“Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God,” advises the author of the letter to the Colossians (whom I shall call “Paul” even though there is some scholarly dispute about that). Is Paul echoing the Teacher who wrote the Book of Ecclesiastes? Is he also asserting that “all the deeds that are done under the sun [are] vanity and a chasing after wind”?
And what about Luke’s Jesus? When he says that God calls the rich man a fool is he condemning his wealth or his saving for the future as a waste of time?
No, not at all! None of our biblical authors this morning – not the Teacher, not Paul, not Luke (and certainly not Jesus whom Luke is quoting) – none of them is saying that life is futile or that our earthly existence is unimportant.
Even though Ecclesiastes is famous for its many repetitions of “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!” and its apparent judgment that nearly all human activity is a “chasing after wind,” meaninglessness is not, in the end, its message, nor is it that of the epistle and gospel lessons. To find meaninglessness and hopelessness to be the message of Ecclesiastes is to give in to a “profound lack of faith in the God who delights in our very being, and in whom we are to find our delight.” Such an understanding is far from the message this book has for us. Instead, suggests Episcopal theologian Elizabeth Webb, the message of Ecclesiastes is that
The cure for despair and hopelessness, and the desire of God for human beings, is to find joy precisely in this wearying life. Several times Qoheleth asserts that, when confronted with the apparent meaninglessness of life, the best we can do is enjoy ourselves – take joy in eating, drinking, even in our work. A particular joy is to be found in companionship with one another; two are better than one, he writes, “For if they fall, one will lift up the other.” We are to see such enjoyment in play, in work, and in relationships as gifts from God; indeed, enjoyment comes “from the hand of God.”
It looks like that is exactly what the rich farmer in Jesus’ parable is trying to do! He has had the good fortune to enjoy a bumper crop and has great plenty, so he builds larger barns in which to store it and says to himself, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” That seems to be precisely the advice given in Ecclesiastes, so why is this man called “a fool”? Since it is God who so addresses him, we ought to take this condemnation very seriously.
So let’s begin by acknowledging that this is not a parable in which Jesus in anyway criticizes the accumulation of wealth. This parable does not, for example, have the moral overtones of lamenting the relative positions of rich and poor such as in the story of Lazarus and Dives, nor the outright spiritual condemnation of our Lord’s observation that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” No, the rich man is not foolish nor immoral simply because he is wealthy. Something very different is at play here.
This gospel lesson is a short one and the parable itself is only a couple of sentences long, so bear with me as I read it again and listen carefully to how Jesus tells the story:
The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’”
It is at this point that God addresses the man as “You fool!”
Let’s look at some details. The man had a bumper crop and wondered what to do with it; with whom did he consult? Only himself. When he reached his decision to pull down his barns and build bigger ones, whose advice did he take? Only his own. And when he had stored his grain and his goods, with whom did he plan to enjoy them? Again, only himself!
“When the rich man talks in this parable, he talks only to himself, and the only person he refers to is himself.” He is, in the truest sense of the word, selfish. He has no thought of family or community; he has no thought of God. He’s all “I alone,” and it’s a fearful loneliness. Lutheran theologian Elisabeth Johnson writes: “The rich farmer is a fool not because he is wealthy or because he saves for the future, but because he appears to live only for himself, and because he believes that he can secure his life with his abundant possessions.”
Similarly, Meda Stamper, a minister in the United Reformed Church in England, suggests that the rich man, whom she calls “the barn guy,” is a fool because of his selfish, “earthbound, inward-looking” pursuit of happiness. But “is ‘life’ to be equated with happiness?” Jesus’ First Century society exemplified by “the barn guy” certainly thought so, and so does our own.
William Loader, who teaches New Testament at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia, writes:
Western society abounds with seductive invitations to happy lifestyle, usually promoting new products and promising that ‘good feeling’. Markets manipulate the modes so that regular dissatisfactions can be exploited as people just must have the latest. For some the problem is blindly building bigger barns. For others it is building bigger wardrobes, possessing fancier gadgets, sporting flashier cars.
Stamper asserts that underlying many of Jesus’ stories, and especially this parable, is a recognition that this excessive accumulation of goods and possessions mostly grows out of personal anxiety and fear. As Loader says, there is “a deep human anxiety about being worthwhile which reaches to the heart of the self.” At the heart of “barn guy’s” search for happiness is this fearful question: “Is my life worthwhile?”
The answer to that question, the courage which answers that fear, the wisdom which counters the rich man’s foolishness isn’t found in possessions, but these lessons do not suggest that it is found in eschewing or condemning possessions, either. Rather, they encourage a change of perspective. For example, “When [the author of] Colossians invites believers to set their minds on things above, not on earthly things, this is not a summons to neglect material reality and focus on what is spiritual. It does not mean abandoning the physical realm for the metaphysical. . . . On the contrary, setting one’s mind on things above means viewing all of God’s reality in light of God’s ultimate truth.” In the verses right after our epistle lesson ends, the writer tells the Colossians that this change in perspective means clothing themselves “with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience,” and living together in harmony, wisdom, and gratitude.
Jesus, after telling his listeners the parable of the rich fool, gives them this advice:
Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you?
Considering the birds and the flowers is what Colossians calls setting one’s mind on “the things that are above.”
All of this morning’s lessons invite us to look at reality in this new way. These texts call us to admit that we tend to see things in a distorted way which gives rise to insecurity and fear. As Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, “we see through a glass, darkly;” we see through a defective lens and our earthbound, inward-looking vision is faulty. What we see scares us and makes us question our self worth.
But looking outward, considering the ravens and the lilies, setting our minds on the things that are above, looking at life through the lens of God’s truth, fosters “a kind of Christian defiance,” an attitude which says that only in a life lived towards God, only in “a life participating in God’s life” do we find peace. It may sometimes “be a peace that weeps, knows anguish, sometimes does not know and does not have answers, but [it] keeps believing in the worth God wants us to have and wants us to give and live towards others.”
The rich man is foolish not because he follows Ecclesiastes’ advice and prepares to “eat, drink, and be merry,” but because of the attitude with which he does so, that is, selfishly. He stores up treasures for himself alone and not for his community or for God. The Teacher may cry “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!” but in the end he says that the purpose of all the things he frets about is to allow us to eat, drink, and be merry, not selfishly, but together in community as a common act of faith toward God. “Divide your means,” he says, “seven ways, or even eight. . . .”
A worthwhile life, say our texts today, is a life filled with treasure suitable for the kingdom, treasures that are found not by “put[ing our] trust in [our] goods, and boast[ing] of [our] great riches,” but by setting our minds on the things that are above, considering the birds of the air and the lilies of the field through the lens of God’s truth.
Happiness, real delight, is found not through “the earthbound, inward-looking way of the barn guy, but the soaring, beautiful way of the one who lives and loves generously, lavishly, and with joy,” not foolishly, selfishly alone, but bound “together in perfect harmony,” wisely and gratefully “viewing all of God’s reality” through the lenses of “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” Amen.
This homily was offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on July 31, 2022, the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, to the people of Harcourt Parish Episcopal Church, Gambier, Ohio, where Fr. Funston was supply preacher. This is an edited version of a sermon preached at St. Paul’s Parish, Medina, Ohio, on July 30, 2016.
The lessons read at the service were Ecclesiastes 1:2,12-14;2:18-23; Psalm 49:1-11; Colossians 3:1-11; and St. Luke 12:13-21. These lessons are from the Episcopal Church’s version of the Revised Common Lectionary (see The Lectionary Page).
Click on footnote numbers to link back to associated text.
 Colossians 3:1 (NRSV)
 Ecclesiastes 1:14 (NRSV)
 Luke 12:20 (NRSV)
 Ibid., citing Ecclesiastes 2:24-25; 3:12-13; 4:9-10; and 5:18
 Luke 12:19 (NRSV)
 Luke 16:19–31 (NRSV)
 Matthew 19:24 (NRSV)
 Luke 12:16-19 (NRSV)
 Luke 12:20
 Webb, op. cit.
 William Loader, First Thoughts on Year C Gospel Passages from the Lectionary: Pentecost 11, Bill Loader website, undated, accessed July 27, 2022
 Stamper, op. cit.
 Loader, op. cit.
 Colossians 3:12-17
 Luke12:24-28 (NRSV)
 Colossians 3:1-2 (NRSV)
 1 Corinthians 13:12 (KJV)
 Loader, op. cit.
 Ecclesiastes 11:2 (NRSV)
 Psalm 49:5 (BCP version)
 Stamper, op. cit.
 Colossians 3:12 (NRSV)
 Schellenberg, op. cit.
 Colossians 3:14 (NRSV)