(ZENIT News / Rome, 11.09.2023).- No, Jesus was not a proto-socialist; he did not oppose the legitimacy of lending and debt nor did he condemn profit—on the contrary, he encouraged trade. This is asserted by Father Robert Sirico in his fascinating study titled “The Economics of Parables” (Cantagalli Editions), which weaves a convincing and provocative narrative on how the Gospel not only tolerates but actually can promote individual economic well-being.
According to the Italian-American priest and president emeritus of the Acton Institute, the parables of Jesus are not merely moral tales that draw liberally from everyday life to illuminate transcendental and eschatological aspects. They are lessons that imply, for example, the existence and morality of private property and how the scarcity of goods and diversity of gifts received from God mean that not everyone can be equally proprietors.
The Black Legend of Capitalism Today
The author laments that much of the clergy still harbors a static idea of money, viewing wealth almost as a pie to be divided equally, as well as a sometimes barely veiled condemnation of profit as a moral evil.
It is mistakenly believed that the wealth of a few generates the poverty of many. “How often are appeals made to Christianity to help us distribute the world’s goods more equitably? It is commonly thought that Christianity’s role is to take from the rich to give to the poor, to expropriate goods in favor of those who beg, to take from those who have and give to those who have not,” emphasizes Father Sirico, who speaks in this context of a “Robin Hood-like economic theology.” This does not outright delegitimize the logic of sharing and redistribution of wealth within a community from a Christian perspective, clarifies the co-founder of the American think tank.
The roots of this prejudice sink deep into history. Medieval and Renaissance theologians in Europe conceived of money as a good not separable from its consumption, thus all interests were considered as “fruit of the sterile metal.” By the end of the 16th century, moral thinkers across Europe, Catholic and Protestant, came to an understanding of interest that prevails today in modern economics, namely that interest is the exchange rate between different time horizons. Even the Church came to tolerate making profits through loaned money. However, in the early twentieth century, figures like the great Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich even went so far as to say that “any serious Christian must be a socialist.”
Yet wealth is not denounced in Scripture for its mere possession but for possessiveness, that “greed for money” which the apostle Paul identifies as “the root of all evils.”
At the heart of the book, in a tight double reading of the parables in theological and moral terms on one hand and economic on the other, lies the challenge to the idea that Christianity should be antithetical to capitalism.
Jesus Promotes Profit
The volume contains many crucial passages. For example, when Jesus tells the rich young man in Mt 19:21 to sell all he had and give to the poor, he was precisely advising him to engage in trade! “It is not said to destroy his goods or to renounce all that he has—observes Father Sirico—. Or rather to ‘sell all his possessions, that is to liquidate his properties’; what stands out as a teaching is ‘the final benefit for the needy is the result of his earning capacity, and this same entrepreneurial act or exchange would become the way to demonstrate that he is faithful to the command of Jesus’.”
Jesus condemned the rich for their disregard for the poor. Those who have difficulty entering the Kingdom of God are not so much the rich but those who “trust in riches,” those who have abandoned the economy of salvation to follow the illusory salvation in the economy. On the contrary, “the rich deserve applause and respect not contempt,” emphasizes Father Sirico, reminding us how the number of people living in poverty has been halved from the Industrial Revolution to the twentieth century.
Often he is cited surrounded by women who served Jesus and his disciples with an abundance of resources. Such was Mary Magdalene, such was also Lydia, a successful businesswoman from Thyatira; but so was also Joseph of Arimathea, who provided a burial for Jesus in his tomb.
In the parable of the rich fool in Luke 12:13-21, Jesus confronts a problem whose most immediate solution would have been redistributive, “but he refuses to offer any such solution.” “Redistribution of wealth can involve a huge waste of time and resources; since it does not create wealth, but merely shifts wealth that has already been created and, indeed, can involve costs associated with ensuring the fair distribution of goods.”, affirms Father Sirico. Instead of enlarging the pie, we continue to slice it, reducing some portions and enlarging others.
In the profound meditations of Father Sirico on the parables of Jesus, the parable of the hidden treasure emerges not merely as an allegory for spiritual riches but as a paradigm for value creation in the marketplace. Just as the treasure hidden in a field was found and then hidden again by a man who then bought that field (Matthew 13:44), so too does the market participant discover and create value. Sirico draws a parallel between the spiritual journey of recognizing and valoring the hidden treasure, which symbolizes grace and divine union, and the market’s ability to uncover and cherish the latent value in goods and services.
Similarly, the Parable of the Pearl (Matthew 13:45-46) is invoked by the priest to address the moral concerns surrounding market transactions. He posits that the kingdom of heaven, akin to a merchant seeking fine pearls, is reflected in the marketplace. When one finds a pearl of great price, the choice to sell all one has to buy it is not morally questionable but a natural part of valuing things differently—a testament to the subjective value that is at the heart of economic transactions. This parable, thus, serves as a counterpoint to the misconception that market activities are spiritually irrelevant, emphasizing that discernment and valuation are integral to both spiritual and economic realms.
In discussing the moral legitimacy of private property, human achievement, and economic growth, Father Sirico turns to the parable of the sower. The various outcomes of the seeds—some falling on the path, some on rocky ground, some among thorns, and others on good soil (Matthew 13:3-8)—illustrate the diversity of human receptivity to both grace and economic potential. Just as not all seeds bear fruit, not all will possess wealth or property equally; however, the opportunity to grow and flourish is morally legitimate and spiritually sound when aligned with grace and responsible stewardship.
When reflecting on the nature of God’s mercy and grace, Acton’s President emeritus discusses the Workers in the Vineyard parable. The landowner’s decision to pay all workers the same wage, regardless of their hours (Matthew 20:1-16), is emblematic of divine generosity which transcends human notions of fairness and equity. Sirico uses this to suggest that while the market operates on principles of merit and value, the Christian is called to remember the radical generosity of God’s grace, which often subverts economic expectations.
The concept of subjective value in pricing and wages, a cornerstone of modern economic theory, is also deftly integrated into Sirico’s narrative. He asserts that while the market determines the price of labor and goods through supply and demand, the Christian entrepreneur must also consider the inherent dignity of workers. This requires a balance between economic realities and moral considerations, ensuring that business practices do not solely adhere to market logic but are also reflective of ethical standards that respect human dignity.
Lastly, the necessity of creating wealth for generosity is underscored as a Christian virtue. Wealth, in Sirico’s interpretation, is not to be hoarded but is a means to an end—enabling generosity and philanthropy. True to the Christian calling, those blessed with abundance are tasked not only with the creation of wealth but also with its wise and charitable distribution, recalling the rich young man’s invitation to sell his possessions and follow Christ (Matthew 19:21). Father Sirico posits that wealth creation is not only an economic imperative but also a precondition for the Christian duty of generosity.
The Market Economy as an Antidote to Vice
In “The Economy of Parables,” it is discovered that correct management and knowledge of goods are essential to prevent economic and environmental degradation. Sirico emphasizes how responsible capitalism and the protection of the institutions of freedom are fundamental to promoting fair and sustainable prosperity. At the heart of the economy, in fact, in its deepest and most authentic part, is not money but human action, because the way we respond to the most pressing and crucial questions of life determines how we work, buy, and sell.
Father Sirico does not ignore the moral challenges of the market. Market growth cannot guarantee integral human development by itself, which goes far beyond simple economic prosperity. The sins related to the use and abuse of money are children of a materialistic vision of the world. Consumerism is a disordered idea of having more. There is a capitalist ideology in which the person ceases to be the central actor of the economy and politics—in the form of state control or global governance controlled by international institutions—substitutes for market dynamics in an attempt to satisfy human needs.
“The Christian antidote to the above-mentioned vices is not found in an omnipresent and redistributive State that helps people separate from their sin by expropriating their money”, writes father Sirico. “Greed is not fought, nor is virtue reached, by impoverishing people or expropriating their wealth, or by assuming that only the rich can be greedy.” Rights are not concessions from the State, nor tied to social condition and class, but are innate to the human being and as such inalienable, pre-existing the State and institutions.
Clearly, there are risks and serious temptations related to wealth and success that can arouse a greed for possession, selfishness, and pride; but Father Sirico’s purpose is to arrive at a more balanced moral definition of the entrepreneur.
However, it is appropriate that spiritual leaders and institutions consider entrepreneurship as a worthy vocation. Because there is a spiritual and sacred dimension in the responsibilities, risks, and also moral tensions that inhabit all those who put their natural talents at the service of the community through business, trade, investments.
A just society is necessary, but also one permeated with charity and mercy, virtues that no law can produce or promulgate. The market is not the faceless bulimic monster of Miyazaki’s The Art of Spirited Away nor the panacea for all ills capable of raising a society orphaned of moral contents. Capitalism has the right creative power, provided it is governed by the rule of law and respect for the dignity and capabilities of the human person, provided that is, it is a just capitalism.
In weaving these threads together, Father Sirico presents a tapestry that portrays the market not as a secular sphere divorced from Christian ethics but as a field ripe with opportunities for the faithful to live out the values of the Gospel. “The Economy of Parables” thus becomes a profound reflection on how economic and spiritual truths can coexist and enrich one another, guiding both the believer and the skeptic towards a deeper understanding of their role in God’s economy.