There are plenty of folks who want to enlist Jesus for their socialist and radical left political agendas. There want to convince us that Jesus was a Marxist and a social justice warrior. They are sure, for example, that if he were alive today he would be a lifelong member of the Democratic Party in the US.
Of course, anyone actually reading the gospel accounts carefully – along with the rest of Scripture – will know full well that Jesus was nothing of the sort. All through the biblical record, we have a strong case being made for the basics of the free market system – not the Marxist alternative.
Two of the Ten Commandments for example presuppose the core principle of the free enterprise system: private property. These would be the commandments about theft and not coveting your neighbour’s property. This theme runs throughout all of Scripture.
Robert Sirico, an American Catholic priest, has long written on economic and political issues. I discussed his earlier volume, Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case For a Free Economy (Regnery, 2012), in this article.
His new volume focuses on the parables of Jesus and how various economic themes are treated. He makes it clear that Jesus of course was not primarily interested in economics, but his teachings – including his parables – regularly drew upon basic economic and commercial realities of his day. Says Sirico:
“We need to guard against the impression that Jesus came up with these examples to recommend some particular political system or to promote some ideal economic policy. . . . Instead, the parables are concerned with life conflicts and difficulties familiar to anyone.”
Indeed, as he reminds us, there are layers of meaning found in these various parables: “Parables teach on two levels: the real-life message and the theological analog. In order to comprehend the fullness of the message, both must be understood.”
Yet in his discussions of normal everyday life back then, he made numerous economic references and clearly showed that he was more in tune with some economic systems rather than others. Socialism and capitalism were not categories back then, but if we seek to assess these current models, we can see where Jesus tended to side.
All up Sirico covers thirteen of the parables of Jesus. Let me look at just a few of them. Consider the Parable of the Talents as found in Matthew 15:14-30 and Luke 19:12-27. This quite familiar parable may be the most famous of his, along with that of the Prodigal Son. A key truth being conveyed in this parable is the need to be good stewards of what God has entrusted to us:
This is hardly the first time we see this theme in the Bible. In the book of Genesis, God entrusts to Adam the Earth upon which to apply human labor for the sustenance of the human family—a situation parallel to this parable. Essentially the same thing is seen in the Parable of the Talents, where the master expects his servants to exercise their creativity. Rather than passively hiding what has been given, the servants are expected to invest the money, that is, to be creative with it, applying their minds and labor. The master is angered by the timidity—and the mischaracterization of the master himself—by the servant who had received the one talent and produced nothing with it.
As any entrepreneur or businessman knows, there is always an element of risk in any economic activity. Those who fear taking risks will never get very far. This concept is also dealt with in this parable. Writes Sirico:
Another instructive point in the Parable of the Talents has to do with security. Throughout human history, people have repeatedly attempted to achieve perfect security, just as the failed servant did in this parable. Such efforts have ranged from the Greco-Roman welfare states to nationalist movements of various types and full-scale Soviet totalitarianism down to the Luddite communes of the 1960s. These efforts have not infrequently been embraced by Christians as morally superior solutions for the insecurity that plagues human existence.
Yet in the Parable of the Talents, it is the virtue of courage in the face of an unknown future that is rewarded—in the first two servants, who both doubled the large amounts they were entrusted with by risking them. The first traded the five talents and in doing so acquired five more. It would have been far more secure for this servant to have invested the money in the bank and received interest. But his confidence and accurate knowledge of his master allowed him to keep what had been entrusted to him as well as what he earned, and thus to discover a deeper relationship of joy with his master.
The ability to create wealth is the heart of the free enterprise system. The wealth we create should be used for God and his Kingdom purposes. Mere lust for more and more material goods is not the way to proceed here. Indeed, greed and the sin of materialism are often condemned in Scripture. But this parable is not calling for a socialist-type social levelling.
Sirico reminds us that the talents given to the servants were to be used based on their abilities. The servants were not treated “equally” but according to how wise and hard-working they were: “Each person possesses a calling that will allow him to employ the faculties, aptitudes, and talents with which he has been endowed. Each is simply called to be faithful, not necessarily successful.”
Another well-known parable involves the king going to war (Luke 14:28-33). Various economic truisms can be gleaned from it. The importance of planning and calculation is one such principle. Counting the cost in terms of spiritual discipleship also applies in the material world. Says Sirico:
The parable, then, is intended as a caution to the disciple: this struggle is going to be hard and long. If we are unwilling to go the distance, we should not begin at all. The world of economics also exemplifies this principle. The transformation of whole societies from poverty to prosperity via development and production takes place over time; it does not happen instantly. Human beings have the capacity to plan for the future in a way that extends far beyond the capacity in animals. We can think short-term and long-term.…
Both the Parable of the Tower and the Parable of the King Going to War address the subject of incomplete projects and the need for intelligent planning. Thus they are particularly interesting from the point of view of economics to the extent that they have implications for an issue that vexes the commercial sector: moments when investment go awry, namely recessions and business failures.
Businesses will not survive without prudent and cautious planning, investment and careful and efficient work skills. But too often governments do not care about how much money is wasted, how many projects go bust, and how badly politicians act as financial planners. They just slug the taxpayers for all the mistakes they make. The state I live in here in Australia is a crystal-clear case in point.
Sirico closes his volume with some concluding thoughts. As already mentioned, he recognises the many warnings found in Scripture about riches and greed. But Christian care for others – including their material needs – is certainly also addressed. Wealth creation is not sinful in itself, but a great social good.
Indeed, countless millions of individuals have benefited: “The fact is that between 1800 and 1950 the proportion of the world’s population living in dire poverty was cut in half, and then it was cut in half again from 1950 to 1980.” That amazing achievement came about not through socialism but through the free market.
It is passiveness and covetousness that the Bible condemns. Thus, “ownership as a form or mode of stewardship that itself results from creativity is another matter altogether. Christianity has never taught that wealth as such is evil but warned, instead, against the vices of intemperance, over-indulgence, greed, and acquisitiveness.”
While the religious leftists want to denigrate the free market in all its forms, they need to learn from history: “The fact is, many of the wealthy among us – brilliant and productive entrepreneurs, capitalists, investors – have participated in the creation of the world as we know it, with many benefits for those who are not accounted rich.”
Yes, the desire for more and more material goods must always be guarded against. But railing against the wealthy who have often helped to raise the standard of living for the masses is not what we should concentrate on: “Jesus’ conflicts with the rich were due more to their arrogance and pride than to their wealth; he condemned them for their disdain or disregard for the poor, rather than for their holdings.”
Too many Christians have some very foggy notions about what the Bible in general and Jesus, in particular, have to say about wealth, work and economics. A volume like this will go a long way in dispelling some of that moral and mental cloudiness.