The parable is introduced with an exchange between Jesus and a man in the crowd who is in dispute with his brother, concerning their inheritance. Jesus declines to intervene, phrasing his answer to echo the story of Moses’ intervention in the fight between two Hebrews. In the Exodus story, one of the men asks Moses, “who made you a prince and a judge over us?” (Ex. 2:14); in this text, Jesus asks the man “who made me a judge or divider over you?” (12:14b) Rather than issue a direct judgment, Jesus answers in the form of a parable, framed by two sayings, which furnish some further interpretation. A parallel to the core of the parable is also to be found in the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas (log. 63), which may suggest it was in circulation in the early church, separate from the interpretive sayings in verses 15 & 21.
The term ‘rich’ in Luke has a negative connotation, which conflicts with the society within which the Gospel is set, where wealth was a sign of blessing, and a consequence of belonging to the inner elite of the community. Here a rich man is depicted as being fortunate enough to enjoy a bumper harvest (12:16). He asks, “What shall I do” (v.17), which in Luke’s gospel is a question of salvation. His choice is to multiply his wealth by building bigger barns to store his wealth, and to rest in his complacency, which has echoes in wisdom literature (e.g. Psalm 49 & Sirach 11:14-28).
God’s response is to describe him as a “fool” (12:20). Foolishness is comprehensively defined in Proverbs (e.g. Pr. 10:18, 10:23, 11:29, 12:15, 12:16, 13:16, 14:3), and in the Psalms it is the fool that denies the existence of God. (Psalm 14:1). The rich man sees his wealth as his security and not his God, and in doing so effectively denies his existence. Furthermore, he only makes provision for himself; no-one else is mentioned.
But in Luke, it is not simply that the man has a lot of money or assets; it is that in his context being rich would have carried with it power, responsibility and even a basis for assuming piety in the one who has been 'blessed' by wealth. The parable targets these assumptions and contradicts them. This man abdicates his responsibilities and fails to use his power to improve the lot of others. He even lacks the one remaining virtue of possessing a piety, albeit one which finds no expression in action.
Introducing the parable, Jesus states that abundance of possessions are not the means to measure the value of a human life (12:15) A valuation of life, based on possessions, inevitably results in the pursuit of material gain as the goal of life.
In the same way, the core story of the parable is rounded off with the saying about being rich towards God (v. 21). In the wider context of chapter 12, we can understand this to refer to generosity. A little further on, Jesus' command is simple, “sell your possessions and give alms” (v.33) and they must pursue “treasure in heaven”. This is concluded by the summary challenge “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (v.34)
The overarching message of this section is clearly the folly of lives that have material and financial gain as their goal. This pursuit is, of course, vulnerable to disaster, since these treasures are easily lost, stolen or destroyed. Furthermore, they eat away at the commitment of the disciple. Seeking the kingdom (v.31) becomes less of a priority as concern for material well-being grows. It may be that this was becoming a concern within the Christian community that Luke was seeking to address, and so it was a priority for him to include material from the communal recollections about Jesus that directly tackled the issue.