Today we are making available the first of ten installments to our new online video series for Economics in the Gospels.
Treasure, Gold, and Money
A trillion here, a trillion there, before long that adds up to real money! That is a not too tongue-in-cheek assessment of our current economic situation.
Money was similarly front and center in Roman times and society too. Their interest in controlling their money supply had developed over at least 700 years by Jesus’s time. Add 2,000 years and you have a Federal Reserve and other central banks manipulating and trying to keep our worldwide economic system on an even keel. The Gospel writers do not reference economists, monetary nor fiscal policies, but they had coins.
Gold is an early economic occurrence in the Gospels, and we are still extremely interested in the supply and value of gold today as a cornerstone of the entire worldwide economic system. Many imagine we are still on the gold standard, that there is something backing up the trillions being printed in the proverbial basement of the Fed. But the money we use nowadays is largely paper and bytes with nary a coin from gold nowadays, though it was not that long ago that we did. Paper money in 1st century Jerusalem? Not so much. Imagine Jesus upsetting the table of the credit card issuers?!
All-in-all this first video installment is a great way to kick off our course and I have seen it in action with my students in Kathmandu, who especially love the Q&A with the Ladies from St. Luke’s.
Unfortunately, we start with a fairly long-winded introduction, but it does lay out the background of the study and the economics centered/non-theological context we are going for. The Parable of the Talents and the Parable of the Wedding Banquet make it worthwhile I hope. But if not just sneak ahead thirteen minutes or so and you will be ready to go.
All videos in the course follow the study closely which can be found on Amazon by clicking here. To read along we have also posted the corresponding excerpts from the study further on in this blog.
Up Next: Kingdoms & Labor (Part 1)
For more information about the course click here.
To view the video click here.
For the study text click here.
Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot, people were eating, drinking, buying, selling, planting, building;
This little book presents a view of the Gospel Economy and with it analogies to current day mixed economies and Capitalism.
The study of the Gospels, and the rest of the Bible, provides “nuggets” of relevant economic commentary – some of the earliest Jewish thought on money that the world has. The economic lessons are not paramount to the writers, for the most part – and yet there they are. So obvious, and yet largely overlooked.
A review of ancient writings, not just Judeo-Christian, for economic lessons may be useful for economists. Current economic theory and practice have shown weakness as recently as the “Great Recession” and housing crash.
The Gospels are rich in economic images, especially the Parables. Notice the following famous parable that includes mentions of cattle, farming, business, a wedding, soldiers, streets, a hall, a banquet, clothes, slaves and attendants, etc…
The Parable of the Wedding Banquet
Matthew 22:1 Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying: 22:2 “The kingdom of heaven can be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 22:3 He sent his slaves to summon those who had been invited to the banquet, but they would not come. 22:4 Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited, “Look! The feast I have prepared for you is ready. My oxen and fattened cattle have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.”’ 22:5 But they were indifferent and went away, one to his farm, another to his business. 22:6 The rest seized his slaves, insolently mistreated them, and killed them. 22:7 The king was furious! He sent his soldiers, and they put those murderers to death and set their city on fire. 22:8 Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but the ones who had been invited were not worthy. 22:9 So go into the main streets and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 22:10 And those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all they found, both bad and good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests. 22:11 But when the king came in to see the wedding guests, he saw a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. 22:12 And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without wedding clothes?’ But he had nothing to say. 22:13 Then the king said to his attendants, ‘Tie him up hand and foot and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth!’ 22:14 For many are called, but few are chosen.”
The Gospels show a big service economy with a large construction component, light manufacturing and big agriculture. There are specific mentions of clergy, lawyers, tax collectors, teaching, law enforcement, banking, and many other jobs. Slavery is a given.
Agriculture and food production are ubiquitous in the writings. Farming, baking, and wine making are huge. The mention of fields and their integral place in the landscape is visible throughout.
A construction industry, both for housing and other structures, are evidenced everywhere in the Gospels, especially homes and religious buildings.
Basic manufacturing and the production of goods are apparent, including a significant production of textiles and clothing. A sizable boat industry is apparent.
Government spending is demonstrated primarily in military spending and government bureaucracy. A big part of this government activity is tax collection. A monetary system is firmly in place.
The system of government is largely autocratic and theocratic.
Income disparity appears to be acute though not oppressive from the Gospel writers’ points of view. The Gospels don’t really complain too much about how unfair the system is. Instead the rich are spoken to in ways that are more warning than envy. The poor are well represented - there were obviously many. They also appear to be accepted as part of the society, and left to fend for themselves. There is no safety net to be discerned.
There is also much that is not in the Gospels – too much to mention. For instance we can identify no wheeled vehicles, no chariots or wagons. Even horses aren’t mentioned, aside from the occasional colt.
There is no energy sector, outside of lamp oil. Tech? Not much.
This book is written primarily for lay people. The author is not a great economist, nor New Testament scholar, though he does have an opportunity to mingle with both at Yale, which he is currently attending.
The order of topics presented in the book loosely follows their introduction in the Gospels – very loosely.
All passages chosen for inclusion demonstrate some economic factor (which is normally highlighted in the passages) - something that was produced by an economic activity, or that is related to labor, rent, land, capital, etc.
For the most part this book strives to avoid the metaphysical and religious observations or conclusions. This isn’t always easy, possible, or desired since the Bible has a religious point of view and trying to remove the religious is much like trying to remove the color green when describing a landscape. So, the reader will need to further filter/edit the included passages on their own if the non-secular offends/irritates too much.
For instance, sometimes passages contain an economic kernel right next to a discussion of the Kingdom of God, and the like. These are left to stand. Again, hopefully, the reader can keep the baby and the bathwater separate in their review of the passage presented.
Patience may be needed by the atheist or non-Christian, and generally the author tries very hard not to preach, though he is apparently more religious than most, although he doesn’t see himself that way. Rest assured, there are many Christians that won’t like much in this book as well.
The writings make their own case and the book tries to distill down to the physical and empirical. This is not always possible as the smallest unit of text taken from the Gospels is the verse - and when necessary additional verses before or after - if context is required. Parables are generally presented in their entirety. Analogies are made to more modern economic activity and thinking. Conventional wisdom and opinions are challenged.
The passages are taken from the NET Bible (New English Translation sponsored by the Biblical Studies Foundation and published by Biblical Studies Press) and the book’s commentary stands on the shoulders of translators. There is no attempt to go back to the Greek – as said before. This book is not targeted to scholars though there’s a hope they might find it interesting/useful anyway.
This book is not exhaustive – there will be things missed and surprises left. All four books: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John have been thoroughly scoured for all that they may offer along economic lines, but with brevity in mind. The Gospels themselves aren’t very long, so to write a book that is even longer is perhaps pushing the reader’s, and writer’s, patience. The Gospel passages are generally quick – so too the book’s commentary.
Each Gospel passage attempts to present the best example possible of what is identified as economic within the passage. However, there are often multiple kernels in the same passage, and attempts are made not to repeat passages. One will sometimes find it useful to look back (or forward) in the book to get the overall picture.
For the most part, charged words are included. It is understood that some that might read this book might be of different religions. The Gospels do not lend themselves to adjustment if their integrity is valued, so we keep them intact. Again, it is hoped that the baby can be preserved.
Several large-scale expressions of economic activity are specifically excluded as the author found it too cumbersome to manage. For instance, there are many mentions of cities and towns which are obviously centers of economic activity and the manifestation thereof. The book does not belabor the point and does not point out the obvious. Water as an economic resource is similarly not pointed-out as an economic manifestation.
Likewise, meals are largely ignored though feasts, banquets, and weddings do get plenty of the book’s attention.
Heavenly Kingdom(s) are also ignored for the most part, though its mention is ubiquitous in the Gospels. It gets mentioned frequently since the verse is the smallest unit of writing. It is not possible to parse out all that is metaphysical. The book does however try to deal with physical kingdoms on earth primarily.
Repetition of passages, even when tempting is avoided unless absolutely necessary. However, when passages are repeated in the different books of the Gospels, liberties are taken, when a certain verse includes multiple economic references.
It is, in the end, a book about economics…
The Parable of the Talents
Matthew 25:14 “For it is like a man going on a journey, who summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them. 25:15 To one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. 25:16 The one who had received five talents went off right away and put his money to work and gained five more. 25:17 In the same way, the one who had two gained two more. 25:18 But the one who had received one talent went out and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money in it. 25:19 After a long time, the master of those slaves came and settled his accounts with them. 25:20 The one who had received the five talents came and brought five more, saying, ‘Sir, you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.’ 25:21 His master answered, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave! You have been faithful in a few things. I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 25:22 The one with the two talents also came and said, ‘Sir, you entrusted two talents to me. See, I have gained two more.’ 25:23 His master answered, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave! You have been faithful with a few things. I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 25:24 Then the one who had received the one talent came and said, ‘Sir, I knew that you were a hard man, harvesting where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed, 25:25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. See, you have what is yours.’ 25:26 But his master answered, ‘Evil and lazy slave! So you knew that I harvest where I didn’t sow and gather where I didn’t scatter? 25:27 Then you should have deposited my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received my money back with interest! 25:28 Therefore take the talent from him and give it to the one who has ten. 25:29 For the one who has will be given more, and he will have more than enough. But the one who does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. 25:30 And throw that worthless slave into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
Nothing is more basic to modern economics than money - so too apparently in Jesus’ time.
Please note that throughout this book we break down the texts into specific words that have an economic context and also list in parentheses the number of times we find its mention. If we only find it once in all the Gospels there is no number.
So it would seem to be a good place to start an economics review of the Gospels, especially since the first economics lesson from the Gospels is also one of the most famous: the gift of gold to the newborn baby…
Matthew 2:11 As they came into the house and saw the child with Mary his mother, they bowed down and worshiped him. They opened their treasure boxes and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Money is seen throughout the Gospels much as it is seen today: a means of exchange, with utility to transact, and a store of value.
Money is also seen as something to be given away…
Matthew 6:24 “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.
Mark 10:21 As Jesus looked at him, he felt love for him and said, “You lack one thing. Go, sell whatever you have and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” 10:22 But at this statement, the man looked sad and went away sorrowful, for he was very rich.
And was a source for bribes and the fuel of conspiracy theories.
Matthew 28:12 After they had assembled with the elders and formed a plan, they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers. 28:15 So they took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story is told among the Jews to this day.
The priests were the chief antagonists of the Gospels, but even they had their limits.
Matthew 27:6 The chief priests took the silver and said, “It is not lawful to put this into the temple treasury, since it is blood money.”
Likewise, in the Gospels treasure is seen much like money and is referred almost always metaphorically and metaphysically…
Matthew 6:19 “Do not accumulate for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal.
Luke 12:34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Money Box (2)
You have got to keep the bucks somewhere.
John 13:29 Some thought that, because Judas had the money box, Jesus was telling him to buy whatever they needed for the feast, or to give something to the poor.
We see that the money most mentioned is primarily silver.
Mark 6:37 …“Should we go and buy bread for two hundred silver coins and give it to them to eat?”
Also, like today, coin can be a source of temptation.
Matthew 26:15 and said, “What will you give me to betray him into your hands?” So they set out thirty silver coins for him.
Money is also seen as a tool of the powerful, such as the chief priests…
Matthew 27:3 Now when Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus had been condemned, he regretted what he had done and returned the thirty silver coins to the chief priests and the elders, 27:4 saying, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood!” But they said, “What is that to us? You take care of it yourself!”
And associated with tragedy and regret…
Matthew 27:5 So Judas threw the silver coins into the temple and left. Then he went out and hanged himself.
Lastly, it is something shown to have value to people…
Luke 15:8 “Or what woman, if she has ten silver coins and loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search thoroughly until she finds it? 15:9 Then when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’
Four Drachma Coin
There are few more curious stories in all the Bible than this one featuring a coin…
Matthew 17:27 But so that we don’t offend them, go to the lake and throw out a hook. Take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth, you will find a four drachma coin. Take that and give it to them for me and you.”
The Gospels use money and treasure to paint moral choices – to teach lessons. These analogies are everywhere in the Gospels and are especially prevalent in the parables as economic motives are almost always front and center in Jesus’ stories and the miracles.
Matthew 12:35 The good person brings good things out of his good treasury, and the evil person brings evil things out of his evil treasury.
The lowly penny is used as a way to show the relative worth of sparrows, and us…
Luke 12:6 Aren’t five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten before God. 12:7 In fact, even the hairs on your head are all numbered. Do not be afraid; you are more valuable than many sparrows.
And how one has to pay their dues…
Matthew 5:25 Reach agreement quickly with your accuser while on the way to court, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the warden, and you will be thrown into prison. 5:26 I tell you the truth, you will never get out of there until you have paid the last penny!
Assets (3) / Estate
There is much in the Old Testament about the importance of inheritances. In the following parable we see the importance of such issues then, and in the present.
The Parable of the Compassionate Father
Luke 15:11 Then Jesus said, “A man had two sons. 15:12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate that will belong to me.’ So he divided his assets between them. 15:13 After a few days, the younger son gathered together all he had and left on a journey to a distant country, and there he squandered his wealth with a wild lifestyle. 15:14 Then after he had spent everything, a severe famine took place in that country, and he began to be in need. 15:15 So he went and worked for one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 15:16 He was longing to eat the carob pods the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything. 15:17 But when he came to his senses he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired workers have food enough to spare, but here I am dying from hunger! 15:18 I will get up and go to my father and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 15:19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired workers.”’ 15:20 So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way from home his father saw him, and his heart went out to him; he ran and hugged his son and kissed him. 15:21 Then his son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 15:22 But the father said to his slaves, ‘Hurry! Bring the best robe, and put it on him! Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet! 15:23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it! Let us eat and celebrate, 15:24 because this son of mine was dead, and is alive again – he was lost and is found!’ So they began to celebrate.
15:25 “Now his older son was in the field. As he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 15:26 So he called one of the slaves and asked what was happening. 15:27 The slave replied, ‘Your brother has returned, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he got his son back safe and sound.’ 15:28 But the older son became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and appealed to him, 15:29 but he answered his father, ‘Look! These many years I have worked like a slave for you, and I never disobeyed your commands. Yet you never gave me even a goat so that I could celebrate with my friends! 15:30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your assets with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ 15:31 Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and everything that belongs to me is yours. 15:32 It was appropriate to celebrate and be glad, for your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost and is found.’”