The story Jesus tells about the prudential “wisdom” of a rich man is as interesting for what is natural and legitimate in the action as for its stark denouement and judgment. For at first blush, the enviable farmer is responding to his bumper crop in what many would consider a sound, prudential fashion: he has more produce than his barns can store, so he will tear them down and build bigger ones (Luke 12:16-18). Many a farmer today would be advised by his agricultural agent to do just that—and then to hold on to his crop for higher prices.
But what follows indicates a major problem of attitude and a failure to act responsibly toward others, given his blessings.
Numerous passages in Isaiah and the Psalms reiterate an obligation toward the poor, especially of those who have been blessed with abundance, declaring that in God’s perspective this is a simple matter of justice. This farmer apparently has failed to take these texts to heart.
His crops safely stored in his tidy new barns, the wealthy man congratulates himself (literally his psychē, “soul”), saying effectively, “Well, I have it made. I shall now retire in comfort, eat, drink, and be merry” (12:19). His position is one with many parallels in our own culture.
When in the parable he is judged by God as a “fool” (aphrōn),the force of Jesus’s derisive term turns the man’s conventional wisdom upside down. There is ambiguity in the Greek phrase, which actually reads “this night they shall demand your soul from you” (12:2). Who are “they”? Perhaps thieves; perhaps, as some suggest, angelic servants of God; perhaps, as in previous texts, the “court of heaven” is being invoked as a witness against him. In any case, all that he has worked for will pass into other hands, for his treasure is not eternally portable (12:21). . . .
There is absolutely nothing to envy in the farmer’s filled barns but rather something pitiable. A proper response to a superabundant harvest, on a biblical view, would have been for the wealthy farmer to distribute the surplus to the poor and stick with the barns he already had
His success is not in itself the problem, and it is not his success that is condemned. What is condemned is his self-indulgence, his neglect of a great opportunity to provide for others less successful than himself, and on top of that his self-congratulatory belief that he had made adequate provision for his own future.
This farmer is no “Joseph the provider,” laying up grain to sustain a population in a time of famine to come; rather, he is laying up treasure for himself and himself alone.