55. Parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:13-21)

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Gospel Parallels §156

James J. Tissot, 'The Man Who Hoards' (1886-94)
James J. Tissot, 'The Man Who Hoards' (1886-94), gouache on gray wove paper, 7.8 x 5.0 in., Brooklyn Museum, New York.

"13  Someone in the crowd said to him, 'Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.' 14  Jesus replied, 'Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?' 15  Then he said to them, 'Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.' 16  And he told them this parable: 'The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. 17  He thought to himself, "What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops." 18  Then he said, "This is what I'll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19  And I'll say to myself, 'You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.'" 20  But God said to him, "You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?" 21  This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God." (Luke 12:13-21, NIV)

Greed has been an ongoing theme in Jesus' training of his disciples. Sometimes it is implied, other times it is out in the open:

  • Calling Levi the Tax Collector (5:27-32).
  • Parable of the Sower, about thorns of riches that choke spiritual life (8:14).
  • Pharisees who inside are full of greed (11:39).
  • Giving a party in order to be reciprocated by one's "rich friends" (14:12).
  • The Prodigal Son who squanders his wealth on wild living (15:13).
  • The Parable of the unjust servant (16:1-12).
  • We cannot serve God and mammon (16:13).
  • Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (16:19-31).
  • The Rich Young Ruler and the saying about the impossibility of a rich person to enter the Kingdom (18:18-27).
  • Story of wealthy Zacchaeus' generosity (19:1-10).

But of all of these, today's passage focuses directly upon greed, as Jesus teaches his disciples about this hard-to-discern spiritual killer.

Make My Brother Divide the Inheritance (Luke 12:13-14)

"Someone in the crowd said to him, 'Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.'
Jesus replied, 'Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?'" (12:13-14)

You can picture it. Jesus has been teaching for some time about the Kingdom. Suddenly, someone in the back calls out and interrupts the whole group with a question. Not a question, really, but an insistence that Jesus straighten out the man's legal affairs. It was rude, out of place, it didn't ring true.

The man who has called out sounds like a younger brother who doesn't feel he is getting his due. Inheritance in Israel was devised to keep land in the family, rather than let it go to other tribes or individuals.

"When he wills his property to his sons, he must not give the rights of the firstborn to the son of the wife he loves in preference to his actual firstborn, the son of the wife he does not love. He must acknowledge the son of his unloved wife as the firstborn by giving him a double share of all he has. That son is the first sign of his father's strength. The right of the firstborn belongs to him." (Deuteronomy 21:16-17)

"If a man dies and leaves no son, turn his inheritance over to his daughter. If he has no daughter, give his inheritance to his brothers. If he has no brothers, give his inheritance to his father's brothers. If his father had no brothers, give his inheritance to the nearest relative in his clan, that he may possess it." (Numbers 27:8-11)

The first-born son would receive double the inheritance of any of his younger brothers, and would serve as the patriarch of the family and executor of his father's inheritance (Greek klēronomia), specifically, "real estate."508 The younger son wants the estate divided so that he gets a share, but that will reduce the amount of farmable land for the landholding as a whole. The Greek word is merizō, "divide, separate" into its component parts; "share something with someone."509 The elder son would rather continue as it was under his father, all the brothers farming the land and supporting their families with it, rather than dividing it up into smaller and smaller pieces which each would independently control.510

Since the Mosaic Law didn't specifically cover such an instance, the younger son had a right to take the matter to court, usually formed by the elders in his village, who would rule on the issue. In addressing Jesus as "Teacher," probably Aramaic Rabbi, the man is trying to get Jesus, as a well-known rabbi, to act as a judge in this property case. In Jesus' day, the title "Rabbi" was used of honored teachers, but it was not until the second century that men were ordained into the office of Rabbi and the role of judge was more prominent in their position.511

Jesus questions the man rather directly, as one who has interrupted him and made undue demands. He asks the man, who has appointed Jesus judge of this case. Jesus uses the words "judge," Greek kritēs, "one who reaches as decision, passes judgment, a judge"512  The word "arbiter" is Greek meristēs, "divider, arbitrator."513 Meristēs is the noun form of the verb merizō used in verse 13, "to divide."

Jesus isn't questioning his own role as Judge of the Living and the Dead (2 Timothy 4:1). He is questioning the man's motives. First, look at what the man says, "Tell my brother to ..." He has the temerity to command Jesus and tell him what to do. Second, he has already decided what he wants, and now is looking for a judge who sees it his way. Instead of going to the approved legal structure of his neighborhood, he is trying to get Jesus to take jurisdiction over the case. Jesus will have nothing to do with it, and rebukes the man's inappropriate overture. Jesus' role now is to teach the Kingdom, not to judge petty probate cases.

Beware of Greed (Luke 12:15a)

"Then he said to them, 'Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.'" (12:15)

Jesus uses the occasion as a "teachable moment." The man's desire is obviously for possessions, so much so that he will presume to tell the Son of God what he must do to accomplish this desire. He owes it to me! I deserve it! There's a lot of anger here, a lot of resentment.

Is a desire for justice wrong? No. Is it wrong to sue for one's financial rights in court? No. God is a God of justice. But the motivation here is more than a call for justice. The man seems consumed with the inheritance. He interrupts an honored speaker to make his point publicly, instead of speaking to Jesus privately. Something else is going on in his heart. Jesus labels it "greed" and warns his disciples against it with a saying, and then with a memorable parable.

The Greek word used for "greed" is plēonexia, "greediness, insatiableness, avarice, covetousness," literally, "a desire to have more."514 This is a different word from Greek harpagē, "robbery, plunder, greediness" used to describe the Pharisees' heart in Luke 11:39. In that context, greed involved taking away what belonged to others; here it is a desire for more. Our English word "greed" is defined as "excessive or reprehensible acquisitiveness, avarice."515 And while we're at it, "avarice" means "excessive or insatiable desire for wealth or gain; greediness, cupidity," from the word "avid" (Latin avidus), "desirous to the point of greed; urgently eager; greedy."516

Notice that Jesus warns not just against greed, but against "all kinds of greed" (Greek pas). Greed takes all sorts of forms, and is easily hidden. Since greed is defined by excessiveness, how much is enough? How much is too much?

The temptation to greed requires vigilance, hence Jesus' warning words, "Watch out!" (Greek oraō) and "Be on your guard" (Greek phylassō, "watch, guard ... guard against, look out for, avoid."517). Greed is first identified clearly as the Tenth Commandment,

"You shall not covet your neighbor's house. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor" (Exodus 20:17).

Covetousness is the desire for something that one doesn't have a legitimate right to, something which belongs to someone else.

Life Is Not Abundance of Possessions (Luke 12:15b)

After warning his disciples against greed, Jesus gives the reason for this warning, "because (Greek gar) a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions" (12:15). This is one of Jesus' themes. "Man does not live by bread alone" (Luke 4:4; Deuteronomy 8:3).

When you think about it, Jesus' word to his first century disciples is a radical statement even in the twenty-first century: "A man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions." This runs contrary to the way our society thinks and values and lives.

  • Rich people are more successful than poor people.
  • Wealthy people are more important than poor people.
  • Well-to-do people are more sought after to serve on civic boards and commissions, since they bring status, money, and presumably have wisdom.
  • Well-off people are more believable in court than the poor.

Success in our culture is calibrated largely in terms of quantity -- quantity of degrees, wealth, salary, perks, possessions, publications. We are ambitious; we are trained by our society to want more, to strive for more.

But Jesus says, "a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions" (12:15). And that means we must choose to change, or choose to cover our base covetousness with piety in order to convince others, and hopefully ourselves, that we aren't really covetous. Not us!

The Rich Man's Good Crop (Luke 12:16)

In an agrarian society where most in the villages were subsistence farmers, agricultural success is a natural example for Jesus to use.

"And he told them this parable: 'The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop.'" (12:16)

This is a story about a hypothetical rich farmer. Jesus' listeners knew of rich farmers. They could grasp this immediately. His "ground" is Greek chōra, "field, cultivated land." Singular 'land, farm,"518 properly "the space lying between two places or limits."519 It sounds like his own land, though he may have purchased or leased land from his poorer neighbors. The ground is said to have "produced a good crop," Greek euphoreō, "bear good crops, yield well, be fruitful."520 Left unsaid in Jesus' parable is God's grace in causing the land to bring such a good yield.

Build Bigger Barns (Luke 12:17-18)

"He thought to himself, 'What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.' Then he said, 'This is what I'll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.'" (12:17-18)

Though his crop is plentiful, the size of the harvest has created a pleasant problem -- lack of storage. The word translated "store" (NIV) or "bestow" (KJV) in verses 17 and 18 is the common Greek word synagō, "gather (in) things." It can be used broadly, of fish, crops, people, etc.521 The word translated "barn" is Greek apothēkē, "storehouse, barn,"522 "a place in which anything is laid by or up,"523 from which we get our English word "apothecary." Archeological excavations have revealed four devices for storing grain: jars, pits, silos, and rectangular storehouses. Since the rich farmer plans to "tear down" his storehouses, these are probably silos or perhaps rectangular storehouses. The Greek word used here is kathaireō, "take down, bring down, lower," then "tear down, destroy" of buildings.524 The most common type of above-ground granary unearthed in Palestine was circular, with openings below the almost flat roof so that the air could circulate. Stairs on the outside formed a kind of ramp up which the grain was carried before being poured in at the top.525

The rich farmer's insistence that he tear down his current granaries indicates that he did not want to build on his fertile land, but rather put larger granaries in place of his present ones. His abundance, of course, is far greater than what he needs for his own household. So instead of dumping his grain on the market during a good harvest year, he aims to hold the grain for the future when he can get higher prices. He is a shrewd agribusinessman.

Trusting in Possessions (Luke 12:19)

Jesus doesn't fault him on his agricultural acumen, but on his independent attitude.

"And I'll say to myself, 'You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.'" (12:19)

The man actually believes that his riches will now insulate his life from hardship. God isn't in the equation at all. The man's focus is squarely on goods rather than God.

We may be critical, but we are probably a bit uncomfortable with the man's portrayal, since many of us are working for just such a scenario when we can take life easy, not have to scrimp, and spend our lives in luxury. What a life!

The California Lottery

As I write this the California Lottery is up to millions of dollars and growing rapidly as the drawing comes to a close later today. Many people who normally don't buy lottery tickets will rush down to their neighborhood convenience store for tickets. Why? A chance at riches, however remote that chance is. For many years the California Lottery has been advertising heavily to create the illusion that average people can become instantly wealthy, quit their jobs, and do whatever they want for the rest of their lives. And their advertising has paid off. We've seen a similar phenomenon in many other states and countries. I daresay that you may gamble -- oh, not often, of course, but when the jackpot gets up to $89 million, what's a dollar when you have a chance of becoming fabulously wealthy?

The prime motivator for the California Lottery is greed. Advertising feeds and deceives and further bloats that greed. We've come to the sad place where our government is now the prime advocate of what can only be thought of as a vice, and the reason that the government is behind it is not to protect the citizenry but to produce more money for their budgets. The money comes primarily from the poorer citizens, too. Politicians regularly take large amounts of money from gambling interests. Why? Greed.

I'll get off my soapbox, but we don't need to look far to see greed. Most times we can see it in ourselves, unless we are willing to systematically root it out.

Poverty is no guarantee against greed. In fact, poverty is a breeding ground for a lust for money. The writer of Proverbs recognizes the dangers as he prays,

"Give me neither poverty nor riches,
but give me only my daily bread.
Otherwise, I may have too much
and disown you and say, 'Who is the Lord?'
Or I may become poor and steal,
and so dishonor the name of my God." (Proverbs 30:8-9)

Foolish Choices (Luke 12:20)

Back to the parable. After the man has congratulated himself on his good fortune and his guarantee of a pain-free life for the future, God speaks.

"But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?'" (12:20)

"You fool" is Greek aphron, "foolish, ignorant."526 The word is also used in Luke 11:40 directed towards the Pharisees. Is the word justified? Of course. Anyone knows that he cannot guarantee his own future. To pretend that you are able to do so is a myth.

"This very night your life will be demanded from you." The idea here is that our life is not in our own hands, but in God's hands. He is in charge, and he can demand our lives at any moment he chooses.

There's a radio commentator who often describes himself as having "talent on loan from God." Sometimes I have resented the way he says it with a kind of smug arrogance, but what he says couldn't be truer. And I hope that he and each of us live humbly with that understanding. We can and should "improve upon" our talents, our natural abilities, by training and practice, but we cannot take credit for having them. Everything we have been given is a gift to be used to serve God. It is not a permanent possession of ours, but it belongs to him. Your talents, my abilities, a person's family position -- all these are gifts from God. If we use them as true servants for him and his glory we use them rightly. Unfortunately, the rich man's focus was on himself -- "what you have prepared for yourself" -- not on God. And so God chose that night to take back what belonged to him in the first place.

Not Rich toward God (Luke 12:21)

"This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God." (12:21)

How will it be? Sudden surprise. Anyone who can't understand that he is a mortal creature, and that a Higher Being has created him, is a fool. An educated fool, perhaps, but still a fool. But there comes a day of reckoning. The wealth of our bank account or reputation or career high points or family or friends mean nothing. The only question is now: Is he, is she, rich toward God?

Treasures in Heaven

How do you become rich toward God? In the Gospels we see a contrast between laying up treasures in heaven vs. laying up treasures for ourselves. Before we move to "the riches of Christ," I want you to consider what Jesus says about laying up treasures in heaven:

In the following passages Jesus says:

"Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." (Luke 12:32-34)

Matthew 6:1-18 speaks about doing our pious acts in private so that the Father who sees what we are doing in private may reward us. This is immediately followed by Jesus' words about storing up treasures on earth vs. storing up treasures in heaven (6:19-21)

"I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings." (Luke 16:9)

"Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life." (1 Timothy 6:17-19)

So far as Jesus was concerned, we lay up treasures for heaven by humbly living for him now. Giving to the needy, praying, fasting, doing good deeds. Nowhere do we see the idea of "works righteousness" that this can easily be twisted into. These are not "brownie points" that we redeem before God, but rewards. They lie in contrast to selfish actions which accrue to our earthly wealth. Greed will not get us to heaven, and may well hinder us from ever arriving there.

The Sin of Idolatry

Greed is akin to the sin of idolatry -- erecting and worshipping a false god, in this case, the god Mammon.

"... Nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God." (1 Corinthians 6:10)

"But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God's holy people." (Ephesians 5:3)

"For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person -- such a man is an idolater -- has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God." (Ephesians 5:5)

How do you deal with greed, my Christian friend? How do you resist its deceitful siren song? If a jury of your peers were to examine your life and bank accounts and every action, would they believe that you are strongly motivated (even primarily motivated) by money? Are you poor and wealth mocks you? Are you wealthy, immersed in luxury and oblivious to the needs of the poor? Do you act as if the money you can store up will guarantee your retirement? Do I?


Father, the sin of greed is so chameleon-like. It hides under so many guises. Forgive me for greed, and keep my heart owned by you. Set my Christian brothers and sisters free from bondage to greed. Show us all how to keep money in its proper place, in a godly balance in our lives. In Jesus' name, I pray. Amen.

Key Verse

"Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions." (Luke 12:15)


Click on the link below to discuss on the forum one or more of the questions that follow -- your choice.

  1. Count the number of times you find the personal pronouns "I," "me," "my" in verses 13-21. What is the significance of this?
  2. How would you define greed? What other areas of life besides material wealth can greed affect?
  3. Does concern for justice in financial matters always involve greed? (12:13) How can you tell if it does or not?
  4. Is it more likely for a poor man or a rich man to be greedy? Why did you choose the answer you did?
  5. The rich man seems like a wise agribusinessman. Where does Jesus fault him? What was the man's error?
  6. How does one become rich towards God? (12:21)
Discipleship Training in Luke's Gospel, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Lessons compiled in 805-page book in paperback, Kindle, & PDF.


Abbreviations and References

[508] Werner Foerster, klēronomos, ktl., TDNT 3:769, notes that "in the papyri klēronomos denotes specifically the heir of real property or goods, whereas he who simply receives movable property is never called by this name. In other words, the term is linked with essential possession."

[509] Merizō, BAGD 504.

[510] Marshall, Luke, p. 522.

[511] See Marvin R. Wilson, "Rabbi," ISBE 4:30; George Foot Moore, Judaism 3:15 (Hendrickson, reprinted from 1930 edition).

[512] Kritēs, BAGD 453.

[513] Meristēs, BAGD 505.

[514] Plēonexia, BAGD 667.

[515] Merriam-Webster, p. 511.

[516] Ibid., pp. 79, 30.

[517] Phylassō, BAGD 868.

[518] Chōra, BAGD 889.

[519] Chōra, Thayer, 674.

[520] Euphoreō, BAGD 327.

[521] Synagō, BAGD 782.

[522] Apothēkē, BAGD 91.

[523] Apothēkē, Thayer 61.

[524] Kathaireō, BAGD 386.

[525] Avraham Negev (ed.), The Archaeological Encyclopedia of the Holy Land (Revised Edition; Thomas Nelson, 1986), p. 357. Also in Edward M. Blaiklock, "Storehouses," The New International Dictionary of Biblical Archaeology (Edward M. Blaiklock and R.K. Harrison, general editors; Zondervan, 1983), p. 424.

[526] Aphron, BAGD 127.

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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