Monday, August 17, 2015

The Rich Fool: rugged individualist

Build bigger barns!

© 2015 Christy K Robinson

Surely you've read the Parable of the Rich Fool numerous times, and you probably learned, as I did, that we should never say, "I worked for this or gained this all by myself," and leave God, the Provider, out of the statement. We should always give thanks that God has blessed in his provision. But you may have missed a very important concept that appears twice in Jesus' words. 

Luke 12:16-21 NIV
16 And [Jesus] told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. 17 He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’
18 “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. 19 And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’
20 “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’
21 “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.” 

The oldest stories in the Bible show us that people were meant to live in relationship with one another. When Adam and Eve were exiled from the Garden, they went together. When Cain was banished for having killed his brother Abel, he was fearful that he'd have to live alone, in hiding, or be killed in turn, but God put a mark on him to protect him in his wanderings. Every society and clan lived together in villages and extended families for protection, but also for the common good of sharing work at planting, harvest, herding, care of the sick or injured, care of the infants and elderly, feasting, worshiping, and every other function of human life. 

Rev. John Donne
 In England in the 1620s, Rev. John Donne, the senior pastor of St. Paul's Cathedral, wrote his famous essay with the phrases "for whom the bell tolls" and "no man is an island."

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
This deep sense of community was also true of early colonial New England. Single adults, whether never-married, separated, or widowed, were not allowed to live alone, but were placed in families for economic reasons, and frankly, to police their morals! And in the first decades of the colonies, all people were required to live in villages for mutual protection and mutual assistance, and not allowed to homestead in the wilderness. Native Americans who were sentenced to colonial prisons withered and died because they were alone and separated from their people.  

Brain research shows that humans need other humans to function in a healthy way. 

In the Great Depression, President Herbert Hoover pursued policies of "Rugged Individualism," which called for personal liberties with little state regulation. That sounds good until you realize that schools, safety and health, infrastructure creation and management, and police/fire/military protection are institutions that must be administered by government. That rugged individualist movement evolved into the John Birch Society ideology and we have it still, as we see with the Libertarian party. Hoover's individualist policies actually exacerbated poverty and worsened the Great Depression's economic conditions until President Franklin Roosevelt instated democratic socialist policies. A political scientist, Seymour Martin Lipset, has connected American exceptionalist theory (that rugged individualism thing) with the American Revolution, but a paper out of the University of Alberta finds fault with Lipset's conclusions.

 “To believe that our nation has always been exceptional requires a suppression of ordinary skepticism and a belief that calls for extraordinary arrogance,” wrote David Bromwich in The Nation.

Jesus told this Parable of the Rich Fool, and set the story with the man being alone, speaking with his soul. And later, speaking to himself 

Notice that the Rich Fool was an individualist. "Everything for me, by me." His alone-ness has been a dreadful concept to every society until very recently. He has no one to talk to but himself, having alienated everyone around him. That would have been a horrifying prospect to Jesus' listeners, for a person to be alone. It would have been horrifying to Rev. Donne's audience and early Americans, too. No spouse? No children? No parents or siblings? No friends? No professional colleagues? Just slaves to do your bidding but not good enough to socialize with?

The Rich Fool had done the unthinkable: he'd made himself an island. 

On one level, we see that the Rich Fool was ungrateful to God and refused to give glory to him. But that's not the point of the story. God doesn't need to have his ego stroked. He is all-sufficient and glorious without our puny help. He's not insecure about whether or not we give him credit.

The parable is about an extraordinarily arrogant millionaire or billionaire, if you will, who lived only to acquire profit, and so many possessions that he couldn't consume them for many years, and that his warehouses needed to be rebuilt. God's dread answer was that the Rich Fool's life would be required of him because he had no one to share his goods with.  "...Who will get what you have prepared for yourself?"   

There was supposed to be a family, a community, a clan, a village. The care of the widows and orphans that God calls pure religion. But there was no one. Just the clod of dirt that dissolved, washed away in the sea, meaningless, leaving no legacy.

There's nothing wrong with being wealthy. There is something wrong with that wealth destroying our environment, oppressing workers with slave wages and conditions, and filling the vast warehouses of the super-rich when 99 percent of the rest of us live with reduced circumstances even though we work harder and longer than we ever did. You probably aren't part of that One Percent or ruling class. So think about whose policies you support and who you vote for.

I think we know very well what Jesus would do
because he already has done it. 
So now the question becomes, What will YOU do? 
Will you hang out with yourself, serving only yourself? 
Or will you live with and for other people? 


***** 
Postscript: As I finished writing this article, I saw the news story that another rich man had lost his life today. But this rich man was no fool. He left this world loved and blessed for having cheered people in hospitals. Leonard Robinson (though he shares my late grandfather's name, I don't know of a relationship) was Batman to hundreds of children and adults whose lives he touched with friendship and caring. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/route-29-batman-lenny-b-robinson-dies-batmobile-breaks-down/ 

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