Not Dollars but Sense
Jesus preached about money; I should. True, but this parable is not about dollars. It's about sense. What sense would it make for Jesus to decline to be an authority on dividing money and then tell a parable about money which ends with be rich toward God or be a fool? To help you make sense of this parable don't make it about dollars.
This parable isn't about dollars but making sense of the distinction between zoe and bios. These are two Greek words translated life, but the New Testament makes an important distinction between the words. Trench, a 19th century Anglican bishop who was an expert on Greek synonyms, says the parable turns on correctly understanding the distinction between zoe and bios in the Bible (Notes on the Parables of Our Lord, 338-339).
Bios is the life which we live; Zoe is that life by which we live. When the widow gives her mites, Jesus says she has given all her bios. He couldn't have said zoe because no person has the authority to give or take that. Likewise when Jesus says He came to give life and that abundantly, He uses zoe not bios. Bios can be sustained by this world and the things in this world. Zoe cannot. The mistake the fool makes is to think that since he has bios and plenty to keep his bios going for many years he also has zoe.Another way to say it is: the fool thinks because he has a certain measure of control over his physical life he has like control over his spiritual life. He thinks that by keeping his body alive he keeps his soul alive.
This is a mistake that goes back to the church in the wilderness. They complained that the Lord wasn't providing for their bodies. So the Lord sent them manna, meat, and water for their bodies, but Psalm 106:15 tells the whole story: "So He gave them their request, but sent leanness into their soul." So where's your focus? Where does our world focus you? Not on zoe but on bios. Not on the health of your soul but on the health of your body. The world preaches what this fool believed: since he had enough for years of bios, he had years of zoe ahead of him. Is that what you believe?
This parable isn't about dollars but making sense of the distinction between what man says and what God says. The man said he had many years and God said he had only this very night. It was true. The man had "plenty of good things laid up for many years." He really could for the rest of his life "Take life easy; eat, drink, and be merry." His barns were packed with grain and goods, and note well he calls them "my grain and my goods." The man says they will be his for many years. God says only till tonight.
We usually picture this man as old, of retirement age, but the text doesn't say that. Once one of our members and I were reading the same book. I took the main character as being my age at the time, 50. The member took him as being his age, 25. When we talked about the book, he showed me where the character was his age not mine. Then my whole view of the book changed. So the guy in the text could be the founder of Facebook or YouTube, or he could be my age, but the real point is to take him to be your age. Whether you're a teen, thirtysomething, in midlife, or the golden years, see the man as that age, and see you as him.
That's important. Otherwise you won't see yourself in the parable. The parable will be for others, not you. But I'm not rich. I have bills; I have debts; I can't take it easy: eat, drink, and be merry. Now I've got you. The parable isn't about being rich but about being greedy. Jesus introduces it with, "Be on your guard against all kinds of greed." This parable is about wanting more than you have, and foolishly saying contrary to what God says that if you get it you will have all that you need for life. Yes for bios but not zoe; for your body yes, but not for your soul.
Solomon says, "Money answers all" (Ecc. 10:19), and don't I believe it. It's funny, however, that over the years the amount it will take to answer all things in my life has always gone up. That's how it was for the guy in the text too. Jesus says he was rich before the bumper crop came in. And even though the man realizes it's all physical gain and knows it only answers all for physical life, he still speaks to his soul. He says literally, "I will say to my soul, "Soul you have many good things laid up for many years: rest, eat, drink, be merry."
Here's the difference between what God says and man says. The man says he's being wise; God says he's a fool. The man says, "I have many years." God says, "Tonight's the night." Actually, the man has studied just enough of what God says to make him dangerous to himself. He knows Isaiah 22:13 says, "Let us eat and drink," but he doesn't know all that God says there: "Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die."
What counts in your life ? Is it what men say, what you say, or what God says? Are you paying more attention to what men be they doctors, financial planners, or politicians say than you are to what God says? A doctor might tell you, you have many years to live. Your financial adviser might tell you have more than enough to live. A politician might tell you the way to the good life. Isn't that great when they do? But what happens when they don't? What happens when the doctor says you're dying; the stockbroker says you're broke, and the politician says we don't have the good life? In both cases, whether they say good or bad things, their words really are no more certain than the man's words in the text were. He said he had plenty to live on for years to come. God said He did not.
What God says is what counts. God says your years are as a handbreadth, a breath on a window pane, as nothing before Him. God says in sin you were conceived so that you are by nature children of wrath and therefore dead in your trespasses and sins. And nothing you own, can buy, do, or think will make you alive. Oh with St. Paul you might be able to fool yourself into thinking you're alive apart from God. I mean you do have bios going on. But one little visit from God will show that apart from Him, without Him, you don't have zoe, and so you'll wake up as this man did to the realization that you're dead. You'll realize having a pulse, having plans, having enough to live doesn't mean you have spiritual life.
Zoe comes from God's word. That's what God has always said. "Man does not live by bread alone." Live here is zao the verb form of zoe. "Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes out of the mouth of God." You can get bios from food, from medicine, from technology, but you can only get zoe from God's Word. That Word was made flesh to take on the Law of God which sentenced you to death. The Word made flesh kept that Law in your place thus removing it from over your head, and the Word made flesh took your death sentence on Himself suffering, sighing, bleeding and dying in your place.
The Word made flesh paid for your sins which sentence you to death and now He can do with them what He wills. And He wills to wash them away from you in Baptism, command them away from you in Absolution, and commune them away from you in His Supper. In His audible and visible Word, He speaks and you live. Your sins, death, and the devil say you're dead; He says you're alive. Your aging, sick body says you're dying; His Word says you're thriving. What God in Christ says counts, not what men say, not what your conscience says, not what the devil himself says.
This parable isn't about dollars but making sense of the distinction between carrots and cucumbers. Carrots are vegetables that you have to pull out of the ground, and sometimes they don't come easy. Sometimes it seems they want to remain in that dirt with every ounce of energy they have. You literally see the fibers of their being trying to hold on. Cucumbers are above the ground. You easily break them off the vine. The man in the parable is a carrot; you friends in Christ are cucumbers.
God's Word says of this man and all who claim to have life, zoe, from their things that his soul is demanded of him. There's no future tense in the Greek. It's not as the insert has it, "will be demanded." No here and now it is demanded. There's a pulling, retching, and jerking of the man's soul because it is thoroughly embedded in his body. His zoe is rooted in his bios. Your soul is not. Your soul is rooted in the things of God: His promises of forgiveness, life, and salvation. Your zoe is not in your bios but in God. Your true life started when you were baptized. You live Sunday to Sunday, from the audible and visible Gospel that declares the dead alive, the sinner a saint, the guilty free. You get the abundant life of Jesus through His Body and Blood at this altar. His zoe comes to your bios,and behold you live!
You're a cucumber not a carrot. Your soul will not be demanded of you. Indeed each morning and night you commend not just your body but your soul to God. You're a cucumber ripe for the picking whenever God calls you. Why? Because your riches are in God. I can show you in Greek how the last verse is rightly translated "rich in God" not "rich toward God." But just look at the parable. The point is not that the man didn't do enough for God but that the man didn't think he needed God to do anything for him.
That's not true for cucumbers like you. You don't get your life from dirt like some carrot. No, you get your life from the sun, not the s-u-n but the s-o-n. The Son of God loved you and gave His life for you so you might have life. Your life, your fortune, your health, wealth, and happiness are in Him: what He has done and will do, what has said and still says to you. You are rich in God, so when you die you won't be leaving behind your riches, you'll be going to them. Now doesn't that make sense? Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost (20100808); Luke 12: 13-21