Why Does the Parable of the Rich Fool Seem Unfair to Us?
Some parables are well-known, and others we mention so rarely that we may forget them in the Bible. The parable of the rich fool falls into the second category. It’s a shorter parable and has a message that offends those of us who prize individuality and doing what we like with our possessions. However, hidden in this brief story is a message more complex than we realize.
What Happens in the Parable of the Rich Fool?
Jesus told the parable of the rich fool while speaking to a crowd, responding to a man who wanted him to arbitrate an estate problem (Luke 12:13). Jesus responded by asking the man why he should become a judge in the matter and warned his audience not to be greedy.
Having made this point, Jesus launched into the parable of the rich fool. The rich fool is a man with a prosperous farm, who’s just had a successful harvest and decides he will store it all and take things easy. In response, God says to the man, “you fool! You will die this very night. Then who will get everything you worked for?” (Luke 12:20). Jesus ended the parable by saying that it is foolish to accumulate material wealth “but not have a rich relationship with God” (Luke 12:21).
What Is this Parable’s Context?
Since the Bible wasn’t originally written with verse numbers or chapters, it’s important not to read it as self-isolated little chunks. We need to look at what’s before and after a story to see its full context. As established earlier, Jesus told this parable after rebuking someone who wanted him to handle a dispute about possessions. Before that, Luke 12:1-13 reports that Jesus was teaching his audience to avoid the Pharisees’ hypocrisy (who are mentioned in Luke 16:14 as loving money). So, the parable is part of a larger scene where Jesus is teaching people to avoid greed, even when socially respectable religious leaders are greedy.
After telling the parable of the rich fool to the crowd at large, Jesus gave his disciples a more specific message. He told them not to be concerned about providing for themselves, for God will care for them as he cares for the lilies of the fields, and they should use their possessions to help those in need (Luke 12:23-34). Interestingly, Jesus then told his disciples to be always ready for service, servants waiting for their master’s return. When Peter asked who this point was directed to, Jesus answered that good servants can be trusted whether the master is there or not, while negligent servants get in trouble (Luke 12:42-48).
This illustration about negligent servants parallels the parable of the rich fool. Like the negligent servant caught when the master returns, the rich fool is relaxing by himself when someone higher up rebukes him. However, this time Jesus is talking about servants who are responsible for each other, unlike the fool who didn’t have anyone in his life. This is important because part of Jesus’ teaching was that Christians are part of a community of believers, not individuals who can do whatever they please.
What Is the Meaning of the Parable of the Rich Fool?
First and foremost, the parable of the rich fool is about avoiding materialism. To be a materialist is to treat materials as idols, put them in a place reserved only for God. Jesus highlighted that the rich fool had lots of money, but no relationship with God. Thus, even though he seemed to have it all, he had nothing. We don’t have any guarantee as Christians that our lives will be comfortable (in fact 1 Peter 4:12 promises the opposite). However, we do have a guarantee that God will get us what we need when we need it. Our priority should be pursuing him and using what we have to help others. This does not mean we should not earn money at all—after all, earning more means we can give more. It does mean that making money and having things should never be our first priority.
Second, the parable warns us to remember we are not alone. The fool is portrayed by himself in his house, saying to himself, “my friend, you have enough…” (Luke 12:19). The fact he calls himself “my friend” highlights how self-centered this fellow is. Like the negligent servant that Jesus mentions later, the fool is selfish, watching out only for himself. Jesus affirmed that following him meant realizing our lives belonged to him, and we join the body of Christ. We not only have a call to follow Jesus, but we also have a call to care for other believers. If we are shown to be trustworthy, we may become managers who make sure the other servants are cared for (Luke 12:42). Keeping our gifts and resources for ourselves is a selfish act, which Jesus highlighted later in his parable of the talents.
Why Does the Punishment Seem Overboard in This Parable?
The idea that someone would be punished for having things may strike us as unfair. Particularly if we come from an American White Anglo-Saxon Protestant background, we are used to thinking we earned our possessions. We also tend to have a very individualist view of life, which means we don’t feel obligated to others and believe we can do what we please with our lives.
Jesus’s parable informs us that neither attitude is ultimately true. We are, as the Westminster Catechism puts it, made by God to glorify and enjoy him forever. Thus, ultimately our lives are not our own. We were designed to worship something bigger than ourselves, not to live our lives as we see fit. We are also sinful human beings who deserve death and damnation (Romans 6:23), so we can’t claim that we are owed anything.
How Can We Reframe How We See The Parable of the Rich Fool?
Every culture has its blind spots, strengths, and weaknesses, that will affect how we read the parable of the rich fool. For modern Western readers, there are three things we can do to understand the parable better:
Avoid easy extremes. Nuance is hard, so when we find we have to avoid one thing, we tend to swing really far into the other direction. In this case, it would be easy to assume that the problem is possessions, take vows of poverty like monks, and see money as inherently evil. However, Jesus staged the parable of the rich fool as a warning about idolizing materials, not about having materials. He also followed it up with a teaching about being responsible with what we’ve been given so we can serve others. Being responsible servants includes learning how to use money well (how to save it, how to invest it) so we have more to give away. It’s a mistake to idolize materials, but it’s also a mistake to try and reject materials entirely.
Look for our community. While we do have individual relationships with Jesus, he makes it clear that Christianity is not solitary. He said we store up riches in heaven by giving to others. He defined readily serving him as being an able servant in a household of other servants. Later in Ephesians 6 Paul talks about putting on the full armor of God, but some have noted the grammar shows he’s addressing the whole church—we do not individually put on the armor, a church collectively puts it on. No matter which way we approach it, the life of faith is communal. Therefore, we must be involved in a local Christian community to truly apply Jesus’ teachings about storing up riches in heaven.
Consider our gifts. While Jesus’ parable focuses on possessions, those are not the only things we give to each other. We have personal gifts we can use to help other people, some of which enable us to serve in certain positions (evangelist, deacon, pastor, etc.). We have to learn not just to give generously with our possessions, but also with our time and skills.
Photo credit: ©Unsplash/Sharon McCutcheon
G. Connor Salter is a writer and editor, with a Bachelor of Science in Professional Writing from Taylor University. In 2020, he won First Prize for Best Feature Story in a regional contest by the Colorado Press Association Network. He has contributed over 1,000 articles to various publications, including interviews for Christian Communicator and book reviews for The Evangelical Church Library Association. Find out more about his work here.
This article is part of our larger resource library of popular Bible parables. We want to provide easy to read articles that answer your questions about the meaning, origin, and history of parables within Scripture. It is our hope that these will help you better understand the meaning and purpose of God's Word in relation to your life today.