“And he spake a parable unto them, saying, The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully: And he thought within himself, saying, What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits? 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. And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry. But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided? So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:16–21, KJV 1900).
In my last article, I wanted to teach you a few tips to better understand the stories of the Bible. As we continue through the steps needed to become a better Bible reader, this week we will be taking a look at some rules for interpreting the parables told by Jesus. This passage from Luke 12:16-21 is one of my favorite Jesus parables in the Bible. It’s commonly referred to as the parable of the rich fool. I personally find the translation to be better in the King James Version for some reason. Perhaps it’s how the old English just makes it pop. I just love the phrase “take thine ease.” Anyway, I digress.
Folk stories are wonderful: Hansel and Gretel, Peter Rabbit. Who doesn’t love them? Did you know that Jesus loved to use them to teach as well? Folk stories and parables are closely related. A parable can be simply defined as a saying or story that uses illustrations drawn from common everyday life circumstances or situations to help make a point stick in the hearer’s mind.
In the parable I used above, the common everyday life elements can be clearly seen in the story. The story has an agricultural setting and a greedy guy who can’t get enough. You can’t get more “common everyday life” than that, considering the story’s first century context. So let’s break it down and learn some things about this parable and parables in general. The following are some rules to remember when seeking to interpret or understand them.
First, a parable is a story in and of itself and it should be read like one. Who are the characters? What is the plot or the action of the story? What about the setting where is the story taking place?
In the parable of the rich fool, the characters are “the fool” and God. The action for the story involves the hard-working man finding that he has way more way wealth than he has room for, so rather than giving to those in need, he makes more room for himself. As the man sees all he has, he says to himself “Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry.” Then God comes into the picture and gives him a real-eye opener regarding his future plans.
Second, find the deeper meanings, symbolism and how they fit into the greater context of what Jesus is saying. Some parables are harder than others when it comes to this. I would encourage you to read the book “How To Read The Bible For All Its Worth” by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart for more in-depth understanding on interpreting some of the more difficult parables. Let’s take a look at the deeper meaning, symbolism and greater context of Luke 12:16-20.
In Luke 12:13-14, Jesus wanted his disciples to be aware of greed and materialism. Jesus is responding with this parable after a voice from the crowd cries out, “Teacher, please tell my brother to divide our father’s estate with me” during his teaching.
The rich fool in his parable definitely embodies or symbolizes the godlessness of greed and materialism that it would take for this nameless guy in the crowd to make such a silly demand of Jesus. He wants to make a point through the parable to the disciples about how a future in the coming kingdom is not secured through greed and materialism. In verse 21 Jesus says, “Yes, a person is a fool to store up earthly wealth but not have a rich relationship with God.”
Then again, in verse 33 Jesus tells his disciples, “Sell your possessions and give to those in need. This will store up treasure for you in heaven! And the purses of heaven never get old or develop holes. Your treasure will be safe; no thief can steal it and no moth can destroy it. Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be” (Luke 12:33–34, NLT).
Third, there are always themes to be drawn from stories and especially parables. For example, do you see how greed and materialism are actually forms of idolatry? The rich fool in the parable makes no mention of God. He has no need for him because his heart, like his barns, is too full of other stuff to have any place for God.
This echoes the silly question asked of Jesus before he told the parable. Here is Jesus preaching away on hypocrisy and out of nowhere, this voice from the crowd wants Jesus to use his power to get this guy his rightful money. It’s almost like an episode “The Peoples Court” or “Judge Judy”. Not only can idolatry replace God in our hearts, but it seeks to use God to get what we want rather than worship him.
The theme of death is also very strong in this story. How close is the Kingdom of God? Don’t waste a second of your life, because it (the Kingdom) is at hand. A person walks away from this parable wondering, “Am I prepared to meet God?” because the Kingdom is at hand.
What other themes do you find in the parable? Whenever you read a parable, move from finding the theme or themes to applying it to your own life. Parables are powerful, because stories seem to stick with us better than memorizing a stand-alone verse. When one hears and remembers a story it evokes emotions, pictures and reactions that should cause us to move into the action of the story with our own lives as well. Now go figure out how the parable we just studied pertains to you.