It’s a cautionary tale, told in response to a question about wealth. It’s a warning to anyone who has heard the whispers of greed and has allowed those whispers to shape the direction of their life.
It looks as though the farmer in Jesus’ story was already rich even before his bumper harvest. “The land of a rich man produced plentifully.” This is not someone who is struggling to make ends meet in a low-paying job while living in a cold two bedroom terraced house and who suddenly gets news that they have won the lottery or that a much-delayed insurance claim has come through. This man was rich.
In modern terms, think of him as a man who has his own – very successful – business. He has done well in the boom years. Somehow he has even been able to keep his head well above water during times of recession. When you drive past his house you can’t help notice it. Or the shiny latest model cars parked in the wide driveway. Not to mention his second home in Florida: a happy retreat every couple of months or so. He is a member at a couple of prestigious golf clubs: not that he plays particularly well, but they look good on his CV.
Success is written all over him.
Not that it’s a sin to be successful. Or wealthy. After all, there were women who provided for Jesus and his disciples from their own means. Nor should we forget the wealthy Christians whom God has blessed and who have proved to be excellent and generous stewards of their wealth.
It’s just that being rich and successful can bring with them their own particular set of temptations. It’s hard for a rich man to enter the Kingdom, says Jesus. Tell the rich not to trust in their riches, adds Paul. Tell them to trust God and to be rich in good deeds. Like all of us, the rich are to seek first the Kingdom of God.
A successful man becomes even more successful. There is a bumper crop (the blessing of God). What will he do with all this wealth? There was simply not enough room for it all.
What shall I do?
In the summer of 2011 a couple from Largs in Scotland won the Euromillions jackpot: £161 million. What would they do?
Colin and Chris Weir have been married for thirty years. They have two adult children in their twenties. Neither Colin nor Chris enjoys good health. What would they do with £161 million?
When I woke up on Tuesday morning everything was ordinary. I woke up on Wednesday morning and the whole world was totally different for us… . We’re not scared of it. It’s going to be fantastic and it’s going to be so much fun.
Colin is a supporter of Barcelona Football Club: he may buy a box at the stadium. He plans to keep his car, though his wife plans to change hers. Their children have not been able to afford cars up to this point but they now plan to take driving lessons. And they will get houses. Some travel is on the cards, including Australia and South East Asia.
Perhaps as you read about Colin and Chris you wish that something like this would happen to you. Buying lottery tickets may not be your thing and you might say that you wouldn’t need quite such a huge amount of money. You’d settle for a distant great-uncle who leaves you twenty million.
What shall I do?
What would you do? What if a letter arrives announcing that your insurance claim has been successful? What if you are a student and you discover that not only has a wealthy relative agreed to clear your student loan but also give you a handy lump sum to help you make a good start in life? Or – perhaps – less grand – what if you have just managed to land a highly-coveted, well-paid job that has the potential to make you and your family very wealthy over the next five years?
These things may never happen to you, but it can be a revealing exercise to ask yourself what if. How you answer will tell you a great deal about what really matters to you.
And that is what the rich farmer’s dilemma revealed about him.
Faced with the dilemma of too much material success, the farmer sits down to have a conversation with the most important people in his life. To be more accurate, the most important person: himself. There is no evidence of anyone else in his life: not even an heir who would inherit what he was about to leave behind. Nor is there any evidence that he cared for anyone other than himself. Or that he considered God who, after all, was the source of his prosperity.
Here is how Jesus reports his thought process:
… he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’
A building project. Then early retirement. Plenty of time to make use of those golf club memberships after all. Time to see the world and to wear all the badges of material success. No one else was involved: just “me, myself and I.”
But none of what he planned would ever happen.
He would never get the chance to build new barns and store his harvest. He would never get to put his feet up and teaks it easy. Because God interrupts him with the news that this is going to be the last day of his life. He won’t be around tomorrow to put his plan into action.
By our reckoning, we might even think that God was less than polite. He called the man a fool. God’s assessment of the man is quite different from what ours might have been, had we known him. Where we would have said, “success”, God says, “fool”. While every outward appearance of the man spoke wealth and success, God saw a man who was a failure because he had lived for thw wrong things.
The man is a fool because his life is about to end and he is about to lose everything he has lived for. Who will get it all when he is gone?
Perhaps you have heard the preachers’ story about the wealthy man whose life was coming to an end. He made his wife promise that she would have him buried with all his money. Surprisingly, she agreed. Her friends assumed that she had not really meant it and that she would not carry her plan through. When it came to the bit she would not be so foolish as to bury her husband’s money. But, to their surprise, they watched as she took an envelope and placed it in the coffin before the burial. Her friends now thought that she was crazy. Her husband wouldn’t know whether she had kept her word or not, they told her. But she had made a promise and she had kept it.
The picture changed when she said, with a sparkle in her eye: “Don’t worry. I wrote him a cheque.”
It’s just a way of saying that we don’t get to bring with us any of what we accumulate for ourselves on earth. If we choose to live as committed consumers, grabbing as much as we can, in the long run it will have been wasted energy. For we will leave it all behind. We will take none of it with us.
The fourth century church leader, Ambrose, said:
The things that we cannot take away with us are not ours.
And that was the tragic irony of the rich man’s story. He thought his fields were his. He thought his harvest was his. He thought his barns were his. None of it was. In the end he had nothing. He had lived life for himself and at the end he had nothing to show the God who had been the source of his life and his blessing.
As Steve Jobs learned,
almost everything… fall[s] away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.