The Bigger Barns Story.

by K.W. Leslie, 04 October 2021

Luke 12.13-21.

People wanna be rich.

Which I get. I’ve never been rich. My parents are retired and comfortable, but that’s only because their investments paid off: They didn’t have that kind of money while I was growing up. So I experienced food stamps, school lunch subsidies, thrift stores, buses, and free-clinic healthcare. I’ve been poor as an adult too. Not homeless; I nearly got that far. But I definitely learned how to get by on $5 a month. If that.

Poverty sucks. And not just because, in a thousand little ways, American society is no help at getting people out of poverty. Really, you can only save money when you have money—when you can afford to buy in bulk, or get the higher-level plan which happens to offer deep discounts, or afford the $100 shoes which last two years instead of the $10 shoes which last a month. (Well, three months with duct tape.)

Our culture’s popular myth is “Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps,” but y’notice most of the people who say that, don’t have boots and have no idea this is an ironic saying. Tell them your financial woes and they just shrug, “Work harder.” Or “Work smarter, not harder.” As if that bit of advice solves all our problems. When I was poor, my problem was if I worked smarter, I’d’ve figured out how to finish my work in half the time… so my boss would’ve cut my hours. Yep, that’s why most people and businesses don’t work smarter: No incentive!

Anyway, between being poor, and not being poor, I absolutely prefer not being poor. It’s nice to be able to look at one’s checking account and be pleasantly surprised. It’s nice to be able to give to charity out of one’s abundance.

But too many people don’t wanna merely be comfortable; they wanna be rich.

They wanna have so much money, they can afford anything their hearts covet. And they covet a lot of ridiculously expensive things. Stuff I look at and go, “Seriously?”—but yeah, they seriously want that. I don’t get it… but then again if they saw how many books are on my Kindle, they’d probably look at me funny too. To each their own, I suppose.

In some cases it’s not even about the stuff they covet. They just want the wealth. They want the power to do whatever they please. They’ll figure out later what it is they please; they’ll waste a lot of money trying to find it. But the point of all the wealth is they can afford to waste money.

And not work. Or at least not work hard. They wanna stumble into tons of money by doing something easy. The older folks I know keep trying to play the lottery, or hope to get lucky at the casino. The younger folks largely realize that’s foolish… so they’re trying really hard to become YouTube celebrities and Instagram influencers. Hey, some folks make millions of dollars doing that, and it doesn’t look all that hard to do. It certainly seems easier than serving unruly customers or cleaning bathrooms.

Again, I get it. Coveting wealth is a pretty common phenomenon. Especially in a culture which doesn’t believe status is a fixed thing—where you’re born into a caste, and can’t help but stay in it forever. We know too many examples of people who were born poor and became rich. (And vice versa.) The potential exists—even though it’s mighty hard to stumble into the thing which makes one rich.

But Jesus warns us against coveting wealth like that.

For many reasons… though you’ll quickly notice today’s parable actually doesn’t get into Jesus’s reasons. It’s really just his reminder that life is more important than wealth. Here y’go.

Luke 12.13-21 KWL
13 Someone in the crowd tells Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me!”
14 Jesus tells him, “Mister, who appointed me to be judge or arbiter over you two?”
15 Jesus tells the crowd, “Watch and guard yourselves from every obsession with wealth:
One’s life doesn’t ‘begin’ once they have a superabundance.”
16 Jesus tells a parable to the crowd, saying,
“Some rich person’s land was very productive,
17 and he was musing to himself, saying, ‘What could I do?—
I don’t have anywhere to collect my produce.’
18 He says, ‘I’ll do this. I’ll tear down my silos, and build bigger.
I’ll gather all the grain there, and my goods.
19 I’ll tell my soul, “Soul, you have many goods stored up for many years.
Retire! Eat! Drink! Rejoice!” ’
20 God tells him, ‘Look dumbass, this night they’re demanding your soul from you!
What happens to what you prepare?’
21 This is the way of those who store up treasure for themselves,
and aren’t wealthy in God.”

Ancient wealth.

This story is usually called the Parable of the Rich Man. But there are lots of stories in the bible about rich men, so that title can get confused with Jesus’s story of the rich man and Lazarus, or the rich man who had some of his slaves administer his talents. Others prefer to call this story the Parable of the Rich Fool.

The title I picked, comes from the part most folks remember: The guy planned to build bigger barns. “Barns” comes from the KJV:

Luke 12.18 KJV
And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods.

“Barn” comes from bere-ern, the Saxon term for “barley-house.” So, a granary, or silo. That’s why I translated ἀποθήκας/apothíkas, “storage,” as “silos.” But yeah, this guy was planning to keep all his ἀγαθά/ayathá, “good [things],” in his new buildings, so not just grain. I have a lot of hoarders in my family, and those who have barns tend to keep all sorts of junk in there.

So the guy in this story basically plans to build a treasure-house; the ancient middle eastern version of Scrooge McDuck’s money bin. All his wealth goes there, and he can swim in it, although not as literally as Scrooge does. And then, he figures, he can retire. Take it easy. Eat, drink, and be merry.

Thing is, ancient rich people couldn’t really afford to retire. Because they had to secure their money. Nowadays we have banks, bank insurance, and police. Those things didn’t exist back then, and you either had to secure your wealth yourself, or hire trustworthy people to do it for you. Because if thieves successfully got away with your money, it was gone. Which made it a real incentive for thieves to steal!

Ecclesiastes 10.12-13 KJV
12 The sleep of a labouring man is sweet, whether he eat little or much: but the abundance of the rich will not suffer him to sleep. 13 There is a sore evil which I have seen under the sun, namely, riches kept for the owners thereof to their hurt.

There have always been people who figure, “He’s rich; he doesn’t deserve that; I do; I’m taking it.” They’ll justify it to themselves every which way. They’ll justify it to us too, which is why heist movies entertain so many people: “Yeah he’s rich, but he’s a jerk, so it’s okay if these thieves rob him.” And nowadays we’ll justify it by telling ourselves, “He’s so rich, he’ll never miss it. Considering today’s billionaires, that’s largely true: The Independent recently estimated billionaire Jeff Bezos, at the then-current rate his wealth was increasing, gained about $8.56 million per hour. Rob him of a million, and he’d make it back within eight minutes. But such people will rob you whether you’re a billionaire or thousandaire; “He doesn’t deserve that” can be justified any which way.

And while Bezos rarely has to worry about the security of his money, the ancients absolutely had to. This guy who figured he had full silos, so he could take it easy? He was an idiot for lots of reasons. His neighbors might find out he had plenty of grain to spare, and tunnel into his silos to take some. Heck, rats could get in. There was no taking it easy with ancient wealth: You had to guard your wealth!

Poor people may not have realized this. Jesus’s audience may not have known this, nor cared. If you want to be rich badly enough, all your focus is gonna be on getting that wealth. Not holding onto it. Which is why, y’might notice, people who get wealthy quickly, tend to lose that money just as quickly. Whether they win the lottery or the NBA draft, they never thought about how to make sure they stayed rich; just about all the things they’d buy. For every Michael Jordan or Shaquille O’Neal who studied business and economics so they’d learn to grow their wealth and keep their millions, there are dozens of former basketball players who are now living paycheck to paycheck.

Wealth is not a reward, nor a sign, of wisdom! If it were, Jesus would’ve done the same as the Pharisees of his day did, and exalt it Lk 16.14 instead of critique it.

Destructive covetousness.

Contrary to popular belief, coveting actually isn’t a sin. The LORD only forbade us to covet what we can’t have. Don’t covet your neighbors’ stuff; that’s their stuff. Ex 20.17 But it can be okay to get our own… depending on its availability, what we can afford, and of course our motives.

And the problem in this story is the rich man’s motives. He has, as Jesus identifies, an obsession with wealth. Lk 12.15 The word Jesus uses is πλεονεξίας/pleönexías, which the KJV translates “covetousness” and other bibles render “greed.” But to the ancient Greeks, it means way more than mere greed. It means wanting far, far more than is healthy for you. It’s not just wanting an excessive amount of anything, be it money, power, food, or sex: It’s about wanting so much you’re willing to destroy yourself and others.

Pleönexía is to money, as anorexia is to food. It’s pathological: It’s a malfunction in the way humans, as messed up as we can be, think. The guy in this story only appears to be celebrating a better-than-average harvest, but since Jesus is talking about pleönexía, much more than that is going on here.

Jesus starts the story with “Some rich person”—meaning this guy was already rich. He wasn’t made rich by this one better-than-average harvest; he already had land and money. But since he suffered from pleönexía, he wanted more. One great big harvest that’d produce so much, he’d never have to work again. Probably he planned for that massive harvest, and bought plenty of land.

How big a harvest are we talking about? Something that wouldn’t just produce a year’s worth of grain, but enough years for the rest of the rich man’s life. Now yeah, the average lifespan back then was short, but those who lived comfortable lives could nonetheless live into their 70s and 80s, if not longer. So let’s say the guy was about Jesus’s age; in his 30s. He’d have maybe 50 years left. He therefore needed 50 harvests’ worth of grain. It’s not an impossible goal for a wealthy man: Just buy 50 fields.

Will the grain actually survive all those 50 years? Nope. Wouldn’t survive 10. So you can see right there how excessive this idea was.

Throw on top of this the fact God tells the guy (’cause yeah, God still talks to people; always has) he’s gonna die. Not just soon; tonight. The man’s looking at all his wealth and figuring, “It is well with my soul,” yet God tells him his soul has just become forfeit.

Nobody is quite sure what “they’re demanding your soul from you” exactly means. Most bibles dodge the problem by translating it, “your soul will be required,” implying God’s gonna take it from him. But the verb is ἀπαιτοῦσιν/apetúsin, “they demand.” Plural individuals are demanding it. Who are these beings? Like I said, nobody’s quite sure. Dark Christians posit it’s the devils, though the idea devils get the souls of the reprobate when they die is Christian mythology; it absolutely doesn’t come from bible. Other commentators figure it’s the angels of death, which is more biblical; the angels of death came to get Lazarus in Jesus’s other story, and bring him to Abraham. Lk 16.22 This guy still listens to God, so he’s still got some kind of faith-based relationship with him, so let’s not naïvely presume his greed sends him to hell.

But his greed hasn’t done him any good. He wastefully got way more grain than he could ever consume. He’s not gonna live long enough to enjoy it, either. It’s gonna rot in his silos. It could’ve helped the needy; instead it’s gonna feed rats.

Jesus far prefers we store up our treasure in heaven, not extra-large silos. We should further his kingdom with our time and efforts—like he put it at the end, we need to be “wealthy in God.” Lk 12.21 That won’t go to waste. Moth and rust won’t destroy it. Thieves won’t break in and steal it. Governments won’t tax it till there’s nothing left; heirs won’t fritter it away with bad management. Wealth must be given a purpose, and ideally a good one. Otherwise it just contributes to more pleönexía—to the fever dreams of people who really can’t be trusted with riches in the first place.

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