Lessons learned from the Parable of the Rich Fool

I have heard a variety of preachers incorrectly say that the word “retire” is not in the Bible. It is. In Numbers 8:25, God directs the Levites to retire at age 50.

That passage, however, has no application to those of us not serving as Jewish priests or working in the tent of meeting. But there is a lot of Biblical guidance on retirement and even a parable addressing retirement. It is the parable of the rich fool in Luke 12. The word “retire” is not used, but without a doubt, the concept of retirement is on stage before the whole world in this passage.

Luke 12:13-21
13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”
14 Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?”
15 Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”
16 And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest.
17 He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’
18 “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain.
19 And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’
20 “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’
21 “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”

There are many ways to look at our senior years (my present and your present or future). One of those is this humorous poem, the author of which is lost in time:

How do I know my youth is all spent?
Well, my get up and go has got up and went.
But in spite of it all–I’m able to grin
When I think of where my get up has been.
Old age is golden, so I’ve heard it said,
But sometimes I wonder as I get into bed–
With my ears in a drawer, my teeth in a cup,
My eyes on the table until I wake up–
Ere sleep dims my eyes I say to myself,
Is there anything else I should have laid on the shelf?
I’m happy to say as I close my door
My friends are the same–only perhaps even more
When I was young, my slippers were red;
I could kick up my heels right over my head.
When I grew older my slippers were blue
But still I could dance the whole night through.
Now I am old–my slippers are black–
I walk to the store and puff my way back.
The reason I know my youth is all spent
My get up and go has got up and went!
But I really don’t mind, when I think with a grin
Of all the grand places my get up has been.
Since I’ve retired from life’s competition
I busy myself with complete repetition.
I get up each morning, dust off my wits,
Pick up the paper and read the “O-bits”;
If my name is missing, I know I’m not dead,
So, I eat a good breakfast and go back to bed!!

I also enjoy the comments about retirement being about the “4 Gs,” grandkids, gardening, golf and the Grand Canyon. However, we need to re-arrange the list and add another “G” at the front of the list, God! Nowhere is that point better made than with this parable.

The parable of the rich fool needs to be taught to all people before retirement and needs to direct retirement planning. The lesson of this parable needs to become a beacon for seniors to light the way for their “golden years.”

A hard parable for an important lesson

The question asked Jesus by the man in the crowd was perfect for several reasons. First, it gave Jesus a teaching moment, a crucial one. Jesus always took advantage of moments like this.

Second, it showed the man who asked the question had not been listening to all that Jesus had been saying. Jesus has been very busy as recorded in Luke 11 and 12. In Luke 11, Jesus had spoken out against the religious leaders. First, He spoke against the Pharisees. Then, when a lawyer told Jesus that he believed Jesus was insulting him as well as the Pharisees, Jesus addressed (and insulted) the lawyer directly:

Luke 11:52
52  Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge; you yourselves did not enter, and you hindered those who were entering.”

The score is Jesus, one, and the lawyers, zero. Thousands had gathered to hear Jesus by the start of Luke 12 and Jesus continued speaking, commenting on the leaven of the Pharisees. Then He told the people not to fear them, only satan.

Right at that moment comes the crucial question from “someone in the crowd.” After Jesus has spoken so badly of lawyers, it seems unlikely that someone in the crowd would just coincidentally happen to raise a legal question and ask Jesus to make a pronouncement that either contradicted the law or supported it. An inheritance had a distribution established under Jewish law. Either way Jesus answered the question, it would provide too good an opportunity for the lawyers to call Jesus uncompassionate and a hypocrite, or a man who was ignoring religious law. The man raising the question was likely a man trying to set Jesus up.

Jesus avoided the trap by doing what was common among rabbis, answer a question with a question. And what an excellent question He asked:

Luke 12:14
14 Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?”

It was a question that could have two different meanings. One possibility is that Jesus was saying He was not the judge or arbiter over the man and his brother. But there is another way to read Jesus’ question, and given the circumstances. It is this alternative meaning that is likely that Jesus really had. He likely was asking the man a rhetorical question for the man’s sake and for the sake of the listening crowd. Everyone except the Jewish religious leaders knew the answer, Jesus was appointed Judge by God Himself!

Regardless, Jesus does not stop with His question. Without pausing, He rebukes the man for his focus on worldly wealth and starts into the parable. Now the teaching moment has arrived for Jesus and now the lessons for the church and believers begin.

Lessons for the church and for believers

This parable has lessons for many people facing difficult issues in order to retire well.

How to retire

Jesus does not say that no one is permitted to store up things and relax or retire, but just as clearly, He tells those listening that they must be rich toward God with what they have. If you stop there it is a good parable, but you miss many important lessons, including:

Having money isn’t a sin, but your attitude about it may be

The man has excess crops and has no place to store them. As noted, Jesus does not say the mere idea of storing the crops was sinful. Think of Joseph in Egypt and his interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream, Genesis 41. What was sinful was the man’s attitude towards the crops God had given him. He doesn’t acknowledge God’s ownership, he thinks of himself as an owner and not a steward, and he decides what to do with his crops not only without a prayer but also without even a mention or thought of God. God did not factor into this rich fool’s decision or life in any way.

In fact, the proliferation of pronouns is amazing. This is the story of “me, myself and I.” That is what makes this man a fool.

Luke 12:17-19
17  He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’
18  “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain.
19  And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’

This attitude earns the man his eternal label in the Bible:

Luke 12:20-21
20  “But God said to him, ‘You fool! …”

Life isn’t about the money

The full rebuke this man receives is gut wrenching,

Luke 12:20-21
20  “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’
21  “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”

Life isn’t about your money or your stuff. Jesus said the same in telling about the foolish man who built his house on a foundation of sand.

Matthew 7:26-27
26 But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand.
27 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”

No one should want to be labeled as a fool or as foolish by God. But these two stories, the parable of the rich fool and the story of the foundation of a house, make it indisputable that making plans without taking God into consideration or having God as your foundation is eternally foolish.

Money can please for a short time, but no amount will make up for what is lost when the day of judgment comes.

Our money is not for us

The lack of the rich fool’s recognition that he is only a steward is glaring in his pronouncement of the crops and the barns as his. You can’t take it with you. But does that mean you can or should spend it all on yourself? No, the parable makes it clear that our lifestyle is not to be self-centered.

Combining this with the parable of the talents, Matthew 25:14-30, and our duties toward others, makes the words and application of Paul’s teachings on generosity in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 easier.

2 Corinthians 9:11-13
11  You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.
12  This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of God’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God.
13  Men will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else.

We have wealth so we can give to glorify God. Furthermore, giving is an act of worship. In the Old Testament, sacrifices and giving to God were acts of worship, honoring God. Hebrews 5:1. That has never changed. Worship is honoring God. Well, so is giving to Him. Look at Proverbs 3:5-10, especially focusing on verses 9 and 10.

Proverbs 3:5-10
5  Trust in the LORD with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;
6  in all your ways submit to him,
and he will make your paths straight.
7  Do not be wise in your own eyes;
fear the LORD and shun evil.
8  This will bring health to your body
and nourishment to your bones.
9  Honor the LORD with your wealth,
with the firstfruits of all your crops;
10  then your barns will be filled to overflowing,
and your vats will brim over with new wine.

Our giving is meant to be honoring to the Lord. That is worship.

Paul told us to excel in the grace of giving. 2 Corinthians 8:7. That phrase is important, “the grace of giving.” The original Greek word for ‘grace’ and its meaning is charis. The definition given by Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon is:

1. That which affords joy, pleasure, delight, sweetness, charm, loveliness
2. Good will, loving-kindness, favor; of the merciful kindness by which God, exerting his holy influence upon souls, turns them to Christ, keeps, strengthens, increases them in Christian faith, knowledge, affection, and kindles them to the exercise of the Christian virtues.

Thus, the grace of giving is giving freely, willingly, and even joyfully. It is giving that comes from the heart, like that old saying, “you can give without loving but you can’t love without giving.” That is true in any relationship and it is especially true in your relationship with God.

Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Matthew 6:21. If God is where your heart is, giving him your money seems like a small thing. After all, you trust Him with eternity.

If our money isn’t for us, who is it for?

God has told us that answer many times.

Luke 12:21
21  “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”

We are to be rich toward God. How? From the early days of time until today, the Lord’s heart has been for those with the ability to help those in need.

Here is one excellent illustration of God’s heart and His direction to us:

Proverbs 21:13
13  Whoever shuts their ears to the cry of the poor
will also cry out and not be answered.

There are many more. See Leviticus 19:10, Deuteronomy 24:14, Psalm 9:9, Psalm 35:10, Psalm 41:1-3, Isaiah 58:3-8, Zechariah 7:8-10, Matthew 5:42, Luke 3:10-11, Acts 20:35, Romans 12:13, Galatians 2:10, 1 Timothy 6:17-19.

The blessings we have are blessings we are to pass on to others as a witness to God’s faithfulness and love. It isn’t that God does not want us to have big barns, but He does not want to be locked out of those barns. He also does not want us to lock out others as well.

That is the lesson for the church and for believers. No church should ever be known as “the church for rich folks” or “the wealthy church.” A church with that image has its door locked socially even if not physically, excluding many people who can’t keep up with the “rich” image. This is not a new issue. James addressed it with his usual bluntness:

James 2:1-9
1  My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism.
2  Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in.
3  If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,”
4  have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
5  Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?
6  But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court?
7  Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?
8  If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right.
9  But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.

Our stuff and our money aren’t ours, they belong to God, see Psalm 24:1-2 and Acts 17:24-25, and that gives us even less reason to be puffed up about “our” wealth. Have it and use all of it for the glory of God. Have it and use it as a witness for God’s glory. And then you can enjoy a retirement filled with the joy of service over self.

About the Author

John Campbell has retired from a 40-year legal practice as a trial attorney in Tampa. He has served in multiple volunteer roles at Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz, Florida, where he met Jesus. He began serving as the Executive Director of the Idlewild Foundation in 2016. He has been married to the love of his life, Mona Puckett Campbell, since 1972.

This is the ninth in a series of articles on financial and other issues facing the American church in this no longer very new millennium. These articles represent the personal thoughts and reflections of the author and are not necessarily a statement of The Idlewild Foundation. These articles are based upon parables told by Jesus and stories from the gospels on events in His life, applying His life and teachings to the lives of believers and to the church as a whole and not to any one church in particular.