The obvious answer is these large barns of grain as well as all the man’s wealth will go to his heirs. All the man’s energy and time, all the precious potential he squandered while focusing on acquisition and greed, all the possibilities he rejected to make the world a more just and merciful place was wasted on that which he no longer has any ability to clutch in his miserly hands. He is gone and his possessions are gone. He left the world the same way he entered it—naked and helpless. As the Spanish proverb says, “There are no pockets in a shroud.”
This rich man’s story has been repeated all through recorded history. Whether one is a king or a pauper, a genius or a simpleton, a Republican or a Democrat, a believer or an atheist, everyone leaves this earth with none of the possessions they cherished and valued during their lives. Death is the great equalizer. No mausoleum or statue, no memory or biography can continue the life and consciousness of those who breathe their last. Their brief span on this “third rock from the sun” has been spent and is gone forever.
The only “thing” we can take with us is the self we have made during our sojourn in the time and space which has been ours. The parable of the “rich fool” contains a dialogue of the fool with his “soul.” The word translated “soul” might be better understood as “self.” Fifteen times in three verses this man refers to himself using words like “I and my” and dialoguing only with himself. His world is defined by self with no thought of others or God. He lives in a world of one, and such a world has no place for the God who is the real “One” (as the Shema reminds worshippers every Sabbath: “Hear, O Israel, Yahweh your God is One”)–in other words, the One ultimate reality all of us must ultimately recognize and deal with.
God calls this man a “fool.” In the Bible, the term “fool” has nothing to do with intellectual ability. A fool is one who lives his life as though God and God’s agenda do not matter. As the Psalmist says, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” The heart is where we decide our values, how we will live our lives, and our ultimate commitments. We can say, pray, shout, and sing “God” until we are stricken with laryngitis but if God’s agenda is not the determining factor of our lives, all such verbal confessions are a pack of lies. The Bible (and God) is a lot more concerned with such “practical atheism” than with intellectual atheism. This cunning financial planner who would be admired in our ruthless, profit-driven economy died a fool. Jesus said, “Where your heart is, there will your treasure be also.” In other words, what you value is who you are—which should give us all reason to examine our values and determine from that inventory our true selves.
Luke ends this parable with these words in reference to the rich fool: “So is he who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.” There is a lot of nonsense assumed by many Christians regarding “rewards in heaven.” I have addressed misunderstanding previously in this blog. However, I think it’s worth repeating to help us realize what it means to be “rich toward God” and what Jesus meant by “reward in heaven.”
In several places in Jesus’ teachings we find a reference to a “reward in heaven.” Critics of Christianity have accused Jesus of having a mercenary motive behind his teachings: “Do these things so you will have a reward in heaven.” But I would suggest that this is a complete misunderstanding of our Lord. Even in this life we know that rewards can be mercenary or authentic. Rewards can be “tacked on” to one’s life with no grounding in actions or motives, or rewards can naturally evolve from one’s being and doing on this earth. For example, imagine a man who marries a woman because of her wealth. He doesn’t really love her. He has no intention of being faithful to her. All his expressions of affection and intimacy are fake. All he cares about is her money. So, the “reward” in his marriage is mercenary and has nothing to do with the vows of love he made when he married his wife. But what about a man who marries a woman because he deeply loves her. Her happiness and fulfillment matter most to him in their relationship. He will make any sacrifice for her. As the years pass, his love for her deepens and their joy overflows. His “reward” is a natural continuation, development, and extension of the love that motivated his desire to be with this woman for the rest of his life. No one would call this type of love and the happy results from this love mercenary. They are the inevitable outcome of an unselfish investment of time, energy, and will.
I would suggest that this is the type of reward Jesus is referring to in his teachings. If we have chosen to live our lives out of authentic love, joy, gratitude, compassion, and peace, we will love “heaven,” because heaven is the eternal expansion of all that is good and loving in this world. We will have more of what we have experienced and chosen in this life. (That last sentence has some relevance for any concept of “hell” if there is such a reality.) If heaven is an expanding experience of the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control), then there are those who would enjoy heaven—and there are those who would be miserable in heaven. Try to imagine how a person who has been greedy, narcissistic, cruel, arrogant, and uncaring would relate to a place where love reigns supreme! As C. S. Lewis pointed out in his book The Great Divorce, such people would be absolutely miserable. They wouldn’t have a clue as to what was motivating all the goodness surrounding them.]
Jesus asks an important question at the end of his parable. “This night your self is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” The “whose” refers to the rich fool’s heirs who will take possession of his barns and wealth. (All of Jesus’ parables which refer to heaven, hades, the afterlife, etc. are primarily concerned not with the fate of the wicked but those of us who are still in the land of the living and have the potential to orient our hearts toward God, compassion, and justice.) The “who” in “whose” are those of us who live in the present moment and have choices to make. Shall we be “wise” toward God or “foolish” following in the footsteps of much of the world in assuming that Jesus was wrong when he said that “life does not consist in the abundance of possessions”? We, not the rich fool, are the ones this parable addresses. And we live in a culture of “I, me, mine” which firmly embraces the acquisitive philosophy of this and many other fools who serve as our idols.
[For a thorough treatment of this parable, see Luke 12:13-21 “Mismanaging a Miracle” on this blog.]
Luke 12:13-21 (NRSV)
13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” 14 But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” 15 And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” 16 Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17 And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ 18 Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 20 But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21 So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”