Where's Your Treasure? Reflections on Luke 12:16-20
August 4, 2013
This parable of the Rich Farmer is unique to Luke, but its spirit shows up in Jesus' teaching about treasures in heaven versus treasures on earth in Matthew (6:19-21), and in the story of the wealthy man's encounter with Jesus recounted in all three gospels (Mt. 19:16-30; Mk. 10:17-31; Lk. 18:18-30). The Christian's attitude toward possessions is an important theme in Luke.
In the set-up to this parable, a man asks Jesus to settle a dispute with his brother over their inheritance. Jesus changes the subject from possessions to one's attitude toward them. His parable undercuts our habit of equating possessions with life. The parable illuminates the man's inward life through a soliloquy, one of Luke's favorite ways of expressing a person's motivations and decisions (12:17-19). In several of Luke's parables the protagonist comes to a turning point (Prodigal Son, Dishonest Steward, Unjust Judge) and decides to take a different course of action. This turning point is expressed in the soliloquy. But here the rich man's words to himself express his decision to continue on his present course of accumulating more resources without sharing them. His expectation is that his comfortable life, lived without thought of the suffering of others, will continue, only better organized, with a more secure future.
There is no conversion or change of course here to propel the plot forward. In this respect, this parable is like the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. The man's own death, which, we are told, will happen this same evening, intervenes with appalling swiftness.
This is the only parable in Luke in which God directly addresses a character. And what God says is this: "You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?" (12:20).
The theme of appropriate preparation for Christ's return is prominent in several other parables from the synoptic gospels. They include the Ten Bridesmaids or the Closed Door (Mt. 25:1-12; Lk. 13:25), the Entrusted Money (Mt. 25:14-28; Lk. 19:12-24), and the Great Feast (Mt. 22:1-14; Lk. 14:16-24).
In Luke, three other parables besides this one deal explicitly with preparation. The Rich Man and Lazarus addresses how to prepare (or not) for the reversal of fortunes to come in the next life. The Dishonest Steward and the Entrusted Money deal with how to prepare (or not) for a coming encounter with an authority figure. It is interesting that all four of these parables of preparation have money as a theme. We will discuss these others in due course, but for now, it's worth asking the question. We can't be sure what it was about Luke's setting and audience that made this theme necessary. Certainly it had something to do with the temptations to conformity Christian communities face in settings that value wealth and power.
The Rich Farmer parable points to the futility of devoting one's life to accumulating possessions in light of the coming judgment. Earlier in Luke's Gospel, Jesus says, "Woe to you who are rich now, for you have received your consolation" (Lk. 6:24). Several questions come to mind after reading this brief parable.
For one thing, how much can one person really use or enjoy? Doesn't grain eventually rot if not used, if simply stored in silos? What is implied in the words of God to this man? "And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?" Does this imply a social reality that the poor will get his wealth anyway, by default, so what purpose did his greed serve? Or that, no matter how carefully we plan, we can't control the dispersal of our wealth when we are no longer there to oversee it?
Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.