A Shrewd Fool—The Rich Farmer*

Guest Writer Clovis G Chappell

“Soul, you have much goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, and be merry” (Luke 12:20).

Jesus gave a parable to them, saying, “The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully: and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I don’t have enough room to store my fruit …. I know: I will pull down my barns and build bigger, and there will I store all my fruit and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have much goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, and be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool, this night your soul will be required of you: then whose will those things be that you have stored?’ So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:16-21).

I count with confidence on your interest in this sermon. You will be interested, in the first place, because the picture that our Lord has given us in this wonderful story is the picture of a real man. This farmer is no wax figure. He is no bloodless nonentity. He is altogether human. And we are interested in real folk. Then we are interested in this man, in the second place, because he is successful.

We are naturally interested in the people who make good. If you go out on the street tomorrow and start to tell your friends how you failed, the chances are that they will turn their back on you to listen to the man, with triumph in his face and victory in his voice, who is telling how he succeeded. We are great success worshipers. And the man who wins the prizes of life interests us keenly.

But there is a shock for us in the story. The Master calls our shrewd hero a fool. “You fool.” That is a harsh and jarring word. It insults us. It shakes its fist in our face. It cuts us like a whip. It offends us. We do not like the ugly name in the least.

“You fool.” Our Master frowns on our using such language at all (Matthew 5:22). He will not trust us with such a sharp sword. He will not suffer us to hurl such a thunderbolt. He forbids us, under a terrible penalty, to call our brother a fool. And yet He calls this keen and successful farmer a fool. And He doesn’t do so lightly and flippantly, but, it seems, there rings through it scorn and indignation—positive anger, anger that is all the more terrible because it is the anger of love.

Why did the Master call this man a fool? He did not get the idea from the man himself. This well-to-do farmer would never have spoken of himself in that way. He regarded himself as altogether fit and mentally well furnished. Nor did the Master get His idea from the man’s neighbors. They looked on this man with admiration. There may have been a bit of envy mingled with their admiration, but they certainly did not regard him as a fool. They no more did so than we today regard the man that is like him a fool.

Why then did the Master label him with this ugly name? It was not that He was prejudiced against him. Jesus was no soured misanthrope. He was no snarling cynic. He did not resent a man merely because he had made a success. He was not an IWW [Industrial Workers of the World union or “Wobblies”] growling over real or fancied wrongs. No, the reason that Jesus called him a fool is that no other name would fit.

It is well, however, that the Master labeled this picture. If He had not done so, you and I might have been tempted to put the wrong label on it. We might have labeled it “The Wise Man,” or some such fine name. But if we had done so, it would have been a colossal blunder. If we had done so, I am persuaded that the very fiends would have howled with derisive laughter. For when we see this man as he is, when we see him through the eyes of Him who sees things clearly, then we realize that there is only one name that will fit him. Then we know that that one name is the short ugly one by which he is called—“Fool” (cf Psalm 49:10, 11).

But why is he a fool? In what does his foolishness consist? Certainly it does not consist in the fact that he has made a success. He is not a fool simply because he is rich. The Bible is a tremendously reasonable book. It is the very climax of sanity. It is the acme of good common sense. It never rails against rich men simply because they are rich. It no more does that than it lauds poor men because they are poor. It frankly recognizes the danger incident to the possession of riches (1 Timothy 6:9-11, 17-19). It makes plain the fact that the rich man is a greatly tempted man. But never is he condemned simply because he is rich.

The truth of the matter is that riches in themselves are counted neither good nor bad, neither moral nor immoral. The Bible recognizes money as a real force. What is done with this force depends on the one who controls it. Money is condensed energy. It is pent-up power. It is lassoed lightning. It is a Niagara that I can hold in my hand and put into my pocket. It is a present-day Aladdin’s lamp. If I possess this lamp, a million genii stand ready to do my bidding. Whatever service I demand, that will they do, whether that service look toward the making of men or the wrecking of men.

In case I live for self, they are able to assist me in all my selfish enterprises. They can provide a winter palace in the city and a summer palace in the mountains or down by the sea. They can adorn my walls with the choicest of paintings. They can put the finest of carpets on my floors. They can make possible tours abroad and private boxes at the theater. They can search the treasure houses of the world and bring to me their rarest jewels. They can give me a place among the select four hundred, with whole columns about me in the society page of the Metropolitan Daily.

Even this is not all. If I, their master, am so minded, these powerful genii will defeat for me the ends of justice. They will override the Constitution. They will enable me to stain the very flag of my own country. They will make it possible for me at times to disregard the rights of others. When occasion demands, they may even purchase at my desire the honor of manhood and the virtue of womanhood.

On the other hand, if I am a good man, I may set these genii to the doing of tasks great and worthwhile. I may command them to give clothing to the naked and food to the hungry. I can order them to build better schools for the education of the world. I can compel them to build better churches for the worship of God. I can send them with a chance in their hands for the unfortunate and the handicapped. I can make it impossible for one to say of that bright lad—

But knowledge to his eyes her ample scroll,
Rich with the spoils of time, did ne’er unroll.
Chill penury repressed his noble rage,
And froze the genial current of the soul.
~Thomas Gray, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1750)

In fact, there is no high task that man is called on to perform but that these mighty genii can assist him. They can help “to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised” (Luke 4:18). They can even make their master “friends” who will one day “receive him into everlasting habitations” (Luke 16:9).

Dug from the mountainside, washed in the glen,
Servant am I of the Master of men.
Earn me, I bless you; steal me, I curse you;
Grip me and hold me, a fiend shall possess you.
Lie for me, die for me, covet me, take me,
Angel or devil, I am what you make me.
~Arthur Guiterman, “Gold

Nor was this man a fool because he had accumulated his wealth honestly. The man who does accumulate wealth dishonestly is a fool. So says the Prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 17:11), and every clear-thinking man must agree with him. There is a way of acquiring wealth that makes money a curse rather than a blessing. There is a way of obtaining money that makes the very eagle on it to turn vulture to tear at your heart.

But this man had not made his money after that fashion. He had never run a saloon nor a gambling house nor a sweatshop. There is no hint that he had failed to pay an adequate wage to his laborers. James calls on the rich men of his day to “weep and howl” (James 5:1) because they were guilty in this respect. But no such charge as this is laid against this man. Nor had he robbed the widow or the fatherless (cf Isaiah 10:2; Malachi 3:5). “An orphan’s curse will drag to hell a spirit from on high” (Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” 1834), but no such curse was on this man.

How had he made his money? He had made it in a way that is considered the most honest and upright that is possible. He had made his money farming. Listen: “The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully.” The ground. It smacks of cleanliness, honesty, uprightness.

“The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully.” When I read that, I am back on the old farm again. As I read it, there comes before me a vision of my boyhood home. I see the old white house under the hill. I see the sturdy apple trees in front of it and the forest of beech, oak, and chestnut stretching away in the distance back of it. I can hear the lowing of the cattle and the neighing of the horses and the crowing of the cock in the barnyard. I can hear the call of the bobwhite to his mate, and the song of the catbird in the thicket at the end of the row. I can feel the caress of the fresh upturned sod under my bare feet. I can catch the fragrance of the new mown hay. I can see myself coming home in the gloaming “as the day fades into golden and then into gray and then into deep blue of the night sky with its myriad of stars that blossom at twilight’s early hour like lilies on the tomb of day.” And when I come home, I come to a night of restful sleep, because I have come from a clean day’s work. No, this man was not a fool because he had gotten his money dishonestly. He had made it honestly, every dollar of it.

Nor was he a fool because he set about thoughtfully to save what he had made. The Bible sets no premium on wastefulness. God lets us know that to waste anything of value is not only foolish but wicked. What was the sin of the Prodigal Son? It was this, that he “wasted his substance with riotous living” (Luke 15:13). He spent his treasure without any adequate return.

That is the tragedy of a great number of us. I do not charge you with outrageous and disgraceful wickedness. But it is true that you are not investing your life in the highest possible way. You are squandering yourself on things of secondary value. And to you God is speaking as he spoke centuries ago: “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread and your labor for that which satisfies not?” (Isaiah 55:2). You have no right to waste yourself, and you have as little right to waste your money, which represents a part of yourself.

No, the foolishness of this man was not that he sought to save what he had made. That is right. That is sensible. To do otherwise is at once wicked and little. Big things do not waste. This is a big globe on which we live, but it has never lost one single drop of water nor one single grain of sand since God flung it into space. And even Jesus Christ Himself, the Lord of the universe, commanded His disciples after He had fed the multitude, to “gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost” (John 6:12). Thrift is common sense.

Why then, I repeat, does Christ call this man a fool? His foolishness lay fundamentally in the fact that he was a practical atheist. He had no sense of God. He lived as if the fact of God were a lie. I do not think for a moment that he claimed to be an atheist. I have no doubt that he was orthodox, that he went to the synagogue or to the Temple every Sabbath or Feast Day. But, practically, he was an utter atheist. And what is true of him is equally true of many another man who stands up every Sunday in church to recite his creed.

How do we know that he is an atheist? We know it by hearing him think. Listen: “He thought to himself.” Now, then, we are going to get to see this man as he really is. You can’t always tell what a man is by the way he looks. He may look like a flower, but be a serpent underneath. He may smile and smile, as Hamlet tells us, and be a villain. You can’t always tell what he is by what he says. He may speak high sentiments to which his heart is a stranger. Nor can you tell him by what he does. He may “do his alms” simply to be seen of men (Matthew 6:1-4). But if you can go behind the scenes and see his thoughts, then you will know him. Tell me, man, what you think to yourself and I will tell you what you are. For “as a man thinks in his heart, so is he” (Proverbs 23:7).

Now, what did this man think? “He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I don’t have enough room to store my fruit …. I know: I will pull down my barns and build bigger, and there will I store all my fruit and my goods.” Now we see him. When he thought, he had not one single thought of God. God was as ignored as if He didn’t exist. This thoughtless omission was the very fountain source of this man’s foolishness. He reckoned without God, and the man who reckons without God is a fool.

Look now how this fatal foolishness casts its blight over his entire character. Reckoning without God, of course, he has no sense of divine ownership. Quite naturally, therefore, he thinks that because he possesses a farm, he owns a farm. Possession and ownership mean the same thing to a man who ignores God. When you hear this man talk, you find that the only pronouns in his vocabulary are “me,” “myself,” and “I,” not to mention “my” and “mine.” He knows only the grammar of atheism. He is acquainted only with the vocabulary of the fool. “He,” “we,” and “you” … “his,” “ours,” and “yours” are not found in the fool’s vocabulary.

Faith, on the other hand, makes large use of the word “His.” It recognizes the fact that “the earth is the Lord’s, and its fullness” (Psalm 24:1). It believes in the big truth: “You are not your own. You are bought with a price” (1 Corinthians 6:19, 20). Faith, taking God into consideration, wisely reckons that you are His and that all that you possess is His. It does not concede to you the ownership of anything. And for any man anywhere today to claim that because he possesses a farm or a bank or a brain, that, therefore, he owns it, is to talk not the language of a wise man but the language of a fool.

This farmer’s reckoning without God not only led him to confuse possession and ownership. It also robbed him of his gratitude. Crops were abundant. The farmer had prospered wonderfully. But leaving God out of his thinking, there was no one for this farmer to thank for his success but himself. He never thought of taking hold of his sluggish soul and shaking it into wakefulness with this wise word, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits” (Psalm 103:2). He did not concede the Lord any part in it.

There are many men like him today.

I was pastor in a small town some years ago. There was in that town only one rich man. He had made the money that he possessed, and they called him a self-made man. One day a certain preacher, not myself, went to him to ask him for a donation for some charity. The preacher began by reminding this man of wealth how the Lord had blessed him. And what was the reply? It was about the meanest I ever heard. He said, “I know the Lord has blessed me, but I was there.”

“I was there.”

What he meant by that was that in reality the Lord had had nothing to do with it. “I did it all myself. In fact, if the Lord hadn’t made the world, I would have. So there is not a thing for which I ought to be thankful.”

Now, the man who has no gratitude is a fool. He is a fool because right thinking always leads to thanking. The only kind of thinking that does not do so is the thinking of the practical atheist, and the practical atheist is a fool.

Then, this farmer had no sense of obligation. This, too, is a natural outcome of his reckoning without God. Here is a man who is looking out on this same world on which the farmer is looking, and he says, “I am a debtor both to the Greek and to the barbarian, both to the wise and to the unwise” (Romans 1:14). The reason Paul says that is that he believes in God. God has blessed him and saved him and given him a wonderful salvation. Because of that fact he feels himself under infinite obligation to preach the gospel. But this man, this fool, has only himself to thank for his prosperity. Therefore, he has a right to use his wealth as he pleases. The man who has no sense of obligation, the man who tells you that he has a right to do as he pleases with his possessions, is proclaiming to you not a new rule of ethics. He is simply telling you in unmistakable language that he is a fool.

This rich farmer showed himself a fool, last of all, by the confidence that he placed in things. Ignoring God, he sought to find a substitute for God in abundant crops. He undertook to treat his soul as he would treat his sheep and his goats. Here he was: an immortal man. Here he was: destined to live when this old world has been a wreck since Adam and Eve. And what provision did he make for himself? The same that he made for his horses and his oxen and his asses. Of course, as one has pointed out, it was not foolish for him to make provision for the few years he might live. He was a fool for refusing to make provision for the eternity that he must live.

“Soul, you have much goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, and be merry” Did ever you hear words that were more stamped with moral idiocy? You can see from them that his soul had not fared well up to this time. You can easily tell from these words that his moral nature was starved and stunted. You can easily tell that all his accumulation had not satisfied him in the past, and yet he was vainly expecting satisfaction from it in the future. Now, it is obvious that the man who forgets God, who turns aside to the worship of things, plays the fool.

So you see why the Master calls this shrewd farmer a fool? He began by reckoning without God. He virtually said in his heart, “There is no God” (Psalm 14:1; 53:1). He went wrong in the very center of his nature. This put the blight of moral imbecility on his whole life. He turned to his possessions and sought to satisfy his soul with them. He received them without gratitude and held them without any sense of obligation, for he thought that to possess something was to own it.

Now the Master, lest we should pull our skirts about us and “thank God that we are not as other men are” (Luke 18:11), forces the truth home on our own hearts. “So,” He says, “is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.” That is, who reckons without God and lives only for himself. If you are living your life in selfishness, however respectable that selfishness may be, you are the same kind of fool and as great a fool as is this rich man of the story.

Now the tragedy of this story, I take it, is that the foolishness of this farmer was self-chosen. His riches might have been a blessing to him here and a blessing through all eternity. In spite of the fact that he was rich in this world’s goods, he might also have been, in the truest sense, rich toward God. In fact, he might have been richer toward God with his wealth than without it. With it he might have exercised a far larger usefulness than he could have done without it. But he chose to ignore God and to rob himself and thus brand himself a fool now and forever.

Don’t forget that you and I may make the same tragic wreck of our lives. The only way to avoid doing so is to go right where this man went wrong. There is a sure road to spiritual enrichment. “Though He was rich, yet for our sakes He became poor that we, through His poverty, might be rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). This wealth is no fabled bag of gold at the end of the rainbow. I can so direct you to this treasure that you will be sure to find it. This is the road: “Yield yourselves to God” (Romans 6:13). That is your first duty. That is your highest wisdom. Recognize God as owner of yourself. Recognize God as the owner of all that you have. Give all to Him, and He will give all to you. “For He who spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?” (Romans 8:32). To have that treasure is to be rich forever. To be thus rich is to be eternally wise.

“Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. Having food and clothes, let us be content”
(1 Timothy 6:7, 8).

Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee

Photo Credit: Farm

*Adapted from Clovis G Chappell [1882-1972], Sermons on Biblical Characters (New York: George H Doran, 1922; Richard R Smith, 1930), sermon 16. Quotes, scriptural locations, photos, links, emendations added.


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