One Rich Man
Is this text really about the afterlife? About not being concerned with earthly wealth? Context is important with this one.
Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”
But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” 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.”
The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’
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, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.'
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?’
“So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
He said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing.”
Excerpted from The Jewish Annotated New Testament.
But these stories don't mean anything
when you've got no one to tell them to
Brandi Carlile, The Story
The parable of the rich fool has, as far as I can tell, a unique feature: it’s the only parable in which God appears as a character. There are a lot of parables with characters that are read as analogues for God (e.g. the father in the parable of the prodigal son) but, in this one, God appears as God.
With a few exceptions, I’m not going to spend a ton of time on the slew of anti-Jewish interpretations for this one, because it’s just repetitive without being particularly interesting. See, for example, Wright’s Christian Origins (1996), in which, of course, this is somehow a story about God rejecting Israel.
Since the main gist of most intrepretations of this one is that you shouldn't obsess over accumulating earthly wealth, it’s probably useful, in understanding the cultural context, to point to some previous Jewish sources ambivalent about wealth.
Ambivalence About Wealth
It’s probably useful, in understanding the cultural context, to point to some previous Jewish sources ambivalent about wealth.
Kohelet/Ecclesiastes is pretty frank about the connection between wealth and corruption:
אֹהֵ֥ב כֶּ֙סֶף֙ לֹא־יִשְׂבַּ֣ע כֶּ֔סֶף וּמִֽי־אֹהֵ֥ב בֶּהָמ֖וֹן לֹ֣א תְבוּאָ֑ה גַּם־זֶ֖ה הָֽבֶל׃
A lover of money never has his fill of money, nor a lover of wealth his fill of income. That too is futile. (Ecclesiastes 5:9)
Even the Psalms, which tend to treat wealth as a divine reward, are rather stark about its ultimate usefulness:
כִּ֤י יִרְאֶ֨ה ׀ חֲכָ֘מִ֤ים יָמ֗וּתוּ יַ֤חַד כְּסִ֣יל וָבַ֣עַר יֹאבֵ֑דוּ וְעָזְב֖וּ לַאֲחֵרִ֣ים חֵילָֽם׃
For one sees that the wise die, that the foolish and ignorant both perish, leaving their wealth to others. (Psalms 49:11)
The non-canonical Psalms of Solomon (probably written about a half century before Jesus's time) offer thanks for moderate means, since too much wealth makes one a bad person (5:18-20).
It appears not to have an English translation on Sefaria yet, but Ben Sira (11:18), which predates Jesus, basically already has this parable in summary—a rich man saying he's going to rest and enjoy the fruits of his labor, but he doesn't know when he's going to die.
I think it's fair to say that there are a lot of Jewish writings from before and around the time of Jesus that display uneasiness about the effects too much wealth can have on a person, so he was very much speaking in the context of his culture here.
A version of this parable also appears in the (non-canonical) Gospel of Thomas.
Jesus said, "There was a rich man who had considerable wealth. He said, 'I shall invest my wealth so as to sow, reap, plant, and fill my barns with crops, lest I run short of something.' These things are what he was thinking in his heart, and that very night, the man died. Whoever has ears should listen!"
Note that in this version, God does not appear as a character, and instead of having excess harvest he needs to store, the man is worried about running out of food.
So, what have Christians had to say about this parable?
The most common reading is that the rich man is a fool (as spelled out in the popular title for the story) for trying to store up earthly treasure when he should have been thinking about his afterlife instead (which is not surprising, given that the gloss on it that Luke attributes to Jesus leans heavily—but not explicitly—in that direction).
The parable frequently gets cross-referenced with Matthew 6:19-20 (which I'll quote in the KJV rather than the Jewish Annotated New Testament here, just because it's pretty):
Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal:
But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal:
I don't know how old that interpretation is, but Theophylact (1050-1107) hammers it home hard, comparing the rich man's greed to idolatry. Interestingly, in talking about interpreting Luke, Theophylact actually warns about going wild with treating parables as allegories and trying to find an allegorical meaning for every element in the story.
Fast forward about a century, and we've got Bonaventure (1221-1274) talking in depth about the same parable. (He's almost rabbinic in the breadth of his knowledge of the Tanakh and his ability to hypertext it interpretatively.) As far as I can tell, he's also a lot less anti-Jewish than most modern Christian interpreters, in that he's at least able to recognize a lot of what Jesus was saying as coming from Jewish ethical concerns rather than being set against Judaism. His ultimate conclusion is, as is fairly consistent with Christian interpreters, that the rich man was foolish for storing up treasure in his life rather than in his afterlife.
One of the more interesting Christian commentators on the parables was Adolf Jülicher (1857-1938). He was incredibly hardcore about not interpreting the parables as allegories. (In fact, he believed that the parables collectively pointed toward a single meaning.) Rather than viewing each parable as a story in which every element has a 1:1 likeness to an element in the moral, he saw them as illustrations of a situation and point, in which each figure need not correspond individually to an element in reality. His approach remains popular in academic circles.
Jülicher also tried to distinguish between the "original parables" and the gospel versions, including rejecting wholesale some parables he believed to be inventions of the early church.
He divides the parables into three types:
similitude (basically a simile in story form)
parable/fable (story that takes place in the past, sort of an expanded similitude)
example story (self-contained story that contains the truth it is meant to illustrate)
He claimed that there were only four parables in the "example story" category:
the rich fool
the good Samaritan
the Pharisee and tax collector
Each of these four is supposed to contain examples to emulate or avoid. So, for him, this story is one of the examples par excellence of Jesus's distinctive storytelling form.
The Best Christian Interpretation
But probably the best interpretation (even though it does some of the interpretive stuff I normally object to, the points it makes are more relevant than ever and those interpretive moves are perfect in context) is Martin Luther King Jr.'s.
[T]his man was a fool because he allowed the means by which he lived to outdistance the ends for which he lived. He was a fool because he maximized the minimum and minimized the maximum. This man was a fool because he allowed his technology to outdistance his theology. This man was a fool because he allowed his mentality to outrun his morality. Somehow he became so involved in the means by which he lived that he couldn’t deal with the way to eternal matters. He didn’t make contributions to civil rights. He looked at suffering humanity and wasn’t concerned about it...
Now number two, this man was a fool because he failed to realize his dependence on others... He failed to realize that he couldn’t do anything by himself. This man talked like he could build the barns by himself, like he could till the soil by himself. And he failed to realize that wealth is always a result of the commonwealth.
Maybe you haven’t ever thought about it, but you can’t leave home in the morning without being dependent on most of the world... And oh my friends, I don’t want you to forget it. No matter where you are today, somebody helped you to get there. It may have been an ordinary person, doing an ordinary job in an extraordinary way. Some few are able to get some education; you didn’t get it by yourself. Don’t forget those who helped you come over.
Hard to argue with one of the greats.
Rembrandt's Rich Fool
Commentary doesn't always have to be in text. The name of the painting to the right is The Parable of the Rich Fool.
Note that the rather than attempting to make the subject look Biblical, Rembrandt chose to make him look like a Jewish moneylender of Rembrandt's era (including fake "Hebrew" on his documents). I said I wasn't going to spend a lot of time on the anti-Jewish interpretations, but one of the more popular ones is, of course, that the rich man represents the Jews, who of course have their priorities entirely wrong and are foolish at best and evil at worst. People often claim that no one associates the negatively portrayed Jewish characters in the New Testament with modern-day Jews, but they have for most of history and continue to do so today.
Jewish Context: Birth Order & Inheritance
Luke sets the parable in a very specific context: a man wants Jesus to tell his brother to divide the family inheritance with him. This man's probably a younger brother, since older brothers inherit, at least legally speaking. But that situation is very evocative for anyone who knows Genesis. Sarah sends Ishmael away in part because she doesn't want him to inherit over Isaac. Jacob nips in there and gets Esau's inheritance. Joseph comes out ahead of all his brothers.
The pattern of the younger son inheriting is so insistent that Robert Alter suggests that the reason Tamar's first husband, Er, dies inexplicably might be simply because he's the oldest brother, and God just doesn't like first-born sons. (At least not until later in the Torah.) When Jacob's doing the blessing for his sons and Joseph's, he crosses his hands when blessing Ephraim and Menashe, just in case.
So our gentleman in the crowd, asking Jesus to tell his brother to share, might think that by asking to split it rather than seize it entirely, he's being a stand-up guy. This legal question is very much the sort of thing for which you go to a rabbi.
Abundant Wealth in a Jewish Society
Luke describes Jesus prefacing his story with a warning about greed. I don't believe it for a minute. Jesus was a solid storyteller and knew you tell the story first, then talk about what it means. Whereas Luke pulls this crap all the time. So I'd say ignore that preface and listen to the story itself:
A rich guy has a good harvest and decides to tear down his existing storehouses and build bigger ones.
Immediately I have questions.
First off, how is he only aware the crops are producing more than usual after the harvest? Second, why is he tearing down his existing storage facilities to build bigger ones rather than just... building additional ones?
My first thought on hearing this isn't that this guy is greedy. It's that he's not very smart. Or rather, that he's disconnected from his land and what it's doing—and from the people working for him.
On the other hand, the text seems to be at pains to connect him to his land. The word for how the land produces (which I believe is the source for the English word "euphoria") and how the rich man makes merry are the same. But is that a connection or a contrast?
At the end of the day, I don't think there's anything wrong with having an abundant harvest or even with building extra storage to store it. And there's definitely nothing wrong with enjoying it.
Jesus may have actually been going against the cultural grain a little here—much like the Essenes—in that Judaism's predominant strains have usually been about moderation, but not asceticism. Samson Raphael Hirsch, one of the most famous rabbis of the 19th century and one of the founders of Modern Orthodoxy, famously claimed that when he died, the first thing God would say to him was, "Yes, you obeyed my commandments, but did you see my Alps?" The Jerusalem Talmud declares that a person will have to answer to God for every permitted food that they beheld but never tried (Kiddushin 4:12). Judaism is a practice of moderation, not harsh self-denial.
That said, I keep coming back to what the rich guy doesn't mention in his soliloquy: the poor. He's got a legal obligation to let them glean from his fields. On the other hand, the parable doesn't say that he doesn't do it, and given that it's a legal obligation, it might simply be assumed. (The fact that someone is contemplating and happy about their bountiful stock dividends doesn't necessarily mean they didn't pay taxes.)
Ultimately, though, I balk at reading this parable as a first-century Jewish teacher saying "you shouldn't have been saving for the (earthly) future; instead, you should have been focusing on your afterlife." The Torah doesn't describe an afterlife, and a lot of contemporary Judaism is also just not really that interested in it. At Jesus's time, Jewish belief in the ultimate resurrection of the dead was pretty common, but that still doesn't indicate a shift away from focus on what we do in this life. Saving is something that in moderation is pragmatic—you aren't going to be a burden on the community if you've put money away.
So I think this is more about the question of how you would feel if you knew you were going to die tonight and didn't have time to make a new will: What are you leaving behind? What's going to happen to it? If you can't use your wealth, what do you want it to do?
The rich man doesn't mention anyone else. If he dies, who gets all this abundance? Is it going to rot in those storehouses? Does he have a family? Unclear. But he certainly has servants. Are they taken care of if he kicks the bucket in a few hours?
And if he suddenly got a reprieve, à la Ebenezer Scrooge, would he live his life differently going forward?
If he had a brother (as does the man whose question sparked this parable) who hadn't inherited anything, would he realize he wanted his brother to enjoy some of his abundance? Shouldn't his brother be there eating and drinking and making merry with him? Shouldn't his harvesters? Why's the only person he's making plans with his own soul?
The Torah institutes a robust tax system for its community, and ensures that wealth disparity cannot grow too large with a jubilee every 50 years in which wealth was redistributed. In addition to pe'ah, leaving the corners of one's fields to be gleaned by the poor, there were two other preservations of otherwise privately owned harvests for the poor, shikchah and leket. In a society that truly hews to these rules, no one starves. Jews are also required to contribute to community education funds and other funds for communal needs.
Unlike the English word charity, which comes from a Latin root suggesting giving because one's heart is moved, the Hebrew term is tzedakah, which comes from the root for "justice." It frames poverty as an injustice that must be remedied.
A man celebrating his abundant harvest alone, therefore, is suspect.
The Moral of the Story
Strangely, the person this parable is targeted at isn't the brother who inherited. It's the one who didn't, who wants some of that abundance. And I think if you take off eschatological meanings and Luke's glosses about greed, there's an underlying message to that younger brother:
Maybe he doesn't need a legal opinion. Maybe what he needs is a restoration of a relationship. Maybe his brother, with all that inheritance, has no one to enjoy it with. Maybe he's there drinking with only his soul for company.
Maybe this isn't a time to think about rights, or justice, or fairness, or the power of the law to balance things. Maybe this is a time to just... get back in touch. Maybe you get nothing. Maybe you get one nice meal. Maybe you get reclaimed as family.
And maybe you shouldn't wait, like Isaac and Ishmael, for a death in the family to come back together.
Because what I hear in this rich man's soliloquy isn't greed. It's loneliness, even if he doesn't seem to hear it himself.
In addition to the sources mentioned and links in the text above and the other articles on this site, you may find the following resources helpful in understanding this parable and the other concepts I've been talking about.
Jeffrey Dekro, "The Divine Ownership of Wealth", My Jewish Learning
Noam Zion, "Paul’s Charity versus Maimonides’s Tzedakah: Loving Giver or Dutiful Donor?", Jewish Giving in Comparative Perspectives: History and Story, Law and Theology, Anthropology and Psychology
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, "Tzedakah: The Untranslatable Virtue"
Most of the art on this page comes from Pexels, a free stock imagery site.
Building in wheatfield: Julia Voss
Wheat stalk: Julia Kozenkov
Vegetable harvest: Markus Spiske
Fruits and vegetables: Chokniti Khongchum
Boys in wheatfield: Kat Jayne
Ripe grapes: Julia Volk
Family dinner: cottonbro
Harvest field: Johannes Plenio
Additional art includes:
Mosaic of St. Thomas the Apostle: 12th-century mosaic from the Byzantine part of La Martorana, also known as Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio in Palermo, Sicily.
Rembrandt, The Parable of the Rich Fool