.
It’s not just about the temptation to have more. It’s the temptation to have better – or what the advertisers tells us is better. It’s the temptation to have the latest of whatever it is they want to sell us. You can be a happier person with a better adjusted family and a more satisfying life if you buy what they want to sell you.
Your life does not consist in the abundance of the things that you have.
He wants us to know that there is more to us than the things that we have. There is more to life than the pursuit of things. He does not want us to reduce our life’s ambition to the accumulation of more and more things. To live like that is to live for what we cannot take with us. The successful farmer was like a man who managed to climb a ladder of success, only to find that all along it had been leaning against the wrong wall.
So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.