Let the Scriptures Speak
Hoard, and You Shall Lose
Thus it will be for all who store up treasure for themselves
but are not rich in what matters to God. (Luke 12:21)
It is hard to miss the point of the parable of the Rich Fool: you can’t take it with you. But that is a bit of ancient wisdom, hardly requiring Christian revelation. It is an obvious human truth already clearly stated in Ecclesiastes: “Here is one who has labored with wisdom and knowledge and skill, and yet to another who has not labored over it, he must leave property.” The Lukan parable goes deeper than the bald facts of human mortality and the transiency of material possessions.
A careful reading of the story shows it to be a brilliant cartoon illustrating how greed destroys all the covenant relationships. Let’s read it slowly, following the more literal rendering of the New Revised Standard Version.
The land of a rich man produced abundantly. Notice that the subject of the sentence is the land. This reflects the Jewish insight that, whatever may be the human contribution in the process of farming, it is the land, the earth, that is the source of food. Thus an abundant crop, like the land itself, is a gift of God. The Sabbath no-work law is meant to help people stay in touch with this reality. It will become clear that the land owner of the parable has lost touch with this dimension of his relationship with the Creator.
And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” The very phrasing of the question shows the consequences of forgetting that land and crops are divine gifts: the man has also lost the sense of stewardship that flows from that perception; he has forgotten the Torah wisdom that the goods of the earth are meant to meet the needs of all, not simply the desires of those who happen to manage the land. This landowner speaks too easily of “my crops.” For him, the unexpected abundance is not a boon for the community; rather it presents a crisis of personal assets management.
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. And I will say to my soul [psyche], ‘Soul [psyche], you have ample goods laid up for many years: relax, eat, drink, be merry.’” No mention of the larger community here; it is a question of “my grain and my goods.” The fact that this man is pursuing an interior monologue in a vacuum of selfishness is conveyed by the humorous sound of “I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, … ” —or, in a translation that catches the humor ever better, “I will say to myself, ‘Self. …’”
But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life [psyche] is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” Surprise, surprise—a forgotten auditor is heard from: the Creator. There is an economic image here, suggesting the translation: “This night they will foreclose on this ‘self’ of yours … ” Even one’s self is a gift.
Thus the man stands revealed as having allowed his greed to destroy all his covenant relationships—with the earth, with his community, with himself, and with God. Is it possible that this neglected parable has something to say to us?
Dennis Hamm, SJ
Fr. Hamm is emeritus professor of the New Testament at Creighton University in Omaha. He has published articles in The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, The Journal Of Biblical Literature, Biblica, The Journal for the Study of the New Testament, America, Church; and a number of encyclopedia entries, as well as the book, The Beatitudes in Context (Glazier, 1989), and three other books.
**From Saint Louis University