Jeff Van Duzer explains why businesses should prioritize people and product over profit.
Part 1 of this series on “investment as witness” argued that our financial investments say something about the meta-story by which we are living. It’s also the case that, from our Lord’s perspective, our investment practices say something about his character — either accurately or inaccurately.
We learn this from two stories Jesus tells about investing: the Parable of the Ten Minas (Luke 19:11-27) and the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30).
Several details are common to both: a wealthy master is going away; he entrusts substantial money to some servants; these servants produce different results with that capital during the master’s long absence; and the master judges them upon his return. The master in both texts is a figure of Jesus. Jesus tells both stories to the disciples as they are traveling toward Jerusalem just before his passion. Soon to be crowned on Palm Sunday but crucified mere days later, the rejection of Jesus mirrors that of the nobleman in Luke 19. That man’s countrymen, too, oppose his coronation.
In both stories, two servants invest their master’s money and earn significant returns. The third buries the money in the ground. When the master returns, he praises the first two servants heartily but chastises the third.
The typical interpretation of these parables in the West usually commends the risk-taking and productivity of the first two servants. Like them, we’re taught, we should take whatever amount of wealth or talents the Lord gives us and multiply them while awaiting his return.
But what if our perspective on the risk and return showcased in these stories is too much influenced by our Western culture and its valuations?
Renowned Middle-Eastern bible scholar Kenneth Bailey has pointed out two translation issues in the Luke account that have skewed Western interpretations.
The parable’s meaning relies heavily on which translation is followed. “Until” is a time reference and seems to connote this: Get busy, make money, the master expects a return. By contrast, “in which” or “because” puts a different spin on the story. The key point here is the context: the nobleman is opposed by most of his countrymen, but is planning to return a king. Bailey asserts, “The nobleman wants to know, ‘Which of you are willing to take the risk and openly declare yourselves to be my loyal servants in a world that opposes me and my rule?’” The first two servants, despite the sticky situation, get busy being productive. The third, uncertain whether his master really will return and unwilling to be associated publicly with the nobleman’s business in a community of his enemies, hides the mina in the ground.
The second translation issue involves verse 15, when the master is looking to learn what’s happened during his absence. Many Western/English translations say that the master wants to know “how much has been gained” with his money. Bailey’s translation of the Greek “diagramateuomai”—and, notably, Syriac, Coptic, and most Arabic versions of the Bible—say instead that the master wants to know “how much business” the servants have transacted. Once again, the difference matters much:
If the master wants to check the books to see “What has been gained by trading?” then he is trying to find out how much money they have made. But if he is asking, “How much business have you transacted?” then obviously he is seeking to discover the extent to which they have openly and publicly declared their loyalty to him during his absence….A full ledger will tell him that the entire community knew the servant in question was his master’s man.
The fact that the master commends the good servants not for the amount of financial return they have earned but for their faithfulness suggests Bailey’s interpretation is more compelling.
What is the nature of the good servants’ faithfulness? It appears it is linked to the nature of the risk they took.
Despite the interpretations with which Westerners are most familiar, the risk does not seem to be about whether the slaves would lose their master’s capital. Both stories indicate that the master was immensely wealthy. A talent, for example, was worth 16 years’ worth of wages. Yet the master calls this sum “little” (see Matthew 25:21 and 23). This suggests he may not have been overly concerned with a loss.
The real risk concerns what the servants’ actions will reveal regarding the character of their master. First, will they publicly support him in a context where he is unwanted as king, thus showing that the crowd’s estimation of this man is mistaken? Second, will they engage in investment activities that are consistent with the master’s character, avoiding sullying his name by failing to do with the wealth what he would have done with it?
The idea that the master’s commendation of the good servants’ “faithfulness” meant “faithful to the master’s character” would most likely be what the parable’s original hearers understood. This is because in Roman culture, masters often gave their slaves/servants considerable managerial authority. For them, the ideal servant was one who knew his master’s mind so well that he “could anticipate the master’s wishes and take initiative.”
This begs the question, What is the character of the master? Recall that in both parables, Jesus identifies himself with the master. The bad servant in both stories has no idea what his master is truly like. He calls the master a “hard man” who “reaps where he does not sow.” This sounds like an insult to our Western ears. But this slave likely meant it as flattery, says Bailey. In the Middle Eastern culture of the day, such words would be considered complimentary…if the recipient sees himself as a kind of Bedouin raider headman, the skillful rider who can “swoop down on unsuspecting encampments and capture all their supplies and camels.”
The master, however, is not this kind of Big Man at all! He is both offended by this slave’s erroneous assumptions and he recognizes that the man is lying. Afterall, if the servant really believed that his master was like a Bedouin robber baron, then he’d assume the master would be indifferent to the Jewish prohibition against interest. Therefore, the servant would know this hard master would have wanted his mina in the bank producing interest. The truth is that the third servant didn’t have faith in his master’s return and didn’t want his master’s enemies to recognize him as one of the nobleman’s supporters.
The faithful servants thought and acted differently. They understood that their master was interested in putting his capital to work in ways that created value. And they knew it was inconceivable that their master would be pleased with gains from unjust investments.
We can be fairly certain of this despite the fact that neither of the parables gives us specific details about the kinds of investments the good servants made. This is because of what we learn when we consider other aspects of Jesus’ master-servant teachings as well as the full context of Matthew chapter 25.
When we hear the term “master” from Jesus’ lips, our thoughts should return to his teaching back in Matthew 6:24. There Jesus warned that a person cannot serve two masters. We’ll serve either God or Mammon. Since the master in the two parables we’ve been discussing is a figure of Jesus, we know he is serving God. Therefore, his concern cannot be solely for the financial return on his investments. As a God-fearer, his valuation must include additional dimensions. If he were only interested in making money it would reveal he was actually worshipping Mammon.
Since the master wants a return that goes beyond a financial one, the faithful servant in charge of the master’s investments will seek to do good in the marketplace, to create opportunities, to contribute to the supply of needed goods and services, and to back those entrepreneurs who demonstrate justice in their dealings with employees, customers, and suppliers.
Consider Jesus’ earlier comments in Matthew 24:45-51. There Jesus describes a faithful servant as one who can be trusted to steward authority well, providing for the household members. The assumption again is that this is how the master would have behaved if he himself were present. By contrast, the wicked servant fails to behave consistently with the master’s character: he disregards others’ needs and beats his fellow slaves.
Note, too, what we learn of the master (Jesus) in the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31-46. This famous account illuminates Jesus’ character as one who judges “faithfulness” as engagement in acts of love, mercy, and justice. True servants reveal the character of their master by feeding the hungry, tending the sick, visiting the imprisoned. So if this is the character of the master in the two parables, then it is impossible that he’d rejoice in the (admittedly astonishing) financial returns the good servants have earned if those were the product of unjust business dealings or investments that removed more value from the community than they added.
Witnessing faithfully to our master’s character means that the way we invest his money aims at producing value for all stakeholders. The sizable profit that may result is a nice, but entirely secondary, bonus.
This communication is provided for informational purposes only and was made possible with the financial support of Eventide Asset Management, LLC (“Eventide”), an investment adviser. Eventide Center for Faith and Investing is an educational initiative of Eventide. Information contained herein has been obtained from third-party sources believed to be reliable.