What Does Jesus Teach About Investing?
Jesus talks about investment in his parables.
The first thing Jesus says about investing is something which He doesn’t explicitly say, but implies: that is, that investment is permitted, and even good. This is implied by the fact that Jesus tells parables in which the investor is ‘the good guy’.
The way that parables work in Rabbinical teaching methods (and Jesus was, in fact, a Rabbi) is that they reason ‘from light to heavy.’ This is also referred to as ‘the simple and the complex,’ which in Hebrew is called kal vahomer.
This teaching method is based on the principle that just as something is true on one lower level, ‘how much more’ is it true on a heavier, higher, more complex level. Just as it is true that mustard seeds grow into expansive trees, how much more is it true that the kingdom also grows expansively? If the lower, lighter level of meaning were false, then the method wouldn’t work. For example, if mustard seeds grew into a single, tiny Bonsai shrub, then the parable would fail.
In the parables of the Unforgiving Servant, the Laborers in the Vineyard, the two Parables of the Talents, and probably in the parable of the Unfaithful Steward, the owner/investor in the stories represents God. So, if the role of investor is unjust and unrighteous, then the ‘from heavy to light’ reasoning of the parable doesn’t work.
For example, the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard is about how God, the owner of the world, including the Holy Land, entrusted it to His stewards, the leaders of Israel. It is based on a similar parable/story in Isaiah Chapter 5. God invested in Israel. He put resources under their management to receive a return. The return was to be a spiritual return, that Israel would be a light to the Gentiles.
Instead, they turned inwards, and used the resources for their own selfish purposes. They were unfaithful stewards. But if ownership were a bad thing, then God could not be an owner. If the idea of stewardship, in which one person was an owner and another person or persons were the managers, were an inherently bad thing, then God would not have set up such an arrangement.
This latter point is a very important one, because it is the basis on which the vast majority of investments are made. When we buy stocks or bonds in a company, we become stewards of that wealth. We are owners, but we are not managers. Critics of capitalism point to the separation between ownership and management as inherently bad, causing an inevitable lack of accountability. But this could not be true, otherwise God would not use it.
Another good example of how Jesus endorsed investment, and one which is historically very important, is the reference to bankers in the parables of the Talents. When the lazy servant claims, falsely, to have been afraid, the master tells him: “‘Then you ought to have put my money in the bank, and on my arrival I would have received my money back with interest.” (Matt. 25:27NASB)
This verse helped end the medieval ban on lending at interest. If Jesus told a parable in which the character who represents God recommends getting interest from the banking system, then that implies that it is a legitimate practice. Otherwise the parable fails at the literal, ‘light’ level.
Jesus does tell two parables which stand out as having negative views on wealthy figures, the Parable of the Rich Fool and the (possible Parable) of Lazarus and the Rich Man. But, in neither of these parables does it appear that the wealthy owner is a stand-in for God. Also, I think the evidence clearly shows that neither parable is actually aimed at the merchant classes, despite the common belief that these are owners of commercial enterprises. (For more detail, click here and here).
Jesus clearly had a lot to say not just about wealth but about investment, and his teachings establish investment as a legitimate tool and calling.
What Is the Purpose of Faith-Based Investment?
We know that Jesus talked about money, and that this included investment matters and that he speaks in a way which shows the legitimate, even honorable nature of the investment calling. We know that he points out some of the pitfalls and problems with investments, for example the problems that come from entrusting assets to unfaithful stewards. Jesus’ references to Mammon, though a small proportion money mentions, show that wealth can become an idol.
But the question remains: what is investment for? What is its purpose? Of course, Christians know that all human callings, and human life itself is for the purpose of glorifying God. But not all human relationships serve and glorify God in exactly the same way. Marriage serves God’s purpose by providing companionship (‘it is not good for the man to be alone’) and children (‘be fruitful and multiply’) and to mirror the relationship between Christ and the Church (‘husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church). Is marriage there to make a profit? To till the ground? To serve communion? To wage war? No, there are other institutions formed to do those things. Marriages can provide companionship to the people performing these tasks. It can bring new children into the world to fulfill them. But marriage per se is not there to do these things.
So, what is the purpose of finance?
Its purpose, according to Jesus, is to provide a return.
In both versions of the Parable of the Talents, the steward who is condemned failed to provide a return. The two stewards who gave the owner a high (100%) return were both praised and rewarded. Not even trying to get a return is forcefully rebuked. Regarding the magnitude of return, the master suggests that a lower rate of return would have been appropriate if the master were highly risk averse.
“’…I was afraid, and went away and hid your talent in the ground. See, you have what is yours.’
“But his master answered and said to him, ‘You wicked, lazy slave, you knew that I reap where I did not sow and gather where I scattered no seed.Then you ought to have put my money [a]in the bank, and on my arrival I would have received my money back with interest.” (Matt. 25:25-27 NASB)
So, the goal of investment is not just to provide a financial return, but also to provide a high return relative to the level of risk.
The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard illustrates the same point:
“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard and put a wall around it and dug a wine press in it, and built a tower, and rented it out to vine-growers, and went on a journey.
“And when the harvest time approached, he sent his slaves to the vine-growers to receive his produce.” (Matt. 21:33-34 NASB)
The landowner bought land (or inherited it from someone who bought it), invested capital into developing that land, and then rented it for what purpose? To receive ‘produce’, literally ‘fruit’, which can refer to actual fruit or simply to any form of gain.
Jesus’ used analogies from agriculture which emphasize the order of magnitude of the return.
“And other seeds fell into the good soil and as they grew up and increased, they yielded a crop and produced thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold.” (Mk. 4:8 NASB)
Of course, the parable is intended to explain the progress of the kingdom, but parables reason from light to heavy, in this case from agricultural enterprises to the spread of the Gospel. The argument is that just as it is a good thing for a farm owner to get a very high yield on his investment of seed, how much more is it good to have a very high yield on the preaching of the Gospel. The analogy only makes sense if the purpose of farming enterprises is a high rate of return.
At the most basic level, Biblically Responsible Investing, A.K.A Christian Investing, means investing to get a return, a high return based on hard work, excellence and levels of risk. That is the basic responsibility which the Bible places on the investment process. When the asset manager is different from the asset owner, there is a further responsibility to act as a faithful steward, that is to act in the best interest of the investor as opposed to the best interest of the manager.
Truly Biblical investment strategies will start with that positive purpose of investment, as opposed to find a Christian investment fund whose purpose focuses mainly on imposing a set of restrictions on which sin industries to block.
Many questions arise which are beyond the bounds of this article: What principles help investors to increase the probability of a good return? Should we use screens against ‘sinful’ companies? Should we allocate assets for the purpose of social goals? How do we deal with the issue of Mammon, i.e. the worship of money? These are all questions well worth dealing with.
But we must always keep in mind that this not of the essence of investing. Investing was not created by God for the purpose of not sinning. It is for the purpose of a good rate of return for the glory of God. Getting that first principle right will help us get all of those other questions right too.
Originally published on Townhall Finance.
Jerry Bowyer is a Forbes contributor, contributing editor of AffluentInvestor.com, and Senior Fellow in Business Economics at The Center for Cultural Leadership.
Jerry has compiled an impressive record as a leading thinker in finance and economics. He worked as an auditor and a tax consultant with Arthur Anderson, as Vice President of the Beechwood Company which is the family office associated with Federated Investors, and has consulted in various privatization efforts for Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. He founded the influential economic think tank, the Allegheny Institute, and has lectured extensively at universities, businesses and civic groups.
Jerry has been a member of three investment committees, among which is Benchmark Financial, Pittsburgh’s largest financial services firm. Jerry had been a regular commentator on Fox Business News and Fox News. He was formerly a CNBC Contributor, has guest-hosted “The Kudlow Report”, and has written for CNBC.com, National Review Online, and The Wall Street Journal, as well as many other publications. He is the author of The Bush Boom and more recently The Free Market Capitalist’s Survival Guide, published by HarperCollins. Jerry is the President of Bowyer Research.
Jerry consulted extensively with the Bush White House on matters pertaining to the recent economic crisis. He has been quoted in the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes Magazine, The International Herald Tribune and various local newspapers. He has been a contributing editor of National Review Online, The New York Sun and Townhall Magazine. Jerry has hosted daily radio and TV programs and was one of the founding members of WQED’s On-Q Friday Roundtable. He has guest-hosted the Bill Bennett radio program as well as radio programs in Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles.
Jerry is the former host of WorldView, a nationally syndicated Sunday-morning political talk show created on the model of Meet The Press. On WorldView, Jerry interviewed distinguished guests including the Vice President, Treasury Secretary, HUD Secretary, former Secretary of Sate Condoleezza Rice, former Presidential Advisor Carl Rove, former Attorney General Edwin Meese and publisher Steve Forbes.
Jerry has taught social ethics at Ottawa Theological Hall, public policy at Saint Vincent’s College, and guest lectured at Carnegie Mellon’s graduate Heinz School of Public Policy. In 1997 Jerry gave the commencement address at his alma mater, Robert Morris University. He was the youngest speaker in the history of the school, and the school received more requests for transcripts of Jerry’s speech than at any other time in its 120-year history.
Jerry lives in Pennsylvania with his wife, Susan, and the youngest three of their seven children.