Riches and death

Posted: July 25, 2012 by J in Bible, Discipleship

I’ve been working on Luke 12 Jesus’ teaching about wealth and life and death. Jesus has warned us not to fear bodily death so much but to fear ‘the one who has power to cast you into Gehenna’ (12:5). Then as an example of what to truly fear, he says ‘Beware, keep guard against greed‘ (12:15).

It seems greed is one of the things that has that power to destroy. Jesus specifically warns about ‘abundance of possessions’ (12:15).

Then we get the parable of the rich landowner destroyed by money.

I’ve got some questions about that landowner. Hoping to get some help from the brains trust.

First, why is he so very bad? God calls him ‘Fool’. Not many people get called ‘fool’ by God in the Scriptures. And it seems at the end that he loses his life in a pretty final way.Ā  A ‘casting into Gehenna’ way I would guess. But why this guy? He didn’t hurt anyone did he? Doesn’t seem to have done anything spectacularly wicked or cruel. We don’t read that he mistreated his workers or anything.

Why is accumulating wealth so wrong? So deadly? I’ve known lots of people who did it, they seemed like nice people.

This parable makes it sound like you can follow God or you can accumulate wealth, but not both. Is that true?

Can you be rich, AND be a Christian?

Subsiduary question: does superannuation count as ‘storing up possessions’ for the future in the style of the rich fool? Or is it something different? I only ask, because we’re all doing it, right?

Can you guys help me out?

  1. Hi Jonathan,

    Robert Jenson has a bit on this one in his Systematic Theology which is nice, where he speaks about being closed to the future. That trying to secure oneself is trying to hang on to the past and close oneself off to the future (out of fear), but in so doing cuts you off from God’s coming kingdom.
    I wonder whether the problem is a lack of generosity, especially given 14:12 and 16:9. That is, is the storing up of possessions a communal problem more than just an individual danger to my soul.

    Another question: how mcuh is this tied to the the destuction of jerusalem. seems to make sense to sell up and make friends if everything is going to get taken away

    • Jonathan says:

      I should have known Jenson would be onto this! How I wish I found him easier to read! Thanks for the input though Mike. You should write here more often! šŸ˜‰

  2. Marty says:

    Hey Jono,
    Isn’t the point of the parable the imminence of the cross? Since chapter 9 Jesus has been on the road to Jerusalem to be crucified. He’s been calling people to take up their cross & follow him (in a historically specific & literal sense). Building bigger barns is the exact opposite of taking up your cross. At this particular eschatological moment it represents a rejection of Christ. Similarly, at this particular eschatological moment “burying your father” is a rejection of Christ.
    Mindful of the biblical theological context here, I don’t think saving is universally condemned by this parable. It’s true that we ought to live “as though we don’t posess” (1Cor7). But we are also instructed to work so that we won’t be a burden on the church (2Thes3). Surely that kind of logic creates a legitimate place for superannuation. Of course, we could potentially accumulate super due to ungodly motives, but that doesn’t rule out saving as such.
    That’s my 2 cents šŸ™‚

    • Jonathan says:

      Thanks Marty,

      I think you’re right that the teaching makes sense in context of Jesus’ journey to die in Jerusalem. I see it as continuing instructions to the disciples who are acting as heralds going ahead of Jesus.

      However I think there are elements here that broaden out the scope of Jesus’ words beyond that immediate setting. For one thing, in these chapters Luke is hitting hard on the idea of ‘the arrival of God’s kingdom’. And Jesus repeatedly uses that here as a motive for not stocking up wealth: ‘Little flock, don’t be afraid, your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.’ The future age is coming in, it’s no time to be investing in the present age. The times they are a changin, as Dylan says.

      However, we are still in those times, the ‘last days’. The kingdom is arriving now. So it seems the logic of the parable still applies. Similarly, a couple of decades later James indicts the fools who ‘store up riches in the last days.’

      Also the punchline of the parable: ‘So it will be for everyone who stores up riches but is not rich toward God.’ Could be wrong but I hear this as pushing the application beyond the immediate setting, generalising it.

      My feeling is when Luke puts this in as a significant part of his teaching about Christian discipleship, he’s intending readers to apply it to themselves.

      But I take your point about balancing this with other NT teaching – it’s important to provide for yourself.

      But I’d like to get my head around: to what extent should we provide for our future, as opposed to our present? Does such providing have the effect of closing us to God’s future, as Jenson says?

      I don’t yet have a clear view of this!

  3. Charlie Ellis says:

    Hey Jono. Great post. It’s really got me thinking a lot. You’re question about super is definitely a natural and counter-cultural extension of the ideas Jesus raises. I’m hoping some pearls may come from this grit…

    For me, the essence of the Rich Fool’s folly is in 12:19; ‘And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”‘ God does not figure high on his future agenda, and is likely taking a back seat currently in his life. There are no obvious examples of plans for being ‘generous to God’ mentioned.

    The parable springs as a response to the spectators request in 12:13. Jesus is understandably irritated by this question, given his quite intense spiritual teaching that came immediately before. After exhorting his followers to be totally transparent before the Lord; to fear God above fearing physical pain and death; to not blaspheme the Spirit because you will never be forgiven; and to embrace the leading of the Holy Spirit in unplanned witness; the request seems immensely trivial, and quite self-absorbed. Who knows whether the request was legitimate or not. It is not the time or place to demand this of Jesus.

    I almost expect Jesus to say, ‘You cannot serve both God and Money’.

    But, in response to the superannuation question, you don’t have to be serving money to allow it to serve your own purposes in following God. Money is one tool for communicating generosity and Christ’s love. I’m always a bit hesitant in extrapolating too many truths from the components of parables, but the parable of the wise and foolish builders (Luke 6:46-49), appears to be a time when Jesus does commend costly (effort/time/money) activity now in planning for a safe future.

    God Bless.


    • Jonathan says:

      I think you’re right Charlie that the timing of this request ‘Tell my brother to divide the inheritance’ is part of the problem. This guy has no clue what Jesus is doing, going to Jerusalem. And I think the whole section that follows needs to be explained in terms of Jesus’ mission, heading for the cross. What place does saving have for those who are carrying their crosses?

      I think you’re right that money can be a tool for good as much as for evil. That’s what the rich fool could have done with his extra produce – shared it around the village. Trouble is we’ve all learnt taught to use our extra on ourselves!

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