The land of a rich man produced 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 tear down my barns and build larger 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; relax, eat, drink, 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 the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God (Luke 12:16-21).
At first glance, it's hard to know what this man did wrong. He seems like the sort of man any of us would want as a church member.
There is no hint in the story that he was a cheat, a crook or a scoundrel. Jesus never suggests that he obtained his money by unethical means. He doesn't seem to be the sort of man who tried to take advantage of his friends when they were in trouble. He wasn't a loan shark or a shady lawyer or a dishonest merchant. If he ever tried to hurt anyone, Jesus doesn’t mention it.
He was a farmer. That's a noble profession. We wouldn't eat if there weren't farmers to grow the crops and tend the herds. Since moving to Mississippi 20 months ago, I've come to a new appreciation of what farmers do. In this part of the world, they grow cotton, soybeans, peanuts, corn, rice, onions, sugar cane and sweet potatoes. And they raise cattle and hogs and chickens. It's hard work, not just the physical part, which is hard enough, but today's farmer has to be an economist, financier, business executive and computer expert on top of all the things he has to know about growing crops and raising animals. It's a 24/7 job and only the strong need apply. Lazy farmers won't last very long, and even the hardworking ones have a tough time making it. Right now we're suffering through a severe drought in the South, one of the worst in years, that has affected the growing season. The farmers are hoping and praying for rain to come, just in time but not too much because the water that produces the crops can destroy the harvest if it comes at the wrong time. Then there are bugs and diseases of various kinds. And even though today's farmer has a wide variety of pesticides to choose from, the bugs seem to get smarter every year. It's a hard life being a farmer, and even though you can find plenty of third- and fourth- and even fifth-generation farms, it true that many young people see how hard their parents have to work to keep the farm going, and they soon decide things look better in Memphis or Atlanta or Dallas or Chicago.
You have to love the land to be a farmer, and you have to have perseverance to stay at it year after year. Among other things, a certain stoic resolve is required. A sudden disease can wipe out a herd or a late rain can ruin a crop and destroy your savings. A man can be farming today and bankrupt tomorrow. Sometimes it happens to those with the best of intentions. Anyone looking for an easy life should look elsewhere.
So when you find a man who has made his fortune in farming, you know that he must have had a strong work ethic, he found some good land, he has good business sense, he knows how to manage his resources well, and he has good fortune on his side. You may think I'm overdoing it, but we can't grasp the point of Jesus' parable unless we give this man his due.
You really can't fault him for anything he did. We can go further and say that he did what he was supposed to do. He farmed his way to the top. He was so successful that he had a bumper crop. I have seen those mountains of grain when the harvest has come in. Sometimes they pile it up by the side of the road so it will dry before they store it. But sooner or later the farmer has to find a place to store it. He needs a barn or a silo or someplace else to keep it.
His Success Overwhelmed His Capacity
That really was this man's problem. His success had overwhelmed his capacity. He had all the grain he needed, more than he expected, and he had nowhere to put it. So he decided to build some barns to hold all the grain.
That's a wonderful problem to have. It's like having . . .
More money than you can spend.
More food than you can eat.
More clothes than you can wear.
More cars than you can drive.
More TVs than you can watch.
More rings than you have fingers.
More gifts than you have friends.
More homes than you can visit.
More beds than you can sleep in.
More lawn than you can mow.
More house than you can clean.
More yachts than you can sail.
More planes than you can fly.
More cattle than you can count.
More games than you can play.
Most of us think that's a nice problem to have. To have so much of everything that you need nothing at all. You have more of everything that matters in life.
Before going on, let me spell out this one key insight. Jesus is not condemning this man for working hard and being successful. The problem is not his outward success. The problem was in his heart. And that's what makes this story so tricky — and so universally true.
This isn't a parable about the dangers of being rich and successful.
This is a parable the dangers of having the wrong kind of heart.
And that can happen to any of us — rich or poor, young or old, male or female, American or Bengali.
Marlene and I have had a chance to think about this a lot in the last twenty months. When we left Oak Park to move to Mississippi, we gave away a lot of what we owned. What we couldn’t give away, we threw away. We disposed of a great deal of what we had accumulated over the last three decades. Some of it was old and worn out. Some of it we didn't need since the boys aren't living with us any more. Some of it we simply didn't want to bother with. Now that we are empty nesters, we're de-accumulating. Besides our furniture and our clothes and various household items, my books constituted the largest part of what we carried with us when we moved.
Box after box after box of books, most of them heavy, all of them packed tight, sorted only in the most general sense, and mostly just jumbled together. I had dozens of boxes of books that went from my office to our garage to the truck to the lodge on the other side of the lake. For months they stayed in boxes against the wall. Eventually I opened them up and put them on a long table in what once was the indoor recreation area at the lodge when it used to be a church camp 25 years ago. There my books collected dust and heavy Mississippi humidity during the summer months. Several times Marlene asked me what I was going to do with those books. To be fair I should add that over the years I have discarded hundreds of books, given some away, and still I have hundreds of books in those boxes. Here's what I discovered. I didn't need most of those books. Some of them I had carted from Dallas to California to Dallas to Chicago and then to Mississippi. The number of those books that I had actually consulted was very small indeed. Maybe I looked at them once or twice and then put them away. When I had those books covering three walls of my office in Oak Park, people used to say, "Have you read all those books?" And I would reply, "I've read parts of all of them." Which was loosely true, with an emphasis on the word "parts." A lot of those books I hadn't used in twenty years.
Part of it is technological. More and more books are available either on the Internet or on CDs. I imagine the day will come when you can have a collection of 50,000 books on just one DVD. For all I know, that day may already be here.
Of Making Many Books
But having those books made me feel secure. If consulting five books is good, ten is better and twenty is better still, even though the last ten say the same thing as the first ten. Solomon explained all this 3000 years ago when he said, "Of making many books there is no end" (Ecclesiastes 12:12) or as The Message puts it, "There's no end to the publishing of books." I am living proof of the truth of those words. Let's be clear about this. There is nothing wrong with writing books or owning books.But life is more than books. Woe to the man who thinks that his books matter a whit in the eternal scheme of things.
But there is more I wish to say about this. Recently — just within the last week — Marlene and I have moved from the cabin in the woods into a nice home in Tupelo. When I say a nice home, I mean that it is the newest home we've ever owned. It's only a year and a half old, beautifully finished, on a half-acre of land on the north side of town, near the airport. It's also the smallest house we've ever owned. It's a spacious kind of cozy, but there are three bedrooms, with one being my office, so we have plenty of room to do what we need to do. So this move meant going to the lodge on the other side of the lake, taking our things out of storage, loading them in a borrowed truck, and taking them to our new home. Like I said, we gave away or discarded lots of things when we moved, but we still had all those boxes of books that I had discovered I didn't really need. So do you know where they are now? They're still in the lodge on the other side of the lake. Why move something you haven't used and probably won't need in the future? And if I do need one of those books, I can always go out there and dig through the boxes to find it.
We're very happy in our new home, and very grateful to God for his provision, part of which came in a way that seems miraculous to us. Moving ought to cause you to take stock of your life. One of my college professors who had moved many times said that every time you move, you lose 20% of what you own. If you move five times, you end up replacing everything. Let’s see. We moved from Dallas to California (1) back to Dallas (2) to north Oak Park (3) to central Oak Park (4) to the cabin in the woods (5) to our new home in Tupelo (6). I think my professor was right. We have almost nothing left from the early years, we gave away a lot when we moved from Oak Park, and we’re replacing some things that didn’t survive this move or the storage in the lodge. And most of us as we grow older find that we can live a lot simpler than we could years ago. David reflects this truth in Psalm 131:2, "But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me." A weaned child has learned that he no longer needs what he thought he could never live without. Even so the Lord takes from us those things we thought we had to have so that our trust will be in him alone.
The Upwardly-Mobile Fool
The rich farmer did well in so many ways. He worked hard, he played by the rules, he spent his money wisely, he found good land, he worked it in the hot sun, he planted and he irrigated and when the harvest came in, he was rewarded far beyond his expectations. He planned to build more barns because he had so much that he couldn’t care for all of it. Let me repeat what I said in the beginning. I find it very hard to criticize this man. He did what any of us would have done.
In fact, this is exactly the sort of man we want in our churches. When we find a man like this, we cultivate him, we build a relationship, we invite him to a special dinner, we make he gets the red carpet treatment. A man like that could do a ministry a lot of good. We might make him the chairman of the elder board because he is such a good businessman.
The lesson of this parable will be lost on us if we think that Jesus is criticizing him for being rich. That's not his problem. His problem isn't his wealth or his plans to expand his buildings. That was all quite commendable.
Jesus condemned this man because he forgot one fact. He forgot that he was going to die someday. And what then? Someone else will have all that he owns. An old Italian proverbs says, "The last robe has no pockets." Billy Graham likes to say that he has never seen a Brinks truck following a hearse. There is no point is asking how much a man left because the answer is always, "He left all of it."
Naked we come into the world,
Naked we will leave the world.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
Harry Bollback told me recently that he had been collecting some memorabilia about the life of Jack Wyrtzen — important papers, crucial correspondence, that sort of thing. Harry said that the stack ended up being several feet tall. He said that he had done the same thing when one of his aunts died. Her stack was very thin, only an inch or two. "But they're both gone," he said. That's exactly the point.
Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief.
Death plays no favorites.
Let me draw one simple application from all this and I will be done. I can state it this way. Hold lightly what you value greatly because it isn't yours anyway. In one of his books Watchman Nee said that we approach God like little children with open hands, begging for gifts. Because he is a good God, he fills our hands with good things — life, health, friends, money, success, recognition, challenge, marriage, children, a nice home, a good job, all the things that we count at Thanksgiving when we count our blessings. And so like children, we rejoice in what we have received and run around comparing what we have with each other. When our hands are finally full, God says, “My child, I long to have fellowship with you. Reach out your hand and take my hand. But we can’t do it because our hands are full. “God, we can’t,” we cry. “Put those things aside and take my hand,” he replied. “No, we can’t. It’s too hard to put them down.” “But I am the one who gave them to you in the first place.” “O God, what you have asked for is too hard. Please don’t ask us to put these things aside.” And God answers quietly, “You must.”
I learned this truth the hard way twenty years ago. It happened in another time and another place when I thought I was on top of the world. Everything looked so good to me. One day a friend dropped by to see me. “Do you have a few minutes to talk, Pastor Ray?” “Of course,” I replied, “Come in.” After a few minutes of conversation, she came to her point. “Pastor Ray, you have to let go. You’re holding on too tightly.”
How a Good Thing Becomes an Idol
It was one of those moments where from the first word of that sentence I knew exactly what she was going to say. And I knew she was right. Deep in my heart, I had known it for a long time but didn’t want to face the truth. I was holding on to something so tightly that it had become an idol to me, something dearer than life itself. Before you ask, let me say simply that the thing was not evil or bad. In fact, it was a good thing that had become an idol that I dared not give up (an idol is anything good that becomes too important in your life).
One year passed and things in my little world began to fall apart. Through a long string of circumstances I found myself facing a tragedy. Looking back I can see clearly that God was prying my fingers off that “thing” one by one. But when he got down to the thumb, I fought back. I didn’t want to give it up. But God is stronger than any man and eventually he pulled my thumb off. As the wise man said, your arms are too short to box with God. I gave my idol back to him, but when I gave it back, I saw clearly that it was no pagan idol, but something good that had become too important in my life. In the end God took back that which had always belonged to him in the first place.
One Sunday afternoon during this personal crisis I took a long walk and began to meditate on 1 Peter 4:19 (NIV), “So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good." The little phrase “according to God’s will” caught my attention. I realized that it had been many years since I had been concerned about doing God’s will. Once that had been a consuming passion; now I hardly ever thought about it.
And I remembered my friend’s admonition: “Ray, you need to let go.” As I walked, I held out an open palm and began to let go. Little by little, I released the things in my life that I had been holding onto so tightly. As I did, I felt an enormous sense of relief, as if God were saying, “It’s about time.”
God orchestrates the affairs of life — both the good and the bad — to bring us to the place where our faith will be in him alone. Slowly but surely as we go through life, he weans us away from the things of the world. At first the process touches only our possessions (which we can replace), but eventually it touches our relationships (which may not be replaced), then it touches our loved ones (who cannot be replaced), finally it touches life itself (which is never replaced). Then there is nothing left but us and God.
Through all this process our Heavenly Father leads us along the pathway of complete trust in him. Slowly but surely we discover that the things we thought we couldn’t live without don’t matter as much as we thought they did. Even the dearest and sweetest things of life take second place to the pleasure of knowing God. In the end we discover that he has emptied our hands of everything and then filled them with himself.
Hold Lightly What God Has Given You
In writing these words I am aware that I only dimly understand their full meaning. At this point in my life I still have many things in my hands — my wife, my three boys, a wonderful daughter-in-law and another one coming soon, my friends, my career, my health, my dreams, my plans for the future. But the process of growing older is nothing more than this — learning to hold lightly the things God has given you, knowing that you can’t keep them forever anyway. At any moment, he can take them away — one by one, two at a time, or all of them together. Or he could take back the life he gave me 54 years ago.
If I have any advice for you, it is this. Learn to hold lightly what God has given you. You can’t keep it forever and you can’t take it with you.
Some of you who read these words are in the midst of a great struggle in your life. You feel pressured about something and you don’t want to give it up. But you must... and you will. I can’t spare you the pain of yielding your dearest treasures to God, but I promise you the joy will far outweigh the pain you feel right now.
We call the story Jesus told the parable of the rich fool. But he wasn't a fool because he was rich. He was a fool because he tried to hold on to what was never his in the first place.
Don't be a fool!
Let go of the things you own.
Hold lightly what you value greatly.
It all belongs to God anyway.