These Parables: The Rich Fool

This column is being written by a man who is grateful for having just offered the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and who is also trying to suppress his customary chagrin at the foul translation he was obliged to use. Today, the opening collect turned the Latin meaning practi­cally upside down, and then a rubric provided the option of a shortened form of the Gospel (Matthew 22:1-11) for those who did not have time to listen to three concluding verses in Matthew’s account of the parable of the wedding feast. If only read and not chanted, it would have imposed an extra 30 seconds. Luke does not include those lines, but he follows the parable with other lines equally severe. A paranoia nurtured by experience of liturgists prompts the suspicion that there is an aversion to talk of obedience and punishment to outer darkness, and a tendency to reduce all the parables to Morality-Lite and salvation to sentimental universalism. There may come a time, if inscrutable providence permits these meddlers to live, when a rubric will drop the word “not” from several of the Ten Commandments “to save time.”

The parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:13-21) might be subject to the same butchery by cutting out the last sen­tence: “Thus it is with the man who lays up treasure for himself, and has no credit with God.” For this parable, inseparable from the psychology of prudence and greed, is incomplete unless understood as a hymn of saving grace. An ethical-culturist would keep it on the placid level of the natural virtues; Christ illuminates those virtues so that keys to proper conduct become keys to heaven.

A pedant, capable of listening to St. Francis’s canticle of the animals and responding with Mr. Gradgrind’s defi­nition of a donkey, hears Our Lord preach on the angels and the Holy Spirit, and raises his hand to ask a question about the settlement of an estate. He reminds one of the man who asked Maisie Ward at the end of a bril­liant speech, “Mrs. Ward, do you have the time?” At least the man in Jerusalem was impressed enough by Jesus, whom he must have thought a clever chap, that he hoped an opinion might persuade his brother to hand over half an acre. Jesus does not respond with the righteous wrath that tossed the money changers out of the temple (update that to ripping out electric votive lights). With the bemusement of a speaker in Hyde Park heckled by a particularly silly remark, He addresses him with studied iciness: “Why, man, who has appointed me a judge to make awards between you?” Christ’s measure of the covetous man is evident when He showers him with an over plus of moral glory in the form of a parable about a “fool.” He uses the word in just two other parables: the two builders and the ten virgins. As this man counts his success by what he has and not what he is, he probably was too obtuse to feel indicted.

The rich fool envisioned life with very limited bounds. That, and not his wealth, made him foolish. To gain wealth usually involves industry, intelli­gence, patience, and frugality, and as a sum, they can make a very good man out of a man. The foolishness lies in equating one’s good with goods, just as Adam and Eve fell by pluralizing “god.” The rich fool built bigger barns to store his wealth, oblivious to the counsel of St. Augustine: “You have barns—the bosoms of the needy, the houses of widows, the mouths of orphans and wid­ows.” So the poor rich man in the parable finds that mortal goods do not confer immortal goodness, and he is like Citizen Kane, whose silent death is followed by the banging of the auctioneer’s hammer: “Going once, going twice, sold.” The Chippendale chairs are carted away, his Mercedes glides off with an unsympathetic driver behind the wheel, and rough hands crate the expensive mirror in which he used to contemplate his prosperous jowls.

Greed is the desire for more than another has. Covetousness is the desire for what another has, just for the sake of having it. The two moral coagulants are a recipe for misery, for if a man’s definition of one’s good is that limited, his capacity for self-deception is limitless. A man so deceived can never be happy, as his happiness is posited on the unhappiness of others. It is the opposite of why we were made: to give God delight. Ultimately, the rich fool denies himself the happiness that comes from giving happiness to God. As God is God, He does not need more happiness, but He gives us multiples of what we give Him. The fool who locks up what he has, finds that he is locking himself out of all that God has to offer.

  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael's church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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