Parable Of The Rich Fool: Was He A Farmer Or A Ruler?

Posted: Sep 13, 2018 1:08 PM

I have heard many references in speeches and sermons to the Parable of the Rich Fool. Many of them were aimed at business people, probably most of them were aimed at middle-class to upper middle-class workers. Usually the moral of the story is against consumerism, though occasionally against the practice of over saving and overinvesting.  But in dozens of mentions, I've never heard the story used as a warning towards political leaders, and that's really a problem because there are some very good reasons to think that the political ruling class are precisely those to whom that parable was aimed.

First, let's take a look at the parable itself, which appears only in Luke's Gospel:

16 And He told them a parable, saying, "The land of a certain rich man was very productive.

17 "And he began reasoning to himself, saying, 'What shall I do, since I have no place to store my crops?'

18 "And he said, 'This is what I will do: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.

19 'And I will say to my soul, "Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry."'

20 "But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?'

21 "So is the man who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God."

22 And He said to His disciples, "For this reason I say to you, do not be anxious for your life, as to what you shall eat; nor for your body, as to what you shall put on.

23 "For life is more than food, and the body than clothing.

(Lk. 12:16-23 NAS)

I've highlighted certain words and phrases which I think either need further analysis or can help shed light on the intended meaning.

If you've read anything that I've written in this series, you already know that I think that a careful attention to detail, including geographical details, is an important practice when it comes to understanding Biblical texts, especially the socio-economic meaning of  Biblical texts. Where did Jesus tell this parable? Most likely he told it in Judea, not very far to the East of Jerusalem.  The only reference to location prior to the parable is that Jesus had been with Martha (sister of Mary and Lazarus) in her home.

Now as they were traveling along, He entered a certain village; and a woman named Martha welcomed Him into her home.

(Lk. 10:38 NAS)

Mary lived in Bethany:

Now a certain man was sick, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.

(Jn. 11:1 NAS)

And Bethany was in Judea, slightly South of Jerusalem.

No reference to travel is made between the time that he was in Bethany and the giving of the parable, Further, leading up to the parable there are confrontations with lawyers and scribes, who were much more numerous in Judea near Jerusalem than in Galilee, and he is invited to recline at table with a religious leader, a practice associated with wealthy upper-class households. In addition, the beginning of the chapter in which we find the parable mentions an extremely large and dense crowd:

Under these circumstances, after so many thousands of the multitude had gathered together that they were stepping on one another,

(Lk. 12:1 NAS)

This is much more likely in Judea than in Galilee (and I think it goes without saying that this concentration of pharisees would not be found in Samaria or the Decapolis).  I see no evidence at all that places Jesus in Galilee rather than Judea. So, the preponderance of evidence says that this is a Judean audience. And if you have read what I wrote previously, you already know that this fits a remarkably consistent pattern in which Jesus varies his message according to the location of the discourse, particularly that He saves confrontations over wealth for the Judean audience who live in an economy dominated by political and religious elites (which are not really separate categories in that society). This is hardly proof all by itself that the parable is aimed at the ruling class, but it does fit the pattern.

Before we deal with the positive evidence that the parable is describing the actions of a member of the political ruling class, let's look at problems with the standard view that this is a greedy farmer.

It seems as though the farmer interpretation is the one taken by most translators. Their pre-commitment to the hypothesis that this is a famer causes them to choose to translate certain Greek words into English words which have agricultural overtones, when the Greek does not require that meaning, and even when the agricultural range of meaning is not the natural or dominant one.

For example, there is the matter of 'land' or 'ground'.

16 And He told them a parable, saying, "The land of a certain rich man was very productive.

"Land" nudges us towards the idea that we're talking about a farmer. Several translations go further. The NIV says 'ground' and some of the paraphrases go all out:  "A rich man had a fertile farm that produced fine crops." (New Living Translation).

The problem is that the Greek word chora does not point primarily towards 'ground' or 'land' in the sense of the physical layer of topsoil on which farming occurs. I looked at three lexicons, and the first definition in two of them referred to political subdivision. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament (which is called the Septuagint), sometimes when chora is used, it is used to translate the Hebrew word 'eretz, as in 'eretz 'yisrael, the 'land' of Israel.  Ezra refers to the chora (province) of Babylon:

…With all the silver and gold which you shall find in the whole province of Babylon, along with the freewill offering of the people and of the priests, who offered willingly for the house of their God which is in Jerusalem; 

(Ezr. 7:16 NAS) (emphasis mine)

Nehemiah 1:3 also uses the word to refer to the nation of Babylon. The word appears often in the Septuagint. In Esther, the king's decrees to the various 'provinces' are decrees to chora. Macabees uses it to refer to cities and nations. That is overwhelmingly the usage pattern in the Septuagint.

Furthermore, the word is used only four other times in the New Testamen;, three of them are undoubtedly used to refer to political entities, for example the chora, the land, of Judea. The fourth refers to the general zone around a small city.

So, to those educated in the Greek of the Septuagint or the Koine Greek in which the New Testament is written, the story immediately points to a political jurisdiction. One of the things which makes modern readers resistant to that reading is that in our time, rich men don't own political jurisdictions such as countries, cities or provinces. But in ancient Israel they did. Herod (or Caesar) would give whole villages to friends. Caesar would give provinces (such as the land, the chora, of Judea) to political allies. In Josephus' discussion of the divvying up of the kingdom of Herod the Great to his successors (for more on this, see my discussion of The Parable of the Ungrateful Steward), it's presented as annual income streams. Rich men owned political jurisdictions such as provinces and cities, and with them their income streams, and the word used to describe the jurisdictions is exactly the same word that Jesus uses to open this parable.

Understanding that puts the 'very productive' nature of the country into context. It literally means to 'bear well'. It can refer to a farm yield, but it can generally mean 'to bring forth plentifully,' 'to be productive'

The NIV goes far beyond the literal translation with 'yielded an abundant harvest'.  The Good News Translation says it "bore good crops,” which is certainly stretching the meaning of the single word, well-bearing.

Speaking of 'crops', the next verse has the rich man asking, "What shall I do, since I have no place to store my crops?" But are they crops? The word is karpos, fruit. It can refer to the fruit of the tree, the fruit of the earth, the fruit of a man's labors or the fruit of a person's life. The primary meaning is literally 'fruit' as in the food which comes from trees, and that is agricultural. However, upon a close reading, it is clear that this does not refer to literal fruit. 

18 "And he said, 'This is what I will do: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.

19 'And I will say to my soul, "Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry."'

(Lk. 12:18-19 NAS)

The man plans to store 'grain and goods', not fruit. Which makes sense because you cannot store fruit 'for many years' without serious danger of rot and loss, certainly not without modern methods of reliably dry storage and refrigeration, and even with those, long-term storage of even dried fruit with preservatives is a risky business. And you can't do it reliably with 'barns', which is another translational leap. 

Apothoke can mean barn, but it generally refers to any place of storage. In fact, it is used in the Greek Old Testament, in Chronicles, to refer to storage rooms in the Temple.  It often means 'granary', where grain is gathered and stored in large quantities. And that is exactly what I think it means here.

The fruit here is the economic fruit of the venture, which is quite likely the economic exploitation of a political entity. The structure that it is stored in is a regional granary in which taxes, paid in grain, are stored. How do we know that? We know that because Josephus wrote about exactly such a structure and such an arrangement and it is, to my knowledge, the only account of that time and place which matches the description which Jesus gives.  Josephus tells us the story of the granaries of Queen Bernice, granddaughter of Herod the Great, who inherited from her father, Herod Agrippa.

David Fiensy in Christian Origins and the Ancient Economy writes:

Still others of Jesus's parables depict scenes on a large estate. The parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:16-21), for instance, describes an estate owner hoarding grain in a manner reminiscent of accounts in Josephus (Life 71-72, 119) about the granaries "of Caesar" in Upper Galilee and of the granary of Queen Bernice on the Great Plain….

Agrippa was a rough contemporary of Jesus. Bernice was born in AD 28. Interestingly, Josephus' account says that the granary was located near the city of Besara, which was in lower Galilee, the region in which Jesus was raised. It was only slightly farther from Nazareth than Sepphoris, probably less than half a day's walk from Jesus' home town and much less from the Sepphoris in which Jesus almost certainly worked (for evidence see my earlier writing about Jesus and Sepphoris). Jesus would have grown up quite near to a granary which matches the description of the parable.

An intriguing aspect of this story is that Herod Agrippa, like the rich man in the parable, also dies suddenly. The story is told in Acts 12. He saved up grain and decided to use it to 'take his ease' as king of Judea, a reign that lasted a mere three years before dying suddenly at age 33 mid-speech.

Like so many of the other discourses which Jesus has given, a close attention to detail yields (well-born) fruit. Especially helpful is knowledge of the economic geography and archeology of the place and period. And as in other passages we've looked at, we see Jesus saving His sharpest barbs about wealth for the political/religious ruling class, delivered to them on their own home turf in Judea and in denunciation, not of wealth in general, but of wealth extracted by the politically powerful from the economically productive.