A Theology of Capitalism: Entrepreneurs vs. Money-changers

Theology Of Capitalism
There are two different stories people tell about capitalism. Those who describe capitalism favorably say that it is the story of how the innovation and creativity of entrepreneurs are unleashed through a spontaneity of resources provided in a free market. Capitalism’s critics tell the story of how money-changers are constantly hunting for ways to make money without sweating a drop by leveraging workers and markets against each other and finding loopholes to be exploited. Both of these stories are true, though not always equally. At this particular juncture in our nation’s history, the money-changers are winning the day by masquerading as entrepreneurs. If it’s true that corporate profits are at record highs while unemployment remains high, then the money-changers have found a way to create wealth for themselves without creating jobs. I am not qualified to explain how this works, since I’m a pastor, not an economist, but Jesus had plenty to say about entrepreneurs and money-changers that is relevant to thinking through a Christian response to the competing economic visions that are being set before us this election year.

The capitalist’s favorite Bible story, the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30, is the story of a master who gave each of his three servants a different amount of money to invest and bear fruit for him. The first two servants use the money they receive (the equivalent of about $2 million and $800,000 respectively) to make the master a 100 percent profit. The third servant buries the $400,000 he receives in the ground so that he can return to his master exactly what he received. The master rewards the first two servants and punishes the third one. Capitalist Christians often use this story as a proof-text in economic debate to say simply, “See, Jesus endorses capitalism.” But there’s way more going on here than Jesus’ endorsement.

This story illustrates the difference between the two kinds of fear that we find in the Bible. People who bury their gold in the ground exhibit the kind of fear the third servant articulates when he says to his master, “I know you are a hard man, harvesting where you do not sow … so I was afraid” (Matthew 25:24-25). We need to understand the metaphor correctly: this is more than a question of whether someone invests in Treasury bonds or venture capitalism. It concerns our attitude about the gifts and calling we have received from God. Christians who believe that God is a “hard man” instead of an extravagantly generous Father will always choose the safest, most practical, or most “normal” option in any given decision whether it’s career, neighborhood, children’s activities, or even which restaurants to patronize. Their spiritual goal is to find out exactly what it takes to put themselves and their families right with the mean, scary God they believe in and not add a penny to that. Far too many American Christians live in this state of fearful conformity as evidenced by their increasing migration to homogenized cultural gated communities.

What God desires are disciples like the first two servants who live in a different kind of fear: “the fear of the Lord and the confidence of the Holy Spirit” that caused the early church to “increase in numbers” (Acts 9:31). This fear is the ecstatic awe that arises from an encounter with a living infinite God which makes believers paradoxically fearless before all of the obstacles, naysayers and red tape that stand between them and the dreams God has given them. They are confident that God’s breath can blow down every intransigent wall in “the system,” which makes them willing to be “heretics” to the logic of the world, to use one of Seth Godin’s memes. These entrepreneurs are liberated enough from obsessing over their financial security that they pursue God’s calling with the same confidence exuded by the 72 apostles whom Jesus sent out as “lambs among wolves” without taking “a purse or bag or sandals” (Luke 10:4).

Related: Interrupting Inequality — from Wall Street to Your Street — by Shane Claiborne

The entrepreneurs who represent the best of capitalism are very different from the money-changers who represent its worst. Money-changers are people who insert themselves in the nooks and crannies of the economic order where money can be siphoned out, the most prominent example in Jesus’ day being the Jerusalem temple vendors. Jews would pilgrimage to the temple from all over the Roman Empire to offer animal sacrifices. The temple vendors had a market because of the difficulty of transporting birds or cattle hundreds of miles for the sacrifice. If a pilgrim came all that way and had to buy a sacrificial animal at the gate for the trip to be worth anything, how much price-gouging do you think those money-changers could get away with? Markups of 500 percent? One-thousand percent? The other way they could gouge pilgrims was through the exchange of Roman money into Tyrian money since Caesar’s coins were considered unclean for use in sacrificial purchases. All of this swindling was taking place at Judaism’s most sacred site. That’s why Jesus whipped them and smashed their tables.

So who are the entrepreneurs and who are the money changers in our economy? It’s easier to think of celebrity names to throw out (Bill Gates, entrepreneur; Bernie Madoff, money-changer), but I imagine that most roles, at least in our financial industry, involve a varying mix of entrepreneurship and money-changing. I need to have the integrity to admit that I can’t parse out the difference between creating a more efficient flow of capital and creating loopholes where profit can accumulate. Depending on who’s telling the story, a company like Bain Capital is either the catalyst for entrepreneurial dreams or a profit-sucking vulture. It seems too easy to try to put it wholly into one category or the other.

What is more relevant to ask is whether our current tax and regulatory system incentivizes entrepreneurship or money-changing. Billionaire entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban thinks the latter. This is what he wrote in a recent blog post:

The only people who know what business Wall Street is in are the high frequency and automated traders … To traders, whether day traders or high frequency or somewhere in between, Wall Street has nothing to do with creating capital for businesses, its original goal. Wall Street is a platform … to be exploited by every technological and intellectual means possible … Its primary business is no longer creating capital for business. Creating capital for business has to be less than 1pct of the volume on Wall Street in any given period.

Brave New Films

According to Cuban’s analysis, our economy has become an environment in which the money-changers are choking our entrepreneurial potential. Layer upon layer of superstructure is being added onto the high stakes poker game of Wall Street, which increasingly has little to do with creating products that actually exist in material space. Cuban’s proposed solution is not something that either political party would have the courage to say aloud:

My 2 cents is that it is important for this country to push Wall Street back to the business of creating capital for business. Whether its through a use of taxes on trades (hit every trade on a stock held less than 1 hour with a 10c tax and all these problems go away), or changing the capital gains tax structure so that there is no capital gains tax on any shares of stock (private or public company) held for 1 year or more, and no tax on dividends paid to shareholders who have held stock in the company for more than 5 years.

Also by Morgan: Kingdom Politics – Sewing the Great Commandment Back Together

I imagine Cuban is viewed as a wingnut by financial industry experts, but it seems like the predominant attitude about how capitalism is supposed to work has been marked by the same kind of white-knuckled fearful clutch of ideology that the third servant in Jesus’ parable had around his master’s gold. There is a legitimate beauty behind the wide-eyed utopianism of the capitalism apologists; entrepreneurship is beautiful. But entrepreneurship is not money-changing and anyone who tries to conflate the two is either cynical or ignorant. There is obviously a legitimate economic role for commodity trading, private equity, venture capital and so forth, but it’s naive to assume that these processes will take care of themselves unsupervised without becoming giant tumors that emaciate the rest of the economy.

Of course, there would be no parasitic money changers if everyone in our country feared the Lord in the proper biblical sense because we would be “lilies of the field” untainted by the poisonous anxiety that no profit margin is safe enough to guarantee that we will never be poor. This strange anxiety is the carcinogenic DNA that has made our society what it currently is. Jesus told a story about it in Luke 12:13-21. A rich man gathered too many crops in his harvest to fit in his barn, but instead of giving the remainder to the poor, he decided to build a bigger barn. The next day he died, like everyone eventually does.

Better to live as an entrepreneur trusting in God’s rich bounty than as a money-changer fearful of the market’s scarcity.

Morgan Guyton is the associate pastor of Burke United Methodist Church in Burke, Virginia, and a Christian who continues to seek God’s liberation from the prison of self-justification Jesus died to help him overcome. Morgan’s blog “Mercy Not Sacrifice” is located at http://morganguyton.wordpress.com. Follow Morgan on twitter at www.twitter.com/maguyton.

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About the Author

Morgan Guyton

Morgan GuytonMorgan Guyton is the author of How Jesus Saves the World from Us: 12 Antidotes to Toxic Christianity. His blog Mercy Not Sacrifice is hosted at Patheos. He and his wife Cheryl are co-directors of NOLA Wesley, a Reconciling United Methodist campus ministry at Tulane and Loyola in New Orleans, LA.View all posts by Morgan Guyton →

  • NeartheEdge

    Thanks Morgan for a great article.
    What we now call capitalism is indeed cancerous wealth accumulation in ever increasing amounts in the fewer and fewer places which has the same effect on the host as a cancer in the body – the host (the real economy) dies. This is as true here in the UK as the US. Our economic system is based on the golden rule – those with the gold make the rules; it has more in common with Ponzi schemes than legitimate wealth creation.

    Like you, I’ve heard the parable of the talents used to defend capitalism as was the “good samaritan” used to defend trickle-down economics. As you rightly say, neither of these parables has anything to do with economics of any kind or innate creative ability. In other words, and turning the talents parable on its head, the two with the most talents would still have been commended above the third even if they’d not made a farthing more, the difference being they were willing to risk it all for their master.

  • Macroman

    Morgan,as Christians I think we need to use a little logic on the passages in Mathew 25:14-30 and Luke 19:12-26. Personally I think the passages have nothing to do with money. Is Jesus concerned about money? No. What does heaven value the most? Are we required to work our lives for another
    paving stone? The passage in Luke is not exactly the same as Mathew. Each servant in this case is given the same amount of money and the servant is rewarded with the management of cities. When are we to manage cities on Jesus return? What is the most valuable item God has given us? Eternal life! Why is it the same and different? As a father I was given my soul and 2 more souls to take care of. If I just return my soul to Jesus at the end of the age, he will not be happy with me. Like the non-bearing vine branch he will burn me up. We can’t take the precious Gospel and bury it. This reality should drive us to use our money as entrepreneurs for Christ. If I am managing or building a company my thoughts are for the people that He draws in to me as a captive audience and that God gives to me for 8 or more hours a day. There are only a couple of entrepreneurs for Christ like this in the US.

  • Jonathan

    My favorite interpretation of the Parable of the Talents:
    Even more problematic than our sentimentalizing of kingdom parables is the way we misread Jesus’ parables about the world, reading them as if they were kingdom parables—with disastrous consequences. The most notorious case is the infamous parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14-30).

    This has been for many an unsettling story. It seems to promote ruthless business practices (v. 20), usury (v. 27), and the cynical view that the rich will only get richer while the poor become destitute (v.29). Moreover, if we assume, as does the traditional reading, that the master is a figure for God, it is a severe portrait indeed: an absentee lord (v. 15) who cares only about profit maximization (v. 21), this character is hardhearted (v. 24) and ruthless (v. 30).

    Despite these concerns, this story still routinely occasions countless homilies (usually on stewardship Sunday) about how we Christians should gainfully employ our “talents” for God—despite the fact that “talent” in the Gospel text has nothing to do with our individual gifts and everything to do with economics. Might it be that we have imposed upon the parable our capitalist presumptions about the glories of a system that rewards “venture capital,” and thus read the story exactly backwards?

    The original audience of this story would not have had to allegorize the parable to make sense of it. Its portrait of a great household—the closest thing in antiquity to the modern corporation—was all too recognizable. The powerful patriarch would often be away on economic or political business. His affairs would be handled by slaves, who in Roman society often rose to prominent positions in the household hierarchy as “stewards” (25:15).

    But the sums entrusted here border on hyperbole. Scott writes: “A talent was one of the largest values of money in the Hellenistic world. A silver coinage, it weighed between fifty-seven and seventy-four pounds. One talent was equal to 6,000 denarii.” Since one denarius was an average subsistence wage for a day’s labor, one talent was worth more than fifteen years wages. In the modern era, we might roughly translate the assets made available for investment at about $2.5 million. These are elite financial dealings indeed!
    The first two slaves double their master’s investment (25:16-17).

    Though lauded by modern interpreters, this feat would have elicited disgust from the first-century audience. In his article “A Peasant Reading of the Parable of the Talents,” Richard Rohrbaugh notes that in antiquity the highest legal interest rate was about 12 percent; anything higher was considered rapacious. This is the first of many hints that the operations of this household are something less than exemplary.

    Read more:

  • The Parable’s message: “Take chances! Get messy! Make mistakes!”

    • Ed

      Gambling is not condoned by Christ.

  • keith

    Morgan, I know you probablly dont care what I think but I actually think you did a good job on this. I have to agree with most of it. Well done.

  • Jonathan

    The original audience of this story would not have had to allegorize the parable to make sense of it.

    • Macroman

      Yes much of the true Gospel was hidden from the audience until the fulfillment of salvation. Even the disciples did not understand the parables until later. Personally I think the key is paralleling the two scriptures in Luke and Matthew.
      If the parables were about gaining wealth, why did the disciples not pursue wealth instead of souls? You do not get physically rich traveling the Roman world preaching and being martyred for their faith.

  • Eric

    Excellent, insightful piece. Thanks for offering it. I hope it receives thoughtful -and faithful- attention.

  • Dan Lee

    Great post, interesting take on the third servant. He was so afraid of losing what he had that he could not bring himself to take a risk and invest it. We do that too, and when we do, we’re forgetting that it is Spirit in us that is actually doing the work and who is ultimately responsible for the results. Our jobs as Christians, like a musician learning to play an instrument, is to get out there and practice and learn. God knows our limitations better than we do, and when we shirk our duty to him out of “fear” of him, we are disrespecting his understanding of us as his children and failing to understand how deep his love is.

    When we have a bond with God through his Spirit, maintaining awareness of that connection is all we need when we’re doing his work. that awareness is the bond. Maintaining our confidence in Him, rather than judging ourselves when things don’t work the way we expected, is the mindset we need to avoid being that 3rd servant.

    I believe Jesus’ fury at the money-changers was his one and only act of aggression. As to our current situation there are some who believe that we’re in this mess because we’re in a debt-based economy now rather than a commodity-based one (e.g. Ron Paul, ZeroHedge, etc), and the money-changers can just print (borrow) more if they get in trouble, but I likewise do not know enough economics to judge that. I do agree with Mark Cuban, and I feel we have neither free market nor as free a democracy as we imagine.

    Anyway, nice post and good read, thanks!

    -Dan, notanist.com

  • Benjamin

    I don’t use Bible stories to justify capitalism.
    Don’t project.

  • Ed

    Although I agree w/some type of tax on “all” Wall Street trades, including High Frequency Trades, I am reminded how our previous pastor ministered how it is a Privilege to pay our taxes. So I disagree w/Mark who BTW was accused recently of insider trading and now promotes eliminating Cap Gains and taxes on Dividends for certain time periods? Why is it popular to avoid paying a tax on a profit realized regardless of its lifespan?

    Does this seem like the best way for Those who are mainly in the upper middle class and above? Those wealthy enough to dabble/invest/gamble in the stock market legally avoid their tax responsibility? If the wealthiest few in the world now pay a lower % of their income in taxes than in 60 years, how is the country going to feed and care for its less fortunate? Does anyone care anymore enough to speak for them as Jesus Did?

    Being a Tea Party Member is a nice way of saying we as the well off want more and are willing to give less to get it? Mark has already got his and apparently feels it is noble to champion investors escaping tax responsibility for Americas wealthier families even at the cost to our poorest at business’s w/Wall Mart like practices of paying their employees less than a living wage so their shareholders can aquire more? Is their anyone who will speak for the widows, single mothers, orphans, minorities, fatherless children, mentally ill, elderly, etc, or is hoarding profits in off shore accounts and claiming every deduction, write off, cap gain, accelerated depreciation, etc,,, all that counts in reducing the revenue needed to care for our countries Neediest human beings?

    No mention of Derivatives?

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