In an…interesting article posted yesterday on CNN’s Belief Blog, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council argued that Jesus Christ, in opposition to the Occupy Wall Streeters, was a free-market capitalist. A friend of mine suggested I offer some thoughts, so here they are.
Perkin’s argument is oriented around a parable in Luke 19. (This is in general is a good place to start, because Luke talks more about money than the other gospels.) The parable in question is a familiar one about talents/minas (ancient units of money). In the story, a rich man calls his servants and gives them each a mina. Each is told to “occupy” themselves until the man returns. When he does, he finds that two servants have seen investment returns of 1000% and 500%. Another servant simply hides his mina while the master is gone and sees no profit. The rich man is angered with this latter servant for not doing more and takes his mina away and gives it to the servant with the most.
As Perkins states:
The primary purpose of the parable, which appears in the Gospel of Luke, was to make clear to his disciples that the kingdom of God would not be physically established on the earth for some time and that, until then, they were being entrusted with certain responsibilities….From a spiritual perspective, the mina in this parable represents the opportunity of life; each of us is given the same opportunity to build our lives, and each of us shares the same responsibility to invest our lives for the purpose of bringing a return and leaving a legacy. Jesus gave equal responsibility and opportunity to each of his 10 servants.
Here I agree with him. This story is all about serving God and diligently working as we wait for the kingdom. But when Perkins says the following, I get a little worried:
The fact that Jesus chose the free market system as the basis for this parable should not be overlooked. When the nobleman returns, after being established as king – a stand-in for Jesus – he calls all his servants together to see what they had accomplished in his absence…
Jesus rejected collectivism and the mentality that has occupied America for the last few decades: that everyone gets a trophy – equal outcomes for inequitable performance. There are winners and yes, there are losers. And wins and losses are determined by the diligence and determination of the individual.
Some would argue that such an approach encourages abuses, the likes of which we have seen on Wall Street. While some egregious abuses have taken place, they are not inevitable or intrinsic to free enterprise.
The parable of the king and the servants endorses the principles of business and the free market when properly employed.
With all due respect to Mr. Perkins, Jesus is not using this parable to talk about economic systems. He’s painting a picture of spiritual reality. Communism, socialism, and capitalism in their modern forms did not exist in Jesus’ time, and he was not trying to endorse or criticize one of them here; doing so would at the very least be anachronistic.
Albert Schweitzer once said that all of us tend to make Jesus into our own image, and I fear that Perkins has illustrated the principle beautifully. I do agree there is a lot about what Jesus teaches and does that has impact in our modern world, but to ham-handedly say that such a parable endorses the free market seems a bit specious.
Besides, if Jesus is in the business of endorsing modern economic systems, what do you do with the following parable from Matthew 20?
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
“About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.
“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’
“‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.
“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’
“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’
“The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’
“But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
If we follow Perkins’ method of biblical interpretation, Jesus might be a socialist too. Then the Occupiers can have their proof text just like the Family Research Council. Great.