It is no secret that we Americans live in a materialistic culture. For some people the pursuit of wealth and possessions seems to function as a kind of religion substitute. The Old Testament wisdom books and the New Testament writings have some wise things to say about money and possessions. While affirming that we live in the real world of commerce, they teach us that we should not make material possessions into a god, that life is fragile and ultimately in God’s hands and that we need to sort out what is really important and lasting before it is too late.
One of the recurrent figures in the biblical wisdom tradition is the rich fool, that is, the person who works hard to amass great wealth only to leave it at his death to heirs who will fritter it away. The author of the book known as Ecclesiastes or Qoheleth (Greek and Hebrew words for “preacher” and “gatherer”) is the grumpy old man of the Bible. In statements that are typical of his outlook he describes life as “toil” and “vanity,” and in today’s selection he brings up the example of someone who has used all his ingenuity and energy to build a fortune only to have to pass on his property to someone who has not labored at all.
This theme is developed in today’s reading from Luke 12, which contains the parable of the rich fool. The occasion is a request that Jesus serve as an arbiter between two brothers in dividing their inheritance. The eldest son usually received the largest share. Instead of accommodating this request, Jesus uses the opportunity to warn them against greed and to teach that “though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.”
To illustrate this point, Jesus presents the parable of the rich fool, containing a monologue by the rich man and the divine judgment upon him. The rich man had a very good harvest. Instead of enjoying the fruits of his harvest, however, the rich man put all his thoughts and energy into plans for building even larger barns to hold the abundance. He imagines that when the building projects have been completed, he will rest and enjoy himself. His words to himself (“rest, eat, drink, be merry”) echo terms found on many tombstones in antiquity. But the new barns are never built, because the man dies suddenly. Instead, the fruits of his labors are passed on to someone else, and he finds no enjoyment in them. In the divine judgment he is addressed, “You fool.”
As both the reading from Ecclesiastes and the Lukan parable of the rich fool emphasize, there are few sadder sights than someone who puts all his talents and energies in making a lot of money only to leave it all to a lazy and wasteful heir. These texts remind us that we never know when death may come to us, that we cannot place our ultimate trust in money and material possessions because they too are fragile, and that in our life we must not let material possessions become more important than fulfilling our commitments to God, ourselves and other persons. Otherwise we too may merit the name, “You fool.”