And [Jesus] 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.’ Then he told them a parable: ‘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 myself Self, 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 towards God.’ (Luke 12:15–21, NRSV)
In the Cotton Patch translation of verse 15, Clarence Jordan (1912–1969) brings out its original earthiness: “You all be careful and stay on your guard against all kinds of greediness. For a person’s life is not for the piling up of possessions.”
Jordan develops this parable in an interesting way in The Substance of Faith, a collection of his sermons. He elevates the parable to a broad social and political level.
“Jesus said, ‘There was a certain rich farmer.’ Now, he didn’t say what the man’s name was. Jesus left him rather impersonal. To make it a little bit more personal, let’s give the man a name. We’ll call him Sam. ‘Sam’s fields brought forth abundantly.’ Now, we might even want to call him uncle. That would be all right, too. ‘Uncle Sam’s fields brought forth abundantly.’” (Cotton Patch Sermons, pp 81–82)
And what did Uncle Sam do with his rich yield? He kept it all to himself and ignored the hungry of the world. So, although the parable may have been intended to be understood on a purely individual basis, we could legitimately expand the reading to include the entire nation and thereby entertain a new lesson. In either reading, the problem is greediness and self-interest, an unwillingness to share with those in need.
The interesting thing, and maybe the key point, is revealed in verse 20 when God says to the rich farmer, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you” (NRSV). Many other translators have a similar reading of the Greek text: “Fool! This night your soul is required of you” (ESV); “You fool! You will die this very night” (NLT); “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded back from you” (NET). But those translations miss the real meaning of the Greek text. In a newer translation, The New Testament (2017) by David Bentley Hart (b. 1965), we find a more literal translation: “Fool, this night they demand your soul from you.” Clarence Jordan explains it this way: “God didn’t kill that man. It’s the third person plural. ‘They are demanding your soul from you.’ Who is “they”? All these barns, all these granaries, all these fields, all this stuff he has given himself over the years. They are demanding.” (Cotton Patch Sermons, p 82)
It is not that the farmer will die that evening, but that his wealth and his possessions are demanding his soul. They demand control of his life—lock, stock, and barrel. He now lives in bondage to the very things he thought would serve him.
Jesus was not an ascetic. He did not fast like John the Baptizer and his disciples. We are told that he loved to feast with others and enjoyed the abundance of a shared meal. Jesus loved to eat, drink, and be merry. He did not condemn the farmer for enjoying life. But at the same time, Jesus often rebuked those who set their eyes on possessions, because, the accumulation of possessions often separates us from other people. Our focus turns inward. The danger is that we may become self-serving, self-centered, and selfish. Jesus said we cannot serve two masters: “You cannot serve both God and money.” (Luke 16:13) When wealth and possessions demand our souls, they become our masters, and we become their servants.
Jesus described another rich man who had great possessions and lived in a large mansion in a gated community and feasted sumptuously. Outside of his gate lay a poor man, hoping for scraps from the rich man’s table. In his absolute distress, he may have been placed by the rich man’s gate by others in hope that the rich man, his family, or his guests would notice the poor sick man and have pity on his condition. The Hebrew law commanded an appropriate response: “Since there will never cease to be some needy on the earth, I [Yahweh] therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’” (Deuteronomy 15:11) The book of Tobit also comments: “Give alms from your possessions, and do not let your eye begrudge the gift when you make it. Do not turn your face away from anyone who is poor, and the face of God will not be turned away from you . . . for almsgiving delivers from death and keeps you from going into the darkness.” (Tobit 4:7–10)
Although we don’t know the rich man’s name, the poor man was named Lazarus. He and Abraham are the only two individuals named in Jesus’ parables, and both are found in this one. In Hebrew, Lazarus would have been Eliezer, which means “God [El] helps.” But as we know from observation and experience, God does not help the poor without a human actor. In this case the potential actor refused to act on God’s behalf.
The rich man ignored the poor man’s plight and the poor man soon died from hunger and disease. Not long after, the rich man also died. In Sheol, the shadowy land of the dead under the ground, the rich man and the poor man experienced a reversal of fortune.
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Sheol, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”’ (Luke 16:19–31)
This rich man is not condemned for being wealthy; he is guilty of being indifferent to his poor neighbors, to the beggars at his gate. Elie Wiesel said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” The rich man simply did not love his neighbor. He was uncaring and unloving. He developed a heart of stone.
For centuries, theologians have defined sin as missing a target of ideal human behavior, or violating select divine commandments, or even being in a state of rebellion against or separation from God. Today, others define sin as the fundamental state of ego-centrism that consumes our lives. At its core, sin in both the individual and the social context is rooted in human self-centeredness, self-obsession, and selfishness. It is found in the condition of living for oneself alone and a callous disregard for the needs of others. My desk dictionary lists 142 compound words that begin with the word self, including self-absorption, self-concern, self-centeredness, self-importance, self-indulgence, self-interest, self-righteousness, self-serving, and selfishness. This is the underlying nature of human sin—an overwhelmingly dominant focus on myself, my needs, and my desires.
As humans, our hearts are filled with worry, insecurity, and self-concern. We are anxious about the future. Whether we admit it or not, we perceive the world as a cruel place, and realize that in a largely selfish world, others will surely be indifferent to our needs and welfare. We thus believe we must care for ourselves first and provide for our own future security at the expense of anyone else. The egoistic self thus pursues goals that attempt to insulate and protect it from a seemingly random and harmful universe. We search for a sense of security through wealth, possessions, pleasure, prestige, power, exclusive solidarity, and self-centered religion. In the process, our hearts become concentrated in our materialistic culture and the things that conventional wisdom deems to be of importance.
This focus on the self often leads to alienation, isolation, and separation from others. A life lived for oneself results in a hard and cold heart. It drives out compassion and concern for the needs of others. It often spawns a desire to dominate and control others in service to the self. Selfishness is at the root of those enduring political systems in which a few wealthy and powerful people control the economic life of the many, extracting their productivity to maintain luxurious lifestyles.
Throughout history, nearly every society has favored an elite group of individuals and families at the expense of the majority of less-fortunate inhabitants. For thousands of years, economic elites have rigged society in their favor by crafting systems that would benefit their prosperity and ensure their control over the nation’s political and economic affairs. Historically, they have used unjust economic systems to extract wealth from the sweat of slaves, peasants, and laborers, while contributing little to the common welfare. Social control has been maintained with violence and military might, often supported by religious institutions. These societies have invariably been patriarchies where the authority and desires of men have dominated the lives of women and children. The system has frequently favored one race, tribe, or ethnic group over others.
Biblical scholar Walter Wink (1935–2012) has referred to these societies as manifestations of an enduring domination system that has been part of the human story since the rise of civilization in the ancient near east. Wink describes the domination system in this way:
It is characterized by unjust economic relations, oppressive political relations, biased race relations, patriarchal gender relations, hierarchical power relations, and the use of violence to maintain them all. No matter what shape the dominating system of the moment might take (from the ancient Near Eastern states to the Pax Romana to feudal Europe to communist state capitalism to modern market capitalism), the basic structure has persisted now for at least five thousand years, since the rise of the great conquest states of Mesopotamia around 3000 BCE. (The Powers That Be, pp 39–40)
In the market system of capitalism, individuals pursue their exclusive self-interest. That is the basis of capitalist economic theory, but it has always posed a moral problem in relation to the contrasting idea of the common good held by many religions. Capitalist philosophers claim that when the self-interest of capitalists is pursued without restraint, everyone benefits—but that has rarely been the case. Recently in the United States, the politics of selfishness has been exemplified by the opinions and draconian budget proposals of Republican congressman Paul Ryan (b. 1970) who became Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2015. Ryan has attributed the development of his political ideas to Russian émigré philosopher and writer Ayn Rand (1905–1982). At its heart, Rand’s philosophy proposes that the proper moral purpose of one’s life is the pursuit of one’s own happiness. This “ethical egoism” states that individuals ought to do what is in their own rational self-interest as opposed to ethical altruism,” which holds that individuals should dedicate themselves to helping and serving others. Among Tea Party members and libertarians, this philosophy reigns supreme. It is the dominant philosophy of the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress and of many state governments controlled by conservative politicians. Economist John Kenneth Galbraith (1908–2006) once commented, “The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.” (“Let us Begin,” Harpers.)
Uncle Sam’s fields have brought forth abundantly, but the abundance has not been shared with the working poor and their children, nor with those in need of healthcare, nor with the elderly in Medicaid nursing homes. Massive tax cuts for the wealthiest, bloated military budgets, welfare for giant corporations, vast prison systems, and cuts to social services for the poorest Americans are all signs of the present manifestation of Uncle Sam’s domination system. The top one percent build bigger barns on the Cayman Islands to store their wealth, while ignoring the needs of the many who suffer.
Walter Wink notes that the teachings of Jesus were a prescriptive remedy to the domination system of his time. The kingdom of God that Jesus pictured in his parables is an antidote to the selfish disease of the domination system. The vision of Jesus stands in direct opposition to the political and economic aims of these pervasively unjust social structures. It is a vision of the domination system turned upside-down. Therefore, every act of resistance to the domination system, every protest of its unjust laws and structures, every effort to transform it for the common good is a sign of the coming kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed.
In the reign of God, all typical domination values are reversed. The first shall be last and the last shall be first. The greatest people in the kingdom shall be servants. The powerful shall be brought low and the lowly lifted up. The hungry shall be filled with good things and the rich sent away empty. The kingdom of God particularly belongs to the poor, the hungry, and the mourning because they will gladly welcome its coming. The rich will find it almost impossible to enter the kingdom community because they are too entrenched in the domination system and will resist the change it promises.
We cannot eliminate the dark side of our human condition, but we can summon the better angels of our nature to make us a more humane, kind, and decent people. Even if persistent social selfishness cannot be eliminated, it can be mitigated and minimized by people of good will. The hope of the reign of God is that a transformation of the politics of selfishness is possible through the efforts of transformed individuals who are committed to nonviolent social change motivated by love and compassion.
Lord, may your kingdom come! Soon and very soon!