In Luke 12:16-21 Jesus taught the Parable of the Rich Fool. Ironically, he looked smart: he was able to accumulate wealth and succeed as a farmer and businessman. Read or listen to this chapter from Your Finances God’s Way to learn why the rich man was a fool.
Table of Contents
- EVERYTHING COMES FROM GOD
- WISE IN THE WORLD’S EYES, BUT FOOLS TO GOD
- WHAT MONEY CAN’T DO
- WHAT THE GOSPEL CAN DO
Malcolm Forbes was an American entrepreneur who is most well-known as the publisher of Forbes magazine. He’s also remembered for several sayings, and one that he said repeatedly is “He who has the most toys wins.” Just as you would expect from someone who said this, he lived an extravagant, flamboyant lifestyle. He spent millions (or perhaps billions) on parties, traveling, his collection of yachts, aircraft, art, motorcycles, castles, hot-air balloons, and Fabergé eggs, some of which cost over one million dollars each.
When I was growing up, there was a popular line of clothing called No Fear. They had one shirt that corrected Malcom’s quote: “He who dies with the most toys still dies.” The people working for the secular clothing company were considerably more biblical than Mr. Forbes. They recognized that regardless of how much a man has, he can’t “add a single hour to his span of life,” as Jesus said (Matthew 6:27 ESV). The No Fear clothing company also recognized we can’t take any of our toys, or possessions, with us, because if we could, then the one who died with the most toys would be the winner.
The man in the parable of the rich fool seems like the Malcolm Forbes of the Bible. He lived only for this life:
The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and 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.’” But God said to him, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God (Luke 12:16-21 ESV).
The rich fool’s harvest was so great he ran out of room to store it. As a farmer, because his crops are basically money, it’s like he has more money than he knows what to do with. How would you like to have this problem? Believe it or not, it ended up being a big problem for him! He didn’t understand the concept of stewardship that we discussed in some earlier chapters, and that anything he had ultimately belongs to God and was meant to be used for His glory.
EVERYTHING COMES FROM GOD
Some things are harder to be viewed as coming from God. For example, if you study for a degree, it’s hard to say, “God gave this to me” because you feel like you earned it. The same can be said if you’re faithful at work and get promoted, or practice an instrument and became an accomplished musician, or train for a race and win. But with some other things, it is easier to see God’s hand in them. For example, we have nothing to do with where and when we are born. While I was working on this book we had our ninth child, and we see God’s hand in this child’s birth because we can’t create life. Only God can do that.
One more thing we should view as coming from God is a good harvest, or “land [producing] plentifully.” Although I haven’t been a farmer, I know it’s a profession that greatly depends on circumstances outside of our control. My father-in-law, Rick, is a farmer. Katie says she remembers growing up watching her father stand at the window looking at the clouds with concern after he just cut the alfalfa because rain would ruin his crop. One of the elders I serve with is a farmer. Over the years he has asked people to pray for his crops because he knew that ultimately, the crops were in God’s hands—He must provide and withhold the rain at the right times, as well as warm the earth and make the seed grow: “God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:7 ESV). Farmers can do all the right things, but if God doesn’t bless their efforts, then the land won’t produce plentifully.
The farmer asked, “What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?” This is a good question, and there are lots of good answers, such as, “Because God gave me such a great crop, I’ll give back to Him! I’ll donate to the temple, the synagogue, the poor, widows, or orphans.” But he didn’t come up with any good answers. Instead, he thought only about one person: himself.
WISE IN THE WORLD’S EYES, BUT FOOLS TO GOD
Let’s be honest: does the rich man look like a fool? Not at all. He was an astute farmer and successful businessman who was able to accumulate considerable wealth. If you took this man’s story, made it into a present-day example, and published it in a business magazine—such as Forbes or Bloomberg Businessweek—what would people say? He’s wise! He demonstrated many of the financial principles we will discuss in the following chapters, such as
- not being wasteful—he said, “What shall I do, since I have nowhere to store my crops?”
- planning—he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones.”
- saving—he said, “There I will store all my grains and my goods.”
- preparing for the future—he said, “I will say to [myself]…you have ample goods laid up for many years.”
You would be hard-pressed to find someone who seemed to handle money better than this man. He looks like he could have written this book. But did God say to him, “You have been a tremendous steward. What a great job you have done financially.” Nope. God called him a fool. It’s ironic that a man could look so wise and be called a fool.
Let me make one point from the parable of the rich fool absolutely clear: People can look wise and successful in the world’s eyes, but they can be fools and failures in God’s eyes. Conversely, people can look wise and successful in God’s eyes, but they can look like fools and failures in the world’s eyes. Consider Paul’s words with added thoughts from me: “Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you seems to be wise in this age [as the rich fool did], let him become a fool [do what the world says is foolish, such as serve the Lord, give away some of what you have, and avoid debt] that he may become wise [in God’s eyes]. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, ‘He catches the wise in their own craftiness’” (1 Corinthians 3:18-19). The rich fool is a good example of this. He said, “I will do this and this and this,” but God caught him in his craftiness.
Because we want to look good and be wise in God’s eyes versus the world’s eyes, let’s consider why God said this man was a fool. After all, we wouldn’t want God to say the same of us.
The Rich Man Was a Fool Because He Didn’t Give
As we will see in chapter 14, there are many verses encouraging saving and preparing for the future; therefore, what was wrong with the rich man’s plans? In three verses, he said “I” six times and “my” five times. He failed to think about anyone else. There’s no mention of a wife, kids, employees (perhaps giving them a bonus), friends, neighbors, or God.
Let me illustrate the rich fool’s selfishness by providing a simple economics lesson from the Old Testament. Second Kings 6:25 says, “There was a great famine in Samaria; and indeed [Syria] besieged it until a donkey’s head was sold for eighty shekels of silver, and one-fourth of a [quart] of dove droppings for five shekels of silver.” They ran out of food, and this was an issue of supply and demand: no supply and high demand, so the prices of everything skyrocketed. You know things are bad when dung is selling for five shekels.
God was going to provide the city with a huge amount of food, so the prophet Elisha said, “Tomorrow about this time [six quarts] of fine flour shall be sold for a shekel, and [twelve quarts] of barley for a shekel, at the gate of Samaria” (2 Kings 7:1). The supply skyrocketed and prices plummeted.
The rich fool wanted to avoid this kind of situation. He knew if he flooded the market with his crop, there would be high supply, low demand, and prices would plummet. Selfishly, he decided to build barns to store his crops so he could control the supply and keep prices high.
During droughts and famines, farmers with grain could hike up their prices and become rich at the expense of their needy neighbors. For example, in Nehemiah’s day, the people said,
With our sons and our daughters, we are many. So let us get grain, that we may eat and keep alive…We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards, and our houses to get grain because of the famine… We have borrowed money for the king’s tax on our fields and our vineyards…Yet we are forcing our sons and our daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters have already been enslaved, but it is not in our power to help it, for other men have our fields and our vineyards (Nehemiah 5:2-5 ESV).
Nehemiah “became very angry” and said they were showing no fear of God (Nehemiah 5:6, 9). The rich fool similarly showed no fear of God. We can imagine how godly leaders would be angry with him because of his selfishness.
To prepare us for the upcoming chapters on giving, the lesson here is that God does not bless us so we can spend our fortunes on ourselves. He blesses us so we can be a blessing to others. Whether we’re rich or poor, God expects us to serve Him by serving people. The parable of the rich fool should cause us to look at our wealth and consider how we’re using it to benefit others. Are we generous? Do we use what God has blessed us with to be a blessing?
The Rich Man Was a Fool Because He Didn’t Plan for Eternity
In Scripture, many people’s lives contain ironies. For example, Abraham was the father of faith, but at times he lacked faith and was fearful, such as when he told his wife to say she was his sister because he was afraid for his life. He did this twice (Genesis 12:13; 20:2). Samson was the strongest man to ever live, but he was so weak with Delilah she overcame him (Judges 16:6- 17). Solomon was the wisest man to ever live, but he was so foolish later in life he married 700 women who “turned away his heart” from the Lord (1 Kings 11:3).
The rich man’s life contains an irony too. He thinks he’s a great long-term planner, but he was completely unprepared for the future. He had an earthly, temporal view that ignored the spiritual and eternal. He said he had “goods laid up for many years,” but God said, “This night your soul will be required of you.” He didn’t have years, months, weeks, or even days. He had hours.
The rich fool got life and death wrong. He got life wrong because he thought life consisted in the abundance of his possessions, but immediately before the parable of the rich fool, Jesus said, “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses” (Luke 12:15). He got death wrong because he thought his death was far away, but he wouldn’t live to see another day. He might be the best example in Scripture of failing to observe James 1:9-11: “Let the… [rich boast] in his humiliation, because as a flower of the field he will pass away. For no sooner has the sun risen with a burning heat than it withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beautiful appearance perishes. So the rich man also will fade away in his pursuits.” This happened with the rich fool, and it can happen to us too.
How many people have thought they had years, or even decades, ahead of them only to receive the news that they have months or even weeks? These are the fortunate people, because they learned their lives were coming to an end so they could prepare for eternity. What about unbelievers whose lives end unexpectedly, perhaps because of an accident? They have no time to prepare for eternity.
If you ask most people how they want to go, they’ll say, “Quietly in my sleep when I’m old.” But this is a good way to go only if they know the Lord. If they don’t know the Lord, it’s a terrible way to go because they won’t have any more time to repent. When people are not living for the Lord, the best scenario for them is to receive the news that they don’t have much time left so they can be shaken from their spiritual slumber and consider their eternal destiny.
The rich fool should cause us to ask, “Are we thinking about eternity and living in light of it? Do we believe our soul could be required of us tonight, or do we believe—perhaps wrongly—that we have decades left?” And speaking of our souls…
The Rich Man Was a Fool Because He Didn’t Know to Whom His Soul Belonged
What did the rich fool lose? You could say all his wealth and possessions, which is true, but he also lost something infinitely more important, and that’s his soul. He said, “I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years’” (Luke 12:19). He thought his soul belonged to him, but God said, “Fool! This night your soul will be required of you.” His soul was taken from him because it belonged to God.
In Matthew 16:26, Jesus asked, “What profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” Hopefully, you don’t have an answer other than “Nothing!” There is nothing worth trading for our soul. The rich man is a great picture of the opposite of Jesus’s words—he seemed to gain the whole world but lose his soul.
The rich fool should cause us to ask: “Do I recognize God owns me, including my soul? Do I understand I’m going to be called to give an account for what I’ve done with the life God has given me? Would I trade the whole world for my soul?”
The Rich Man Was a Fool Because He Wasn’t Rich Toward God
People can be physically rich and spiritually poor, or spiritually rich and physically poor. This is illustrated by two churches mentioned in the book of Revelation:
- Smyrna, the persecuted church, was physically poor and spiritually rich. Jesus told them, “I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich)” (Revelation 2:9 ESV).
- Laodicea, the lukewarm church, was physically rich and spiritually poor. Jesus told them, “You say, ‘I am rich, I have become wealthy, and I have need of nothing’—and do not know that you are wretched, poor, blind, and naked” (Revelation 3:17).
The rich fool was also financially rich, but spiritually—and therefore eternally—poor. There’s no record of him lying, cheating, or stealing. He seemed to be a diligent, hardworking man who obtained his wealth in an honest, moral way. Although we aren’t told he went to hell, it is implied. God’s judgment seems surprisingly strong for a man who doesn’t look that bad, or some might even say looked moral. What was so bad about him? Jesus gave the answer: “[He was] not rich toward God” (Luke 12:21). No matter how much wealth we accumulate in this life, if we aren’t rich toward God, we are poor fools.
The man in the parable of the rich fool is like the third servant in the parable of the talents. There’s no record of the third servant doing anything evil, but there’s also no record of him doing anything good; therefore, he’s called a “wicked and lazy servant” (Matthew 25:26). The rich fool is different in that he wasn’t lazy— he was hard-working—but he’s similar in that he also did nothing for God.
People might look at the rich fool and say, “What a tragedy that he died just when he had everything going for him.” This isn’t the tragedy. The tragedy is that he entered a Christless eternity. He lived without God throughout his earthly life, and he would do the same throughout his eternal life.
There was no mention of God in the account until He appeared and called the rich man a fool. Can you imagine never thinking about God (or at least never taking Him seriously), and then the first time you do is when you stand before Him on the day of judgment? God gave the rich man many blessings, such as wisdom, strength, wealth, success, business, health, and even creation itself: “He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). The rich fool enjoyed these blessings, including the sunlight and rain on his fields that made him rich. But he gave no thought to the God who gave them to him.
This is a parable, which means I can’t say that what happened with the rich fool is exactly what’s going to happen to every unbeliever, but there could be similarities. Unbelievers enjoy blessings, such as relationships, jobs, food, wealth, homes, possessions, health, and creation. Every breath they take is from God, yet they don’t thank Him, worship Him, or look to the Savior He provided. The first time they’ll take Him seriously is when they hear something like, “Fool! This night your soul will be required of you” (Luke 12:20), or “I never knew you; depart from Me” (Matthew 7:23), or “Cast the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 25:30). Yes, this is a parable, but it makes important points, and one of the most important is that if we are spiritually bankrupt, we are foolish.
WHAT MONEY CAN’T DO
The world leads us to believe if we are rich enough we can have whatever we want, which makes it tempting to be like the rich fool. But Scripture reveals those with little can be far richer than those with much if they have—and do not have—certain things. For example:
- Proverbs 15:16 says, “Better is a little with the fear of the Lord, than great treasure with trouble.” The poorest people with a healthy reverence for God are far richer than people with great treasure and the trouble that might come with it.
- Proverbs 15:17 says, “Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a fatted calf with hatred.” The simplest meal with healthy relationships is better than the greatest feast with fighting.
- Proverbs 16:8 says, “Better is a little with righteousness, than vast revenues without justice.” Right standing with God makes people far richer than the wealthiest, who are unjust.
- Proverbs 17:1 says, “Better is a dry morsel with quietness, than a house full of feasting with strife.” Having peace and harmony with little food is better than a house filled with food but accompanied by conflict.
- Psalm 37:16 says, “Better is the little that the righteous has than the abundance of many wicked” (ESV). The poorest godly people are wealthier than the richest ungodly people.
Money can buy a vehicle, house, or even a person’s loyalty for a while, but there are also many things even the richest people can’t buy. Money can buy beds but not sleep, books but not intellect, food but not an appetite, expensive clothes but not beauty, medicine but not health, pleasures but not peace, luxuries but not culture, amusements but not joy. Scripture provides similar examples:
- Proverbs 19:6 says, “Many entreat the favor of the nobility, and every man is a friend to one who gives gifts.” We use the language of finances when talking about relationships. We say we “value” a friend and “invest in” someone, but money can’t buy genuine relationships.
- Proverbs 22:1 says, “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, loving favor rather than silver and gold.” Money can’t buy a respected reputation.
The parable of the rich fool reveals other things riches can’t buy:
- Money couldn’t buy the rich fool longer life when the time came for him to die.
- Money couldn’t buy back the opportunities he missed while he was selfish and thought only about himself.
- Money couldn’t buy him spiritual riches toward God after ignoring Him throughout his life.
When Simon the sorcerer saw demons being cast out of people, he thought it was the power of magic versus the power of the gospel. He wanted it for himself, so he said, “Give me this power also, that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” But Peter responded, “Your money perish with you, because you thought that the gift of God could be purchased with money!” (Acts 8:19-20). Simon didn’t understand the gifts of God cannot be bought. Wealth can be useful for certain ends, such as supporting the spread of the gospel, but it can’t purchase spiritual power. Along those lines, most seriously of all, the parable of the rich fool reveals money can’t buy salvation. Only the gospel can!
WHAT THE GOSPEL CAN DO
It’s easy to feel good about ourselves when reading about the rich fool because his selfishness is so clear and his condemnation is so strong. But let’s be honest: We’re selfish too! He focused only on this life, and we often focus only on this life. He didn’t plan for eternity, and we often don’t plan for eternity. He didn’t send anything ahead, but we often don’t send anything ahead. He didn’t think about God, and we often don’t think about God.
At this point you might expect me to tell you, “So stop being selfish, focus on the next life, plan for eternity, send stuff ahead, and think about God.” But that’s not the gospel! We’ll never be completely free from our selfishness; we’ll never perfectly plan for eternity; we’ll never send everything ahead; and there won’t be a day that we always think about God.
We need to be saved as much as the rich fool needed to be saved, but that salvation doesn’t come through human effort: “He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy” (Titus 3:5 ESV). The gospel is that if we repent of our sins and put our faith in Christ, He saves us.
Besides revealing that we can’t buy salvation, which is to say we can’t purchase a right standing with God, what else does this have to do with money? After we are saved, the gospel works in our hearts and empowers us to manage our finances well. If we had to be good stewards of our finances in our own strength, we would end up feeling discouraged and defeated. But if we remember that God’s grace allows us to obey and do what’s right, we can be encouraged: “God is able to make all grace abound toward you, that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, may have an abundance for every good work” (2 Corinthians 9:8). God doesn’t command us without giving us the necessary grace. As has been said before: God does not call the equipped. He equips the called. He is with us, providing for us, and enabling us. His grace has the glorious effect of producing obedience in every area of life, including the handling of our finances.