Posted by: davidwhall | August 21, 2008

Calvin and Wealth: Part 4

Profit is praised or countenanced by the Bible: Parables

Many OT passages imply that making more wealth or adding to one’s estate is a good activity. While charity is commended in the OT, wealth is not condemned in the Hebrew Scriptures. When the NT has opportunity to advocate either the redistribution of wealth or equal incomes, it does not. Several of Jesus’ parables allude to this.

In one well known parable, Jesus spoke of units of currency given to servants to use or invest (Mt. 25:14-30). One servant took 5 units, put it to work, and yielded 5 more units. The second servant was given or loaned 2 units to be put to work in the market (which seems to have been assumed to be fairly unhindered or regulated), and his labor and investment yielded 2 more units. This profit was accepted, approved, and praised by the Savior, who spoke to the venture affirmatively as “well done,” “good,” “faithful,” and worthy of the master’s “happiness” (v. 21). In addition to this blessing, the faithful investor was promised to be put in charge of other tasks for his master.

However, this parable contains a large contrast. In contrast to the industrious servants, one garnered no increase. One servant took his master’s beginning stake and neither put it to work nor merely received interest on it as in a fixed-rate interest. This person offered no gain or profit to his master, and was definitely criticized for this loss of potential profit. The words of Jesus make this clear when he spoke of this investor as “wicked,” “lazy,” and not trusting in the Lord’s power (v. 26). Accordingly, Jesus’ view of interest and profit may be partially discerned from his words in v. 27: “You should have put my money on deposit with the bankers so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.”

One of the things that Calvin drew from this parable was that God “does not bestow on all indiscriminately the same measure of gifts . . . but distributes them variously as he thinks proper.” It is thus clear from this and other passages that Calvin’s Protestant work ethic did not think it wrong that outcomes or distribution were unequal. On the contrary, Calvin recognized that, in principle, different people could be given differing amounts without violating justice. What was expected of each, however, was that “whatever gifts the Lord bestowed on us,” that seed-fund was to “yield some gain.” (441) Calvin went so far as to term it supremely “unreasonable” that we would allow the capital to remain buried or fail to invest it, since its value “consisted in yielding fruit.” (442)

When Calvin commented on Matthew 25:15, he recognized that the “master of the house,” or God, “has assigned to everyone his place, and has bestowed on him natural gifts, gives him also this or the other injunction, employs him in the management of affairs, raises him to various offices, furnishes him with abundant means of eminent usefulness, and presents to him the opportunity.” (442) He even interprets this parable to compare, not negatively, the Christian life to “trading,” in which “exchange,” “barter,” “merchandise,” and “industry” are all approved. (443) He states further that the goal of the “gain” in this parable by Jesus is “to yield profit,” (443) far from denouncing increase. At the same time, he also warned against the opposite of profitableness: sloth. He noted that the rebuke contained in this parable was reserved for those unprofitable servants, who had been given gifts, but then did not use them. Calvin believed that such sloth would lead to being “deprived of them all, and that their wretched and shameful poverty would redound to the glory of the good.” (444) Such slothful people “hide either the talent or the pound in the earth, because while they consult their own ease and gratifications, they refuse to submit to any uneasiness; as we see very many who, while they are privately devoted to themselves and to their own advantage, avoid all the duties of charity and have no regard to the general edification.” (444) These should have at least deposited their money “with a banker that it might at least gain interest.” (444)

Thus we see . . . conclusion?


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