A popular theological viewpoint in the United States, and one that was popular as well among the Jews of Jesus’ day, was the viewpoint known as prosperity theology. According to this view, which one reads in “Christian” book like the Prayer of Jabez, the wealthy are so blessed because they are righteous, and the poor and ill are sick because they are unrighteous. The consequences of this heretical view are many and malign. For one, the existence of trials or suffering automatically becomes (for those who believe in this heterodox view, the view of Job’s friends) a search for sin in the life of a suffering person. Thus what is already a difficult time becomes even more so as (often false) accusations of sinfulness are added to the burden of the original suffering.
But there is another serious consequence of this false view of theology as well, one which finds itself particularly evident in the lack of charity often shown by those who are wealthy and who hold to this view of theology. Instead of seeing their wealth as a blessing from God given for His purposes that they did not deserve (the same would be true of gifts of strength, beauty, and the intellect, as well as good health), people with this view consider themselves as the cause of their wealth. They do not consider their blessings to be the result of God’s favor (with the expectation that those blessings will in turn be used to bless others, as is the godly way—see Acts 4:32-37, Ephesians 4:28), but rather as the result of their own righteousness. By believing that they deserve and merit such blessings as they receive, and (more insidiously) that those who go without are wicked and therefore unworthy of their generosity, their blessings from God go towards their own selfish and luxurious consumption rather than in helping other people and showing one’s self to be a generous giver.
But, let us ask ourselves, is this uncharitable behavior condemned at all in scripture? As a matter of fact, it is directly condemned by Jesus Christ in Luke twice. One time is in the famous passage of Lazarus and the Rich Man, which I have already discussed elsewhere . The other time is in Luke 12:13-21, which is the parable of the Rich Fool. Let us therefore look at the parable of the rich fool now to see what it says about the judgment of God upon the unrighteous and lazy rich. Luke 12:13-21 reads as follows: “Then one from the crowd said to Him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” But He said to them, “Man, who made Me a judge or an arbitrator over you?” And He said to them, “Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses.” Then He spoke a parable to them, saying: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded plentifully. And he thought within himself, saying, ‘What shall I do, since I have no room to store all my crops?’ So he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build greater, and there I will store all my crops and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry.’ ‘ But God said to him, “Fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?” So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich towards God.”
This is a somewhat complicated parable, complicated by its context. We often quote the parable without quoting the immediate context, so let us spend a little bit of time examining what it was that led Jesus Christ to give this parable in the first place. Let us note first that the whole discussion is prompted by someone demanding that Jesus serve as the arbiter of a dispute between himself and his brother over an inheritance. We see a similar issue in 1 Corinthians 6:1-11, where Paul condemns brethren going to court against each other and urges them to develop their own capacity for judgment so that they can be faithful judges of the (rebellious) angels in the Great White Throne judgment (see also Revelation 20:11-15). Jesus’ reply is a bit unexpected. He asks the person, “Who made Me judge over you?” This unexpected reply, which hints back to the reply of the unrighteous Israelite to Moses in Exodus 2:14, also hints at the answer to His own question. God made Jesus Christ to be the judge over humanity, but those who do not recognize Jesus’ authority as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords cannot appeal to him as a judge in their own selfish disputes. Jesus read the heart of the person asking Him for help, and found him to be covetous.
It is for this reason that Jesus Christ then warns his audience against covetousness. He then makes a statement that strikes direcly at the heart of prosperity theology both in Jesus’ time and in our own time today. He states that one’s life does not consist in the abundance of things that a man possesses. This means more than meets the eye. For one, it means that life is not about things and stuff, but is about relationships—specifically our relationships with God and with each other. Additionally, though, the worth of a human being is not in their net worth, but is in their worth to God. Jesus Christ gave His life as a sacrifice to pay for the sins of every man, woman, and child who has ever lived, and to give all mankind the opportunity to enter into salvation if they accept the call of God, repent of their sins, and are baptized in the name of Jesus Christ (in whose name alone and by whom alone there is salvation, see Acts 4:12). To God, all of us are worth the blood of His only begotten son, Jesus Christ. Therefore, to treat others as worthless simply for their class or socioeconomic status is to insult and mock the God of all heaven and earth by calling worthless what Jesus came to this earth to give His life for as a ransom for our sins. We ought to be very careful about calling worthless what God calls priceless, or to deceive ourselves in our hearts that we are worth more than others simply because we have been blessed with money, intelligence, beauty, good health, or anything else that God can give or take away at His discretion.
The behavior of the rich man, though, is very striking and unusual. His behavior is of a type we see very often among the very wealthy nowadays, though, so we ought to pay attention to it and take warning. First, we have an agricultural metaphor (of which Jesus Christ was fond of, and of which we of the West are largely ignorant of, not being agriculturally inclined as a civilization these days). When Jesus Christ says that the land of the rich man was particularly fertile, we are free to take that as a metaphor for other types of profit. For the rich man might not only be farmer, but he might be someone whose rents or property investments, or whose stocks, or whose profits as a businessmen, or whose royalties as a musician or author were great and who thus became very wealthy as a result of what he (or she) thought to be his own skill and righteousness, but was in fact divine favor.
This is the first of the errors of the rich fool. The rich fool is foolish in large part because he (or she) assumes the credit for what is a blessing from God. Instead of giving credit where credit is due, there is the selfish feeling of deserving one’s wealth or success. Soon after this initial error comes the next one. The rich fool finds that he (or she) does not have enough space in his (or her) barns to store all the blessing. Perhaps the bank accounts have gotten so high as to reach the FDIC limit, or perhaps one’s car or house no longer seems fancy enough to justify the standard of living one now has. Either way, what had been good enough possessions before to store or show wealth are no longer good enough, so they are torn down and replaced with bigger and showier barns. This is a mistake because it means that the person receive the blessings, rather than giving the excess to God (or to those in need), is greedy and selfish to store and hoard more wealth than they were able to store before. They therefore act to increase their possessions and holdings rather than to give what is in excess of their needs to others who need it more than they. Just as envy is a common problem among the poor, greed and selfishness are a common plague among the wealthy—not because wealth is bad but because both trials and blessings reveal the sometimes unpleasant truths about our own hearts.
It is the third mistake of the rich fool of prosperity theology that is fatal, though. That is the mistake made by the rich fools of our times who make fantastic amounts of money, put it in a single-payment Index Universal Life insurance plan, and then pull out enough money to live a lazy life for decades, enjoying wealth but failing to do the work they were put on this earth by their Creator to do. It is a common insult of the poor and suffering to call them lazy, in the naïve belief that more effort will always lead inevitably to success, and that the only reason that someone is without is because they are not working hard enough, so they need to hustle more. Nonetheless, in reality it is wealth that allows far more opportuity for laziness than poverty does. As much as welfare recipients are reviled for their laziness, it is far harder work to receive benefits from the government than it is to be lazy as the result of inherited wealth or a blessing that was turned into an annuity, and the wealth allows the laziness to be much more enjoyable. We might be tempted to insult the poor for what we judge as laziness and to praise the wealthy for their early retirement, but to God, the one who wastes the blessings given by God for selfish ease is a fool. God does not judge as we do.
In conclusion, though, let us examine what it is that makes the rich fool a fool. It is not his wealth—God does not in any way condemn wealth or any other blessing. Indeed, He is the giver of all good things as He chooses. There were three mistakes the rich fool made that are all too easy for people to make in our time. First, the rich fool assumed that his wealth was the result of his own righteousness and his own hard work instead of the blessing of God. This usually leads to the assumption that those who are poor are poor because they are lazy or wicked, and therefore unworthy either of government handouts paid for by taxes, or from personal acts of generosity. Second, the rich fool sought to selfishly increase his wealth rather than give off the excess of what he could not use. Again, he failed to judge that his wealth was given by God for His purposes and not for the purposes of the rich man. Finally, the rich man committed the sin of hypocrisy, judging the poor as lazy even while enjoying ease of life and laziness as a result of God’s blessing. For this God required the death of the rich fool in judgment. May we heed the lesson of the parable and avoid dying the death of a fool ourselves. For prosperity theology is a fool’s errand, and an invitation to eternal judgment. We would be wise to give it a wide berth.