Faith through Art: Local artist paints parable of the ‘rich fool’

Central Texas artist, Jim Janknegt, painted “The Rich Fool” in 2007. Janknegt’s paintings are often displayed in the gallery at the diocesan Pastoral Center in Austin. (Photo courtesy Jim Janknegt)

By Sandra Martin

Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who appointed me as your judge and arbitrator?” And he said to them, “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.” Then he told them a parable: “There was a rich man whose land produced a bountiful harvest. He asked himself, ‘What shall I do, for I do not have space to store my harvest?’ And he said, ‘This is what I shall do: I shall tear down my barns and build larger ones. There I shall store all my grain and other goods and I shall say to myself, “Now as for you, you have so many good things stored up for many years, rest, eat, drink, be merry!”’ But God said to him, ‘You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?’ Thus will it be for the one who stores up treasure for himself but is not rich in what matters to God.” (Lk 12:13-21)
The painting of The Rich Fool (2007) by Central Texas artist, Jim Janknegt, is a complex and modern illustration of the parable of the wealthy man who decides to build bigger barns to store all of his grain and goods, only to lose his life that very night. It is ultimately a parable, as with so many of Jesus’s parables, of Christian values. 
The painting consists of a central panel surrounded by a border of related smaller vignettes. The central image is of two homes, one a more luxurious modern home in which sits a man alone at a large table, the “rich fool” at his ample yet lonely dinner. Across the dinner table from him sits the angel of death. Next to this house sits a much smaller and modest one in which resides a family –– a mother, father, and six children. 
In Janknegt’s painting, the wealth of the rich man is displayed in his well appointed home, filled with art and fine furnishings. In the living area across from the dining room, a modern sculpture of a figure with a hole in its center symbolizes the hollowness of a life of abundant possessions. The bedroom upstairs is one in which the rich man sleeps alone, and dreams of a life where he will relax, eat, drink and be merry. The landscaping around the wealthy man’s home is somewhat barren, with cactus plants and large rocks. Reflecting the somberness of the event, the night sky contains a full haloed moon, shrouded by strips of clouds. 
In the monochromatic border of the painting we see the trappings of material prosperity –– furnishings, electronics, jewelry, etc. Ironically, the image on the television screen is a talking head, a skull, perhaps a news anchor relating the horrors of the day’s events. In the border there are images of side by side houses. In one, we see the home of the rich man after his death, with a “For Sale” sign in its yard, a sale that will in no way profit our fool. In the upper border, one of the houses is being bulldozed, to make room for a larger home which the fool will ostensibly fill with all his possessions. Beneath the images of the consumer goods, we see phrases from advertising circulars, encouraging us to “Buy One Get One Free,” and to purchase items that are “Essential for Every Home.” We are reminded that faith is the only matter that is essential for every home, and grace, the only commodity that is free: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God” (Eph 2:8).
In a video diary about this painting, the artist shares that among other things, his painting is about relationships: the contentious relationship of the two brothers who ask Jesus to arbitrate their conflict over their inheritance, the relationship between the rich man and God, and the relationship between him and his possessions. The family –– whose possessions are few –– eats together and is rich in their own company. Their yard is small and strewn with the toys of children at play. In comparison to the spare aesthetic of the rich man’s yard, the house of the family is set against a background of trees, perhaps suggesting the tree of life. Thus the two homes are a lesson in contrast –– desires versus needs, death versus life, excess versus sufficiency. Janknegt’s painting reminds us that Jesus wishes for us abundance –– not abundance of possessions, but a life rich toward God: “I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly” (Jn 10:10). 
Jim Janknegt is currently at work on a series of the parables, with the intention of publishing them as a Lenten devotional. His paintings are available at