Take care and guard against all greed. Today’s Gospel is a challenging parable on wealth and discipleship. Someone in the crowd calls out to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me.” Jesus is not interested in settling this family dispute. Instead, as he often does in Luke, he issues a warning – “take care to guard against all greed” and pivots to a parable about greed and wealth as barriers to a life of discipleship.
He begins “there was a rich man whose land produced a bountiful harvest. He asked himself, ‘what shall I do for I do not have space to store my harvest?’ and he said, ‘This is what I shall do: I shall tear down my barns and build larger ones. There I shall store all my grain and other goods and I shall say to myself, ‘Now as for you, ‘you have so many good things stored up for many years.’” At this point, God comes to speak to the rich man and chastises him – informing him that he will die this night and what good will his giant barns be then?
In God’s rebuke, I hear the echoes of my high school Catechetics teacher, Sr. Anne Julie: “Remember, students there is no luggage rack on a hearse. A life of discipleship cannot be found by seeking wealth.” Today’s readings draw this out reminding, as we heard in the first reading, “all things are vanity!” from the Book of Ecclesiastes. Taken together these two readings emphasize the absurdity of focusing on wealth and inheritance – we do not find security in these things. Just as he has accumulated significant wealth, the rich man learns he will die.
Throughout the Christian tradition, this parable has been used to warn against selfishness and a lack of generosity. In response to great wealth, he is self-centered. For St. John Chrysostom, “there is nothing more wretched than such an attitude. In truth, he took down his barns; for the safe barns are not walls but the stomachs of the poor.” Chrysostom sees wealth and poverty as connected. The parable itself challenges traditional positive notions of wealth. Unlike the parable of the Unjust Steward or the Rich Man and Lazarus, notes Zimbabwean scholar Henry Mugabe, “there is no dishonesty connected with his actions rather the surprising criticism made against him is simply that he sought to hold onto more possessions than he needed.” The desire for wealth is presented as a barrier to one’s relationship with God.
Luke’s parables about money are ultimately parables about discipleship and the Gospels make quite clear “discipleship in the kingdom of God requires a major redirection of how one thinks about and uses material possessions.” The Rich Fool helps us remember that private property is not absolute. The goods of the earth are never really just “mine” to do with as I please. Private property always comes with a social mortgage, always exists within a relational context. At the beginning, the parable notes he is a rich man before the harvest – therefore we know that he did not harvest the grain alone. In his selfishness, he has forgotten to include his workers in his deliberation. His success is not shared but extracted from the common good. This is an example of the economic exclusion Pope Francis so often decries. As we look around our world, are profits shared among all stake-holders? Are the workers benefitting from record-breaking profits? Or like the rich man, do executives and corporate boards simply seek to build bigger barns?
In Catholic social teaching, private property is always subordinated to the universal destination of goods. “God gave the earth to the whole human race for the sustenance of all its members, without excluding or favoring anyone,” noted St. John Paul II. The Gospel itself points us in this direction framing the narrative - it is the land that prospers, not the rich man. The bountiful harvest is for the good of all people, not just the landowner. Thinking about the parable in light of the universal destination of goods reveals that the rich man’s selfishness is not merely a failure of generosity but also a violation of justice.
As I write this reflection, the news is full of reports of unsanitary and unsafe conditions in private detention facilities holding children separated from their parents by the US Government. Women, children and men fleeing poverty and violence in Central America to our border seeking asylum and safety. Yet, some simply respond, “they’re not our children” pushing off responsibility to care for them as brothers and sisters. If we take seriously Colossians, that “Christ is all and in all,” – no one is excluded. Christ is in these migrants; they are part of the one human family. For this reason, the universal destination of goods and the preferential option for the poor are inextricably connected. And so we pray, with Psalm 90, against the hardening of our hearts so that we remember “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
John Chrysostom, St. John Chrysostom on Wealth and Poverty (trans. Catharine P. Roth; Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1984).p. 43
Henry Mugabe, “Parable of the Rich Fool: Luke 12:13-21” Review & Expositor, Vol 111 (1) 67-73, 2014 (p. 70).
Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, (Eerdmans, 2018) p. 244.
See: Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, 2013, #53-60
John Paul II, Centesimus Annus (On the Hundredth Year),1991, # 31. http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_01051991_centesimus-annus.html
Meghan J. Clark
Meghan J. Clark, Ph.D., is an associate professor of moral theology at St John’s University (NY). At St. John’s, Dr. Clark engages students inside and outside the classroom on diverse topics in moral theology and Catholic social thought. She is a senior fellow of the Vincentian Center for Church and Society and serves as a faculty expert for the Holy See’s Mission to the United Nations. In 2015, Dr. Clark was a Fulbright Scholar to the Hekima Institute for Peace Studies and International Relations at Hekima University College, Nairobi, Kenya. She has conducted fieldwork on human rights and solidarity in Sudan, Kenya, Ethiopia and Tanzania. In May 2018, she was a Visiting Residential Research Fellow at the Centre for Catholic Studies at the University of Durham (UK).
She is author of The Vision of Catholic Social Thought: the Virtue of Solidarity and the Praxis of Human Rights (Fortress Press, 2014) and co-editor of Public Theology and the Global Common Good: The Contribution of David Hollenbach (Orbis, 2106), both of which were awarded first place prizes from the Catholic Press Association Book Awards. She contributed the commentary on Caritas in Veritate in the 2nd edition of Modern Catholic Social Teaching: Commentaries and Interpretationsedited by Kenneth Himes from Georgetown University Press (2017). Active in public theology, she is a columnist for US Catholic magazine and a contributor to America Magazine and Millennial Journal.
Additionally, she is on the faculty advisory board for Catholic Relief Services “CRS University” Faculty Learning Commons. From 2010-2013, she served as a Consultant to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Domestic Justice. From 2012-2018, she was on the Board of Directors of America Media. She received her Ph.D. in Theological Ethics from Boston College (2009) and her BA summa cum laude in cursu honorum in philosophy and theology from Fordham University (2003).
Other Videos of interest:
• “Biblical Foundations of Catholic Social Teaching”, America Magazine, http://bit.ly/2vD6ZGc.
• “Theologians Respond to Laudato Si’: A Roundtable”, America Magazine, http://bit.ly/2wavT1s.
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