To best understand what the Bible has to say about income inequality, we need to 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 last week, 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.
Empirical evidence reveals that a diversity in abilities and effort leads to a diversity in income. But, as we can see in this parable, there is also scriptural evidence for income disparity based on diverse abilities.
Although this is a parable, it is neither arbitrary nor capricious. The story and its components are intentional, and convey a specific message that can further a biblical perspective on income inequality.
Applying the Parable of the Talents
There are several key aspects of the parable:
- Each servant was given different amounts, each according to his ability. The master, as an “employer,” divided the bags of gold unequally because he knew each man had a different level of ability to use that gold productively. This is consistent with both how we are created by God (not all of us have the ability to become neurosurgeons, NBA basketball players, or Steve Jobs) and how we are hired and rewarded in the workplace.
- Scarcity that is exacerbated by the Fall results in our inability to be perfect in all things. Life is bound by trade-offs, and trade-offs represent constraints. If I invest my time going to school to be an accountant, I am, by definition, not doing something else.
- This means we can’t have absolute advantage in all things, but we can have comparative advantage across some things. The master in the parable understood this and awarded the talents according to his understanding of each person’s comparative advantage.
- Interestingly, in the parable, 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. Scripture is clear that they did not have the same skills, so there is no reason to assume they engaged in the same work to invest the money.
This is the message of the parable: 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, even though doing so may carry no earthly financial reward.
No one person has all the talents, or bags of gold. God spreads out talent among the universe, uniquely. This inherent interdependency is part of the human condition—part of our anthropology—and markets are the only known rationing mechanism that allows us to come together to trade and create unprecedented amounts of human prosperity.
God gives us unequal talents, 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 talents and resources with which we are gifted.
The talents referred to in this parable are a metaphor for the skills and abilities God has given us, in addition to any earthly income we earn through our work. The rewards can be and often are financial, but they mean more than that.
Editor’s note: How should Christians think about income inequality? Read more in Anne’s chapter in IFWE’s latest book Counting the Cost: Christian Perspectives on Capitalism. Get 15% OFF when you use the code: CTC15.
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