Public Square

Income Inequality and the Parable of the Talents

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Editor’s Note: The Institute for Faith, Work & Economics released a new research report entitled, “Why Does Income Inequality Exist? An Economic and Biblical Explanation” by Dr. Anne Bradley, Ph.D. This week our blog is highlighting the key findings from this report.

To best understand what the Bible has to say about income inequality, we said that we look at two points: the distribution of gifts and abilities and examples of God’s earthly rewards for stewardship within the context of market exchange. We discussed the former yesterday, and now we will take up the latter.

The first place to look in the scriptures is the Parable of the Talents from Matthew 25:14-30. Below is an excerpt:

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.

Verse 15 says that each servant was given different amounts, each according to his ability. The master, as an “employer” (it’s not clear whether they are slave or free but we can assume that he knew them well enough to understand their differing abilities and talents and its clear he gave them at least limited property rights over his resources) divided the wealth unequally because he knew that each man had a different level of ability to use that money productively.

This is consistent with both how we are created by God (not all of us have the ability to become neurosurgeons, professional football players or Steve Jobs) and how we are hired and rewarded in the workplace.

This means we can’t have absolute advantage in all things, but we can have comparative advantage across some things. The master understood this and awarded the talents according to his understanding of their comparative advantage.

The two servants who attempted to use their portion of the master’s wealth productively, i.e., tried to invest it to gain a return on behalf of their master, both earned 100 percent. The servant who received five talents “went at once and put his money to work” and he earned five more. The servant who received two earned two more.

Interestingly, we are given no details on what type of work they did to invest the master’s money. There is no reason to assume it was the same work, especially in light of our understanding of comparative advantage and our unique creation. If they each had the same skills, they may have been given the same amount and perhaps invested the money the same way.

But the Scripture is clear that they did not have the same skills; so there is no reason to assume they engaged in the same work. The first two each invested the money diligently according to their abilities and earned 100 percent. The dollar amounts they earned were different, but they both doubled what they were given.

This is the message of the parable that is relevant to the discussion of income inequality: diligently apply the gifts God has given you, and you will be rewarded fully. Those earthly rewards will have different dollar amounts attached to them but that is not what matters. Obediently applying the gifts you have been given is the call of Christ. In fact, obediently applying the gifts you have been given may carry no earthly financial reward at all.

The servant who buried his talent had a zero rate of return and was punished by the master. He was asked to give that talent to the one who had ten. So the flip side is that if we don’t proactively use our gifts and talents, we will be punished.

The master, by giving each servant an unequal amount, was being obedient and faithful with the resources he owned. Had he given each man an equal amount, putting equality over ability, he would have squandered his resources. By putting servants in charge of his resources according to their skills and diligence, he created more than he would have had otherwise.

This message applies to how we are created. Not one person has all the talents, or wealth. God spreads out talent among the universe, uniquely.

The talents referred to in this parable are a metaphor for the skills and abilities which God has given us in addition to any earthly income we earn through our work. Opportunity is an important lesson here. God gives us unequal gifts and we need the opportunity to put them to productive use. The rest is up to us. We can choose how we will steward the gifts and resources with which we are gifted. There will be both earthly and eternal consequences for how we steward our gifts.

The rewards can be and often are financial, but they are more than that. These gifts, if pursued with excellence and purpose, allow us to further the Kingdom of God by creating other opportunities for others through our work.

Question: In your job or daily tasks are you using your unique God-given skills? Can you see how by doing so you are furthering the Kingdom of God?

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