The parable in today’s Gospel reading echoes the sentiment of the well-known aphorism, “Be careful what you ask for.” It is also an illustration of what Qoheleth meant when he wrote, “Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!” (Ecc 1:2)
In last Sunday’s Gospel reading, Jesus encouraged his disciples to pray to God for all their needs. He said, “Ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Lk 11:9-10) The rich man in the parable in today’s Gospel reading is an example of a person who received all he asked for in prayer.
The rich man prayed to himself (literally), “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, rest, eat, drink, be merry!’” (Lk 12:18-19) He received from himself all he requested.
God, too, made a request of the rich man. God requested an accounting for the man’s life. Upon his death, the rich man fell short on two accounts: he lost all he had given himself, and he wasn’t able to retain anything God had given him.
In the context of Luke’s Gospel, the parable is a warning about the folly of greed; material goods, regardless of their value, do not last forever and, therefore, are not worthy of one’s eternal trust. Greed is the act of a person who puts eternal trust in ephemeral things; such trust is destined to be betrayed. The rich man intended to guarantee security for himself, but the means he chose for security could only result in loss. For this reason, the parable is often titled, “The Parable of the Rich Fool.” The rich man got everything he wanted but lost everything he needed.
Qoheleth, the author of today’s first reading, would have judged the rich man to be tragically vain. In fact, both the first reading and the Gospel parable display a strong current of absurdism. Qoheleth seems to say that human existence is entirely absurd, and the Gospel parable suggests that any attempt to be satisfied with one’s life is pointless. Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus considered their pessimistic existentialism to be a very modern perspective, but Qoheleth published more than two thousand years before Sartre and Camus were cynical shadows in their parents’ eyes.
Perhaps, Qoheleth was right; perhaps, human existence is ultimately meaningless. Or perhaps, the meaning intended by the biblical authors is both simpler and more subtle than the conclusions reached by human reason. Perhaps, one’s true and lasting treasure is what one does not give oneself, but what one can give away completely and, at the same time, retain forever.
In the parable, the rich man addresses himself as “Self.” Later, God refers to the man’s “life.” Luke’s Gospel uses the same word both for “self” and “life.” (The word can be translated as “soul,” as well.) The meaning of the parable becomes clearer when the several instances of the word are translated identically. “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?’ Then, he answered himself, ‘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 my Self, I have so many good things stored up for many years, rest, eat, drink, be merry!”’ But God said to him, ‘You fool, this night your Self will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?’ Thus will it be for all who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich in what matters to God.”
This parable is more than a warning about the ephemeral nature of material goods. It is not a demonstration of the meaninglessness of human existence. On the contrary, it is an explanation of the meaning of life. As he did in so many other situations, Jesus used an unforeseen event (the request for arbitration in a dispute over an inheritance) as a means to explain God’s will to his disciples. It is God’s will that each human person gives herself or himself completely to God and neighbor because in giving one’s life away completely, one retains the life that is God’s unconditional gift.
There are people who spend their entire lives dissatisfied with what they have, what they’ve done, and who they are; everyone in that discontented group volunteered to join. Jesus’ parable invites us to make a daily accounting of our lives so that, in the end, we are not found wanting. Instead of praying for what will satisfy you today, Jesus suggests a shift of perspective; if you pray for what will satisfy God, you will find what will satisfy you forever.