Is the Kingdom of Heaven a Ponzi Scheme?

by Deirdre Good and Julian Sheffield

After Sunday’s Gospel, the parable of the talents, we were having a discussion with the preacher about the text. I complimented her on the way her sermon engaged the complications of the text. She had encouraged parishioners to exercise even the smallest of their talent(s). What if, she said, your ability to make a meal fed the next Gandhi? Or your talent helped the next Dr Martin Luther King Jr.? Not all of us are given five or even two talents. But we all have some talent and the parable challenges us to do something with our gifts not just bury them. As we were talking, other parishioners went by in the background and complimented her on her sermon.

Our discussion moved to the fearful servant, the one who categorized his master as hard and opportunistic, an issue the preacher identified as being too difficult to address in this sermon. The master reproaches the servant for not acting even on the basis of what the servant knew about the master’s nature. The servant could at least have banked the money and gotten some interest (even at a time when banking is in its infancy and usury is condemned).

My wife Julian then observed that Jesus never addresses the issue that is on all of our minds in the current economic climate, what if one of the bold servants, the one who had five or the one who had two talents, had actually lost money on his investment? Jesus doesn’t seem to have much grasp on the uncertain nature of financial markets. Would this “hard” and opportunistic master have forgiven bad timing, weather that sank the ship invested in, a blight on the cotton crop, an epidemic of hoof and mouth disease in the herds? Would he have commended the servant that took the risk, even if the investment was diminished or lost entirely as a result?

Or look at the parable from another angle. The parable assumes 100% return on investment. But even in the best of markets, investors are ecstatic with 10%. So should we take it that these enterprising servants are phenomenally lucky? Insider traders? Or does Jesus just not have a clue about market forces and realistic expectations? Or is he assuming that these servants should become venture capitalists?

Julian’s mentor of blessed memory Canon Edward N. West once related how a business man had come to him and said, “I keep praying and praying to St. Francis for guidance in my investments, and they keep failing! What am I doing wrong?” “And why would you imagine,” Canon West responded, “that St. Francis would know anything at all about making money?”

But imagine that Jesus did have a better grasp of market forces than St. Francis. Perhaps unrealistic expectations was what Jesus was driving at. Venture capitalists take huge risks, for potential huge returns or huge losses. At the beginning of the parable the first slave went off “immediately,” without hesitation, to trade. And at the end of the parable, the buried talent is taken from the timid slave and given to the slave who already has ten talents, and is now sharing in the master’s joy. Is this parable more about having the faith to take huge risks for the sake of the kingdom, than it is about the need to make the best of what we have? Does God have unrealistic expectations of us? Or are we, perhaps, being encouraged to have unrealistic expectations of God?

Consider this: if we set out just to make the best of our talents, we are already limiting expectations, because we have a conception that there is an achievable “best.” But if we decide to take the risk of being in partnership with God, to invest in God’s venture with everything we have, then the returns will be beyond our wildest imaginings. And the long-term risk of failure? Nil.

Better than a savings account, isn’t it?

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