Heroes and Villains – the economics of Jesus

Today sees the launch of Oikonomics, a book about investing in life by following the example that Jesus set for us. The following is an extract focusing on how Jesus looks at investment:

In the recent movie Man of Steel, the hero and the villain are very easy to identify. Superman is the hero, sent to Earth to save humanity and urge it toward greatness. General Zod is the villain, seeking to destroy the world for his own gain. Superman confronts Zod in a battle that destroys half of New York, and in the end (spoiler alert!) the hero prevails.
Stories like Man of Steel make the heroes and villains easy to spot. Slow, brooding music in a minor key plays over the scene where the villain is revealed, while a bright, energetic, triumphant soundtrack accompanies the hero’s scenes. The villains are very clearly motivated by greed or a lust for power, and the heroes are animated by a more selfless motivation.

However, some stories feature unlikely heroes (and unlikely villains). Lord of the Rings is
 a story about the most unlikely of heroes, a hobbit named Frodo. Hobbits are unlikely heroes because they’re little, unambitious, and comfort-loving. Yet Frodo is called on a quest for the greater good of Middle Earth. He is an unlikely hero, but a hero nonetheless.

Jesus told a lot of stories, and many of his stories featured unlikely heroes and villains.
The story of the Good Samaritan is one. In fact, in Jesus’ day the term “Good Samaritan” would have been a laughable oxymoron! Everyone “knew” Samaritans weren’t good, which makes Jesus’ story all the more explosive.

heroes and villainsHere’s how it goes. A man is robbed and beaten to within an inch of his life along a dangerous road. A priest who happens to be walking along the same road sees the man lying there, but passes by on the other side of the road. A worker in the temple comes across the man and does the same thing. Finally a good-for-nothing Samaritan sees the man and becomes the unlikely hero of the story by bandaging the man’s wounds, carrying him to an inn, and paying for his recovery. The priest and the Levite, whom everyone expected to be the heroes, turned out to be the villains, while the one listeners assumed was a villain turned out to be a hero. Jesus did this a lot in his stories, and it made a lot of people quite angry with him.

One of the most interesting and disturbing features of the villains of Jesus’ stories is how normal they are. Finding out villains are actually very ordinary people makes us deeply uncomfortable. A historical example of this phenomenon took place in the years after the fall of the Nazi regime in Germany. Adolf Eichmann, one of Hitler’s top officials, oversaw the brutal torture and death of countless Jews. Political theorist Hannah Arendt witnessed and reported on Eichmann’s trial, during which she was struck by what she called the “banality of evil.” She was struck by how Eichmann was a normal person who was just “doing his job.” He wasn’t particularly anti-Semitic or mentally ill in any way; he was a very ordinary person following orders and obeying the law. Despite this he is considered one of the worst real-life villains of the twentieth century.

Jesus’ villains are disturbingly ordinary as well. In Matthew 25:14-30, Jesus tells a parable about kingdom economics (oikonomics). As you read it pay attention to the investment strategy of the master, and to the person who turns out to be the villain of the story:

Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. So also the one with two bags of gold gained two more. But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground, and hid his master’s money.
After a long time, the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. “Master,” he said, “you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.”

His master replied, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!”
The man with two bags of gold also came. “Master,” he said, “you entrusted me with two bags of gold; see, I have gained two more.”

His master replied, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!”
Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. “Master,” he said, “I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.”
His master replied, “You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.
“So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Oikonomics_650x650Jesus does something in this parable that he does frequently—he uses an economic image to talk about the kingdom of God. To put this in context, biblical scholars tell us the
 New Testament talks about money approximately ten times more than it does about faith. Of course, often when the New Testament talks about money, it’s not just about money.
 It’s not giving us financial advice, per se—it’s revealing a frame of reference that helps us understand our life. Money is used as a metaphor that helps us understand how life works.
In this parable, Jesus uses a story of financial investment to describe a strategy that he conducts in a person’s life as he represents the Father.

Here’s his investment strategy: he gives some of his resources to his servants in various amounts and then goes away, expecting that when he returns his servants will have invested the money and gotten a return on their investment. One servant receives five bags of gold, another two bags of gold, and a third gets one bag of gold.

It’s a fairly simple picture. The master entrusts his capital to his servants and expects a return on his investment. The two servants who invested the capital were commended and given more responsibility and privilege within the oikos. The third servant, who got one bag of gold, simply didn’t invest the money. He was afraid so he just hid it in the ground and gave it back to his master. This servant got something quite different!

From our vantage point, what the master says seems astonishingly harsh: “You wicked, lazy servant!” He gives the poor servant a severe tongue-lashing, takes his money away, and throws him out into the darkness outside the house, “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Honestly, we look at that poor guy and think, “He doesn’t seem so bad! All he did was nothing.” But as we’ve said, Jesus’ villains are very normal, and this disturbs us because we begin to see ourselves in the story. We think doing nothing would be better than trying to invest and losing everything, but for Jesus, losing everything on a bad investment would have been better than doing nothing. For Jesus, not investing makes you a villain.

This servant wasn’t trying to be a villain, but he ended up a villain because out of a lack of trust in his master and a scarcity mentality, he refused to invest the money. He assumed that failure in investment would be met with punishment, and thus remained passive. He was afraid and remains passive, trying to play it safe. He is an unlikely, accidental villain, but a villain nonetheless, because he doesn’t cooperate with the master’s investment plan.

It’s easy to become an accidental villain. Think about the civil rights movement. A few obvious “villains” were overtly opposed to equal rights for African Americans. But many more accidental villains simply did nothing, keeping their heads down, trying not to make waves, never taking the risk of making the heroic journey of becoming liberators.

Or think about the recent housing bubble and worldwide financial crisis. A few intentional villains knew they were gaming the system and making money at other people’s expense. But most people were accidental villains who got caught up in the hype trying to make money off an exotic new financial product, inadvertently contributing to a system that caused many people to lose their homes and life savings.

Some people are villains because they intentionally invest in bad things for selfish reasons. Other people end up as villains because they don’t invest in the right things, like the third servant in Jesus’ parable.

Jesus’ stories teach us that heroes intentionally invest in the right things. Jesus always vilifies the middle ground of playing it safe. The hero for Jesus is the person who leverages everything on behalf of what really matters. This is another way of saying “seek first the kingdom of God.” Jesus’ promise to those who do this is that “all these things will be given to you as well.” Jesus, the most brilliant economist in the world, promises that those who invest in the right things will see a return on their investment, and that return will benefit God, others, and us. It’s a win/win/win scenario. This is an astonishing investment guarantee from the Son of God himself!

The bottom line of this parable is that God is seeking to bless the whole world, and the way he does this is by investing his capital in his people and looking for a return on that investment. God literally invests his capital in us, and he expects a return. The accidental villain is the person who does nothing with the capital God has invested. The hero is the person who invests the capital, trusting Jesus that it will grow.

This post forms an extract from our newest book – Oikonomics – available to order here


Image courtesy of:  www.heroesandvillains-tucson.com


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