Harrowing Of Hell
August 1, 2016

The Foolishness of Pleonexia

Preacher: The Rev. Kate Wesch
Scripture: Luke 12:13–21

Why does Jesus call a man a fool? That is our question today. For a quick refresher in case you missed it. There is a crowd gathered around Jesus and someone shouts out, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me!” What a question. It sounds like some serious sibling rivalry to me. But Jesus, ever steady doesn’t take the bait, just responds, “Tell me, who appointed me as a judge or arbitrator over you?” “Watch out and beware of all greed!” Beware of pleonexia. That’s the Greek word for greed which we’ll come back to a little later because it’s a great word. Then, Jesus does what he does best when asked a question; he answers with a parable, a story to illustrate his point.

Our foolish man is a rich man, but that’s not why he’s foolish. His land produced a rich harvest—an abundance if you will—and in seizing the opportunity he built bigger barns to store his good fortune. Not a bad business plan. He was set for life and even sat down to have a conversation with himself about it. “Soul,” he said, “you’ve got many good things stored up for many years. Take it easy! Eat, drink, have a good time!” Sounds like the quintessential success story to me. I would be a liar if I didn’t admit to a little bit of envy surrounding his early retirement and life of leisure.

Now, is he a fool for being successful? No. Is he a fool for seizing an economic opportunity and capitalizing upon it? No. Is he a fool for building bigger barns to store up his earthly treasures? Well, that’s one’s debatable, but we’ve all done it. I’ve done it. You’ve done it. Come on, who’s rented that temperature controlled storage unit or increased square footage of living space or put up that second shed in the backyard, right? We all do it. Bigger barns!

So, why did Jesus call this man a fool? Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. hit the nail on the head when he said, “Jesus called this man a fool because he allowed the means by which he lived to outdistance the ends for which he lived.” He allowed the means by which he lived to outdistance the ends for which he lived.

Now we all live in this tension, integrating the outer life and inner life. The inner life is comprised of things that nurture the soul: prayer, art, music, learning, morality, the spiritual disciplines. The outer life “is that complex of devices, or mechanisms and instrumentalities by means of which we live.” The outer life looks like the houses we live in, the cars we drive, the clothes we wear, the cell phones and laptops we carry around, the money that we are able to accumulate—“in short, the physical stuff that’s necessary for us to exist” in this modern world.

“Now the problem is that we must always keep a line of demarcation between the two. This man was a fool because he didn’t do that.”

This man got caught up in pleonexia, here’s that word again, the Greek word for greed or covetousness, the insatiable desire for more. We’ve all seen this happen, probably experienced it ourselves even. Pleonexia is a strong desire for something, for some thing, for more, this insatiable desire that will never fix what is broken inside. Now, lots of things drive that greed; fear, envy, pride, competition, a primal need to be on a quest for hidden treasure. But when you get there, to the place where “X” marks the spot you discover that your quest for treasure was too limited, and your sense of purpose too small, then what?

And our culture perpetuates this myth, the myth that accumulating stuff is a big enough purpose for human life and it’s wrong. Accumulating stuff is not enough purpose for this life. The place where “X” marks the spot is much richer than ski lessons or a vacation home, things that are well and good, but certainly things of this outer world.

The quest for the inner realm, the treasures of the soul, the deep purpose of seeking the kingdom of God isn’t new. It’s actually as old as creation itself and missing this inner realm was what made the man a fool.

I have a crazy story for you to prove just how ancient this desire is, this quest to find the treasures of the soul and it goes back about one hundred thousand year ago, but let’s start the story in the 1950s in a cave in the Zagros mountains in Iraq. A man named Ralph Solecki discovered a skeleton belonging to a Neanderthal man. Scientists were able to tell from the skeleton that the man had lived about 40 years. The remains of the Neanderthal man indicate he was so severely handicapped he could not have lived to this age without tremendous support of the group to which he belonged.

From the skeleton, scientists could tell that the man had survived serious trauma early in life. His bones tell the story of healed fractures, a crushing blow to the head, blindness in one eye, the loss of an arm and hand, and a leg so badly damaged it was non-functioning. For a hunter-gatherer community, this man would have been a liability. And yet, it is clear that he survived for many years after he sustained and healed from his injuries. Not only that, but the skeleton was found buried below a bed of flowers. Now, scientists disputed the findings, saying it was impossible that a hunter/gatherer community would ever have cared for this severely handicapped man. It contradicts Darwinian theory and makes no sense. And yet, the proof is there. And what it proves is beautiful. Even one hundred thousand years ago, a group of 20 to 30 people reoriented their entire way of existence around the care and compassion extended to the weakest among them.

This group of Neanderthalian women and men, grasped what the foolish man in our parable did not. In his essay, “Ecce Homo,” geophysicist and theologian Xavier Le Pichon suggests this experience of welcoming the suffering of our neighbor is at the very heart of our identity as humans since the origin, since creation, and that when humans enter into the type of relationship that was lived within this group the gift they receive from each other is the discovery of their own humanity. The gift they receive is the nurture and care of their souls.

We see the exact same thing today when a strong, productive couple bring home a new baby. That baby is the definition of weakness and dependence. And yet, what happens? That couple reorient their entire life around the needs and demands of the weakest. That baby is the boss. And through that experience, the parents are utterly transformed and changed by placing at the center, something that is weak, something that they love.

The greed that is pleonexia is a disordered center or focus for your life. The foolish man suffered terribly from this. It’s happens when we buy into the culture’s myth that the accumulation of stuff belongs at the center, rather than God, love, and compassion.

Jesus challenges us to transcend that. Jesus calls us to nurture our souls, to cultivate our inner lives, and to do that through love, to do that with compassion, by caring for the weak and vulnerable in our society, and by making the most important thing, the most important thing

Jesus called a man a fool because he carried on a conversation with a soul whom he had neglected sorely all the while building up bigger barns. Don’t be that fool. Reorient your life today. Put God back in the center. And let’s bring back that question we used to ask around here, “How goes it with your soul?”

Sermon Questions

  1. If Jesus were to use your life as a parable, would he depict you as a fool? If so, is there more than meets the eye?
  2. Pleonexia – Greek for greed, the insatiable desire for more is when we place the wrong thing at the center of our life. On your greedy days, what drives that greed: fear, envy, pride, competition, insecurity? Consider the motivation for your greed.
  3. What actions or habits help you to transcend greed? How do you reorient your life the way Jesus intends by focusing on the kingdom of God? What does this look like in your life?


Dr. Martin Luther King’s sermon, “Why Jesus Called Man a Fool” delivered at Mount Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church, Chicago, Illinois, on 27 August 1967, can be accessed here.

Xavier Le Pichon, “Ecce Homo: To welcome the suffering is the sign of our humanity,” can be accessed here.