The Rich Fool and His Storage Bins
In my quest for Lady Poverty, I turned to the Scripture, that treasure trove in worn covers with tissue-thin pages. What do we read there about wealth, and how has the Church interpreted it? This last is crucial since not every teaching about money is clear in the Scripture, and the balance – for as Chesterton pointed out, the Church is performing a balancing act perfectly poised – is everything for the understanding.
Money and sex are two sources of selfishness in marriage, and in the wider culture as well. My friend the radical iconographer is fond of saying that Christ spoke little about sex but very much about the rich. Our culture is obsessed with sex, forcing Mother Church to constantly turn her attention to it, but we would much rather not talk about money, because it’s far too important to the way we live. Thanks to disagreements and misunderstanding about sex, the Church has responded with the Theology of the Body. So perhaps it’s time for Catholics to turn our attention to the problem of money.
I have spoken of how Christ began His public preaching by blessing Poverty in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel. Luke’s Gospel narrates the lesser-known “Sermon on the Plain,” which features a different version of the Beatitudes in chapter 6, verses 20-22. Here, Christ blesses the poor, and after his four blessings: blessing those who are poor, hungry, mourning, and persecuted, He lists four “woes.”
Note the nuance in our Savior’s words: he does not curse the rich, like the Marxist who considers the rich intrinsically evil. Christ only warns them of coming woe, “for you have already had your consolation.”
Six chapters later, Christ tells his disciples the parable of the rich fool in the midst of a sermon given to his disciples “in the midst of the multitudes.” He begins by warning of the leaven of the Pharisees, namely, hiding sin, continues with a warning not to fear those who can kill the body but not the soul, and to trust in the loving attention of God, who has numbered the very hairs of our head. He admonishes His followers to be brave in the face of persecution, and not to be anxious about what to say when put on trial. Then there is an interruption. One of the multitude interrupts this intense sermon with a purely worldly concern that must have struck the audience as frankly, off topic: “Teacher, bid my brother to divide the inheritance with me!” (Luke 12:13) Now, disputes among brothers in the Scriptures tend to have bloody and catastrophic consequences, recalling Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, and so on. So here our Savior is confronted with a perilous and possibly murderous situation: a question of inheritance voiced by an anonymous bystander.
Jesus expresses skepticism that the man will listen to the advice given: “Man, who has made me a judge or divider over you?” In the same way, many Christians who call our Savior Lord sometimes resist calling him Judge or Divider when it comes to the material possessions of this world. So Christ does not judge the man’s claim and leaves the injustice unsolved. “Take heed, and beware of all covetousness, for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”
He then tells a parable, which seems to be His tactic when He senses a straight answer will be rejected.
“The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully, and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build new 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; take your ease. Eat, drink, and be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is he who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich towards God.” (Luke 12:16-21)
It is not clear that the rich man ever put his plans into action: pulling down his barns, building new ones, storing his grain and goods, and then enjoying a life of ease. It might have been one night’s fantasy of the future, vanished in the morning over his cold corpse. God corrects the perspective of the rich fool: his goods are not his and were not given to be stored indefinitely in his barns but were meant for others. The resulting sloth which the rich man entertained, led him into illusion, a fantasy shattered by his death (and one presumes, damnation) that very night.
The rich fool’s mistake was twofold:
1. He forgot the poor when he was considering what to do with his abundance.
2. He piled up wealth – hoarded, we might say –instead of giving it away.
Had he solved his storage problem by sharing, perhaps with his brother, both would have been satisfied and he might not have died. If Christ or an outside judge or government official had demanded that he share his wealth, the wealth might have left his storage bins but remained stored in his heart, just as it was stored in the eyes of his envious brother. Hence, Wisdom being wiser than the government, Christ declines to command that the rich brother share his wealth.
His parable might seem to agree with the questioner, who believes his problems are caused by the ungenerous nature of his brother. One senses the angst of the social justice warrior contemplating the rich capitalist. But Christ warns that redistribution of wealth is not an impossible socialist dream: on the contrary, redistribution of wealth is as inevitable as death. The piled-up wealth will then belong to someone else, possibly the angry brother. But the problem remains, a deadly problem.
Take heed and beware! Pay attention! Life does not consist in an abundance of possessions. If the questioner is about to be “rewarded” by the death of his inheriting brother, he is still rebuked for believing that lack of money is his crucial problem. The eyes and soul of the questioner are possessed by the abundance of his brother’s wealth and the corresponding lack in his own wealth. He demands that Christ be “fair” and give each an equivalent amount. But neither greed nor envy will be solved by mere equality.
The parable reminds us that “ownership” is a legal fiction created for the ordering of society, transferable and destructible by the whim of the weather, governments, human will, and the Lord God. To whom will all this piled-up wealth go?
Since we cannot keep them, only steward them, what is the purpose of goods? Let me step from the parable to my little home.
One sees the purpose in a large bag of oatmeal, more oatmeal than an adult could comfortably eat in any one sitting – when one is faced with the hungry faces of children. Watching a baby, barely eighteen months, toddle to a footstool, sit at the battered coffee table by the kitchen counter, clutching a tiny spoon, all eyes and empty stomach, see the lowered blue bowl of steaming brown-sugar-sweetened goodness set before them, patting their hands (still spoon clutching) in a hurried mumble of grateful prayer – and the focused concentration on putting the spoon into the oatmeal and – finally!—to the little mouth – that, my readers, is the purpose of oatmeal. That is why the Lord God created galaxies and planets and continents and governments and houses and factories and pottery and metal and oatmeal—for that moment where the hungry mouth is fed, and love is given, and the universe rejoices to see a baby’s hunger satisfied by good food. This is the purpose of goods, for the hungry to be fed, the naked clothed, the weeping comforted.
Oatmeal by the ton stored in some cellar against some future catastrophe—is it an illusion? Is the wealth better spent being sent to the hungry mouths here and now? What balance can be struck between prudence and selfishness, generosity and grandiose pride? How much does one store up? How much should one give? In order to do so, one must identify both the envious questioner and the rich fool in one’s own heart and put the problem in perspective before the Lord God.
One might begin by inviting Christ to take the role deferred and be the judge and divider of our possessions. Much to the scandal of the socialist who swoons at for fascist power, Christ does not command. He waits to be invited, asking us not to remain bystanders in the multitude, but to put everything at His feet and follow Him.
Christ follows this parable with the exhortation to be like the ravens who neither sow nor reap nor gather into storehouses or barns, but yet God feeds them! And how much more valuable are we to God! Worrying does not add an inch to our span of life, He reminds us. Those who worry, like the rich fool, forget Who truly measures our days.
He reminds us the lilies are clothed with more glory than Solomon’s, even though the lilies are mere grass which is thrown into the oven in a day, and we of little faith should not fret about our clothing. “Do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be of anxious mind. For all the nations of the world seek these things; and your Father knows you need them. Instead, seek His kingdom and these things will be yours as well. Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give alms, provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail. For where your treasure is, there will be your heart also.” (Luke 12:22-34)
I have a large family, and storage bins are a grubby necessity in my life, but this parable has given me pause when considering buying new ones. It has started me on a search for limits: for limits of a human size, parameters which can help perfect my soul. I keep my storage small, and when I outgrow it, I search for ways to give away what I have rather than expanding what I’m able to hold on to. This is not just minimalism or even convenience: the parable of the rich fool teaches me it’s about saving my soul. I will outline this further as we go on. But I merely want to point out the reverse of the parable: limits are a way of ensuring generosity and living lightly can keep us light of heart.