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Anti-Materialism: The Rich Fool (Luke 12:13-21)

In the novel Don Quixote, Sancho Panza quotes an old Spanish proverb that says, "A man is worth as much as he has and has as much as he is worth." In other words, money and the possessions money can buy are the common standard of value. Money is the mark of worth and the symbol of success. No wonder that someone has said, "Our society believes in life, liberty, and the purchase of happiness."

A man in the crowd surrounding Jesus appeals for justice; Jesus responds with a parable against materialism. Why is this 2000-year-old parable so applicable to modern American society? For one thing, materialism never goes out of style. We need not believe that materialism came along with the age of industry and technology. All societies have been materialistic because human society revolves primarily around materialistic purposes and pursuits. Materialism, in its most basic sense, is unavoidable.

Materialism in this parable, however, represents a preoccupation with possessions that eventually manifests itself in greed, covetousness, selfishness, pride, and presumption. It is no accident that God refers to the rich man as a "fool" (verse 20) because Psalm 14:1 says "The fool says in his heart there is no God." Psalm 14:1 and its parallel Psalm 53:1 are not condemning atheism. Rather, they refer to those fools who, in their arrogant presumption, believe that God will not punish their folly.

In Colossians 3:5, Paul calls greed (aka materialism) "idolatry" because greed substitutes things for God. The materialist trusts in money to provide protection and security—hence our talk about "financial independence" and "social security." But scripture says, "Trust in God" (Proverbs 3:5-6; 11:28). There is a fine line between financial responsibility, which the Bible commands (1 Timothy 5:8), and financial idolatry, which it condemns (1 Timothy 6:17; Luke 16:13).

Jesus tells the parable in such a way that God's condemnation of the rich man’s materialism at the end really comes as a surprise. At first glance the man seems eminently reasonable and provident. He has a problem: too large a harvest, and he has a solution: build bigger barns. What could be wrong with that? The critical moment comes in verse 19 as he concludes his monologue with the self-admonition, "relax, eat, drink, and be merry." The use of wealth, not its existence or manner of storage, determines the main point of the parable.

Actually, the rich man makes his fatal miscalculation in verse 18 where he talks about "my" grain and "my" goods. In Psalm 50:10, God says "the cattle on a thousand hills" are his. People are presumptuous to assume that their wealth is their own to spend on pleasures or on personal security. The only real rich people are those who are rich toward God, who have treasure in heaven (Matthew 6:19-21). Paul explains that being "rich toward God" means being rich in good deeds, that is, “generous and ready to share” (1 Timothy 6:17-19).

Can Christians lead lives that are outwardly lavish yet inwardly rich toward God? Many would like to think that material success is a direct blessing from God and a sign of God's favor. They preach the gospel of health and wealth. Make a donation to the church, and God will give it back to you a hundred times over. But in this parable, Jesus takes the position that riches are more deceitful than delightful. The fragility of life should make Christians focus on the eternal. People die; wealth will be dispersed. Only those who are rich in good deeds will please God.


1.When the Roman soldiers asked John the Baptist, "What should we do?," he told them, "Be content with your wages" (Luke 3:14). The writer of Hebrews says, "Be content with what you have" (Hebrews 13:5). Is it wrong for Christians to ask for pay increases or to belong to unions or associations that lobby for pay increases?

2.There is a saying, "Enough is as good as a feast." Should Christians drive expensive cars or buy houses far larger than necessary to lodge their families? Are such practices a misuse of God's gifts?

3.There are many more scriptures on the topic of materialism than on the topic of abortion. Why do Christian groups tend to focus on certain issues to the exclusion of others? Can you cite other examples?

4.A preacher once said, "Our goal as Christians is to live on less and less and to give more and more. Our goal is to see all we possess as belonging to God and not to us." Do you think he was stating biblical truth? What are the implications of such a philosophy for you?

5.An old Quaker once said, "If thou ever have need of anything, come to me and I will teach thee how to live without it." Where is the line between asceticism and materialism, between conspicuously doing without on the one hand and conspicuous consumption and consumerism on the other?

6.Give some examples from your experience of people who have been rich in good deeds, generous, and sharing. A generous rich man who lost his fortune once said, "The only things I have left are those I have given away." Do you know of anyone who has ever suffered as a result of his or her generosity?


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on June 6, 2007 3:18 PM.

The previous post in this blog was Compassion: The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-35).

The next post in this blog is Mercy: The Laborers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16).

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

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