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Biblical Characters, 16 - A SHREWD FOOL, THE RICH FARMER

By Clovis G. Chappell

      Luke 12:16-21

      "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."

      I count with confidence on your interest in this sermon. You will be interested, in the first place, because the picture that our Lord has given us in this wonderful story is the picture of a real man. This farmer is no wax figure. He is no bloodless nonentity. He is altogether human stuff. And we are interested in real folks.

      Then we are interested in this man, in the second place, because he is successful. We are naturally interested in the people who make good. If you go out on the street to-morrow and start to tell your friends how you failed, the chances are that they will turn their backs upon you to listen to the man, with triumph in his face and victory in his voice, who is telling how he succeeded. We are great success worshippers. And the man who wins the prizes of life interests us very keenly.

      But there is a shock for us in the story. The Master calls our shrewd hero a fool. "Thou fool." That is a harsh and jarring word. It insults us. It shakes its fist in our faces. It cuts us like a whip. It offends us. We do not like the ugly name in the least.

      "Thou fool." Our Master frowns upon our using such language at all. He will not trust us with such a sharp sword. He will not suffer us to hurl such a thunderbolt. He forbids us, under a terrible penalty, to call our brother a fool. And yet He calls this keen and successful farmer a fool. And He doesn't do so lightly and flippantly, but there seems to ring through it scorn and indignation--positive anger, anger that is all the more terrible because it is the anger of love.

      Why did the Master call this man a fool? He did not get the idea from the man himself. This well-to-do farmer would never have spoken of himself in that way. He regarded himself as altogether fit and mentally well furnished. Nor did the Master get His idea from the man's neighbors. They looked upon this man with admiration. There may have been a bit of envy mingled with their admiration, but they certainly did not regard him as a fool. They no more did so than we regard the man that is like him as a fool to-day.

      Why then did the Master label him with this ugly name? It was not because he had a prejudice against him. Jesus was no soured misanthrope. He was no snarling cynic. He did not resent a man just because he had made a success. He was not an I. W. W. growling over real or fancied wrongs. No, the reason that Jesus called him a fool is because no other name would exactly fit him.

      It is well, however, that the Master labeled this picture. Had He not done so you and I might have been tempted to put the wrong label on it. We might have labeled it "The Wise Man," or some such fine name. But had we done so it would have been a colossal blunder. Had we done so I am persuaded that the very fiends would have howled with derisive laughter. For when we see this man as he really is, when we see him through the eyes of Him who sees things clearly, then we realize that there is only one name that will exactly fit him. Then we know that that one name is the short ugly one by which he is called--"Fool."

      But why is he a fool? In what does his foolishness consist? Certainly it does not consist in the fact that he has made a success. He is not a fool simply because he is rich. The Bible is a tremendously reasonable book. It is the very climax of sanity. It is the acme of good common sense. It never rails against rich men simply because they are rich. It no more does that than it lauds poor men because they are poor. It frankly recognizes the danger incident to the possession of riches. It makes plain the fact that the rich man is a greatly tempted man. But never is he condemned simply because he is rich.

      The truth of the matter is that riches in themselves are counted neither good nor bad, neither moral nor immoral. The Bible recognizes money as a real force. What is done with this force depends upon the one who controls it. Money is condensed energy. It is pent-up power. It is lassoed lightning. It is a Niagara that I can hold in my hand and put into my pocket. It is a present day Aladdin's lamp. If I possess this lamp a million genii stand ready to do my bidding. Whatever service I demand, that will they do, whether that service look toward the making of men or the wrecking of men.

      In case I live for self they are able to assist me in all my selfish enterprises. They can provide a winter palace in the city and a summer palace in the mountains or down by the sea. They can adorn my walls with the choicest of paintings. They can put the finest of carpets upon my floors. They can make possible tours abroad and private boxes at the theatre. They can search the treasure houses of the world and bring to me their rarest jewels. They can give me a place among the select four hundred, with whole columns about myself in the society page of the Metropolitan Daily.

      Even this is not all. If I, their master, am so minded, these powerful genii will defeat for me the ends of justice. They will override the constitution. They will enable me to put a stain upon the very flag of my own country. They will make it possible for me at times to disregard the rights of others. When occasion demands they may even purchase at my desire the honor of manhood and the virtue of womanhood.

      On the other hand, if I am a good man, I may set these genii to the doing of tasks great and worthwhile. I may command them to give clothing to the naked and food to the hungry. I can order them to build better schools for the education of the world. I can compel them to build better churches for the worship of God. I can send them with a chance in their hands for the unfortunate and the handicapped. I can make it impossible for one to say of that bright lad:--

      "But knowledge to his eyes her ample scroll, Rich with the spoils of time, did ne'er unroll. Chill penury suppressed his noble rage, And froze the genial current of the soul."

      In fact there is no high task that man is called upon to perform but that these mighty genii can be of assistance. They can help "to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised." They can even make their master friends who will one day receive him into everlasting habitations.

      "Dug from the mountain side, washed in the glen, Servant am I of the Master of men. Earn me, I bless you; steal me, I curse you; Grip me and hold me, a fiend shall possess you. Lie for me, die for me, covet me, take me, Angel or devil, I am what you make me."

      Nor was this man a fool because he had accumulated his money dishonestly. The man who does accumulate money dishonestly is a fool. So says the prophet Jeremiah and every clear thinking man must agree with him. There is a way of getting money that makes money a curse rather than a blessing. There is a way of getting money that makes the very eagle upon it to turn vulture to tear at your heart.

      But this man had not made his money after that fashion. He had never run a saloon nor a gambling house nor a sweatshop. There is no hint that he had failed to pay an adequate wage to his laborers. James calls upon the rich men of his day to weep and howl because they were guilty in this respect. But no such charge as this is laid against this man. Nor had he robbed the widow or the fatherless. "An orphan's curse will drag to hell a spirit from on high," but no such curse was on this man.

      How had he made his money? He had made it in a way that is considered the most honest and upright that is possible. He had made his money farming. Listen: "The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully." The ground. It smacks of cleanliness, honesty, uprightness.

      "The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully." And when I read that I am back on the old farm again. As I read it there comes before me a vision of my boyhood's home. I see the old white house under the hill. I see the sturdy apple trees in front of it and the forest of beech, oak and chestnut stretching away in the distance back of it. I can hear the lowing of the cattle and the neighing of the horses and the crowing of the cock in the barnyard. I can hear the call of the bob white to his mate, and the song of the catbird in the thicket at the end of the row. I can feel the caress of the fresh upturned sod upon my bare feet. I can catch the fragrance of the new mown hay. I can see myself coming home in the gloaming "as the day fades into golden and then into gray and then into deep blue of the night sky with its myriad of stars that blossom at twilight's early hour like lilies on the tomb of day." And when I come home I come to a night of restful sleep because I have come from a clean day's work. No, this man was not a fool because he had gotten his money dishonestly. He had made it honestly, every dollar of it.

      Nor was he a fool because he set about thoughtfully to save what he had made. The Bible sets no premium upon wastefulness. God lets us know that to waste anything of value is not only foolish but wicked. What was the sin of the Prodigal Son? It was this, that he "wasted his substance with riotous living." He spent his treasure without getting any adequate return.

      That is the tragedy of a great number of us. I do not charge you with outrageous and disgraceful wickedness. But it is true that you are not investing your life in the highest possible way. You are squandering yourself on things of secondary value. And to you God is speaking as he spoke centuries ago: "Wherefore do you spend your money for that which is not meat and your labor for that which satisfieth not?" You have no right to waste yourself and you have just as little right to waste your money which represents a part of yourself.

      No, the foolishness of this man was not in the fact that he sought to save what he had made. That is right. That is sensible. To do otherwise is at once wicked and little. Big things do not waste. This is a big world on which we live but it has never lost one single drop of water nor one single grain of sand since God flung it into space. And even Jesus Christ himself, the Lord of the universe, commanded His disciples after He had fed the multitude, to gather up the fragments that nothing be lost.

      Why then, I repeat, does Christ call this man a fool? His foolishness lay fundamentally in the fact that he was a practical atheist. He had absolutely no sense of God. He lived as if the fact of God were an absolute lie. I do not think for a moment that he claimed to be an atheist. I have no doubt that he was altogether orthodox. I have no doubt that he went to the synagogue or to the temple every Sabbath day. But practically he was an utter atheist. And what is true of him is equally true of many another man who stands up every Sunday in Church to recite his creed.

      How do we know that he is an atheist? We know it by hearing him think. Listen: "He thought within himself." Now then we are going to get to see this man as he really is. You can't always tell what a man is by the way he looks. He may look like the flower, but be the serpent under it. He may smile and smile, as Hamlet tells us, and be a villain. You can't always tell what he is by what he says. He may speak high sentiments to which his heart is a stranger. Nor can you tell him by what he does. He may "do his alms" simply to be seen of men. But if you can get in behind the scenes and see him think, then you will know him. Tell me, man, what you think within yourself and I will tell you what you are. For, "As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he."

      Now, what did this man think? "He thought within himself, saying, What shall I do for I have no room where to bestow My goods and 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 goods and My fruits." Now we see him. When he thought, he had not one single thought of God. God was as completely ignored as if He had no existence at all. This was the very fountain source of his foolishness. He reckoned without God, and the man who reckons without God is a fool.

      Look now how this fatal foolishness casts its blight over his entire character. Reckoning without God, of course, he has no sense of Divine ownership. Quite naturally, therefore, he thinks because he possesses a farm, he owns a farm. Possession and ownership mean exactly the same thing to a man who begins by ignoring God. When you hear this man talk you find that the only pronouns he has in his vocabulary are "I," "My" and "Mine." He knows only the grammar of atheism. He is acquainted only with the vocabulary of the fool. "His" and "Ours" and "Yours" are not found in the fool's vocabulary.

      Faith, on the other hand, makes large use of the word "His." It recognizes the fact that "the earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof." It believes in the big truth: "Ye are not your own. You are bought with a price." Faith, taking God into consideration, wisely reckons that you are His and that all that you possess is His. It does not concede to you the ownership of anything. And for any man anywhere to-day to claim that because he possesses a farm or a bank or a brain, that, therefore, he owns it is to talk not the language of a wise man but the language of a fool.

      This farmer's reckoning without God not only led him to confuse possession and ownership. It also robbed him of his gratitude. Crops were abundant. The farmer has prospered wonderfully. But leaving God out of his thinking there is no one for this farmer to thank for his success but himself. He never thought of taking hold of his sluggish soul and shaking it into wakefulness with this wise word, "Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits." He did not concede the Lord any part in it.

      There are many men just like him to-day. I was pastor in a small town some years ago. There was in that town only one rich man. He had made the money that he possessed, and they called him a self-made man. One day a certain preacher, not myself, went to him to ask him for a donation for some charity. He began by reminding this man of wealth how the Lord had blessed him. And what was the reply? It was about the meanest I ever heard. He said, "I know the Lord has blessed me, but I was there."

      "I was there." And what he meant by that was that in reality the Lord had had nothing to do with it. "I did it all myself. In fact, if the Lord hadn't made the world I would. So there is not a thing for which I ought to be thankful." Now, the man who has no gratitude is a fool. He is a fool because the right sort of thinking always leads to thanking. The only kind of thinking that does not do so is the thinking of the practical atheist, and the practical atheist is a fool.

      Then this farmer had no sense of obligation. This, too, is a natural outcome of his reckoning without God. Here is a man who is looking out on this same world upon which the farmer is looking, and he says, "I am a debtor both to the Greek and to the barbarian, both to the wise and to the unwise." The reason Paul says that is because he believes in God. God has blessed him and saved him with a wonderful salvation. Because of that fact he feels himself under infinite obligation to preach the Gospel that has saved himself. But this man, this fool, has only himself to thank for his prosperity. Therefore he has a right to use his wealth as he pleases. The man who has no sense of obligation, the man who tells you that he has a right to do as he pleases with his possessions is proclaiming to you not a new rule of ethics. He is simply telling you in unmistakable language that he is a fool.

      This man showed himself a fool, last of all, by the confidence that he placed in things. Ignoring God he sought to find a substitute for God in abundant crops. He undertook to treat his soul as he would treat his sheep and his goats. Here he was, an immortal man. Here he was, destined to live when this old world has been a wreck for billions of years. And what provision does he make for himself? The same that he makes for his horses and his oxen and his asses. Of course, as one has pointed out, it was not foolish for him to make some provision for the few years he might live here. He was a fool for refusing to make provision for the eternity that he must live.

      "Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many days. Eat, drink and be merry." Did ever you hear words that were more stamped with moral idiocy? You can see from them that his soul has not fared well up to this time. You can easily tell from these words that his moral nature has been starved and stunted. We can easily tell that all his gettings have not satisfied him in the past. And yet he is vainly expecting satisfaction in the future. Now it is obvious that the man who forgets God, who turns aside to the worship of things, plays the fool.

      So you see why the Master calls this shrewd farmer a fool. He began by reckoning without God. He virtually said in his heart, "There is no God." He went wrong in the very center of his nature. This put the blight of moral imbecility on his whole life. He turned to his possessions and sought to satisfy his soul with them. He received them without gratitude and held them without any sense of obligation, for he thought to possess was to own.

      Now the Master, lest we should pull our skirts about us and thank God that we are not as this man, forces the truth home upon our own hearts. "So," He says, "is he that layeth up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God." That is, just the same kind of fool and just as big a fool is that man to-day who reckons without God and lives only for himself. If you are living your life in selfishness, however respectable that selfishness may be, you are just the same kind of fool and just as great a fool as is this rich man of the story.

      Now the tragedy of this story, I take it, is that the foolishness of this farmer was self-chosen. His riches might have been a blessing to him here and a blessing through all eternity. In spite of the fact that he was rich in this world's goods he might also have been, in the truest sense, rich toward God. In fact, he might have been richer toward God with his wealth than without it. With it he might have exercised a far larger usefulness than he could have done without it. But he chose to ignore God and to rob himself and thus brand himself a fool now and evermore.

      Don't forget that you and I may make the same tragic wreck of our lives. The only way to avoid doing so is to go right where this man went wrong. There is a sure road to spiritual enrichment. "Though he were rich, yet for our sakes he became poor that we, through his poverty, might be rich." This wealth is no fabled bag of gold at the end of the rainbow. I can so direct you to this treasure that you will be sure to find it. This is the road: "Yield yourselves unto God." That is your first duty. That is your highest wisdom. Recognize God as owner of yourself. Recognize God as the owner of all that you have. Give all to Him and He will give all to you. "For He that spared not His own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall He not with him also freely give us all things." To have that treasure is to be rich forever more. To be thus rich is to be eternally wise.

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