In early September, The Washington Post featured an innocent public interest story about pawpaws, a fruit indigenous to the mid-Atlantic region that tastes like a fusion of bananas and mangoes and that some Washington-area residents happily forage for in their wooded communities.
Even this, in our activist age, elicited outrage from some readers. “I was shocked to hear that groups of people are hiking to collect pawpaw fruit,” wrote Washington resident Myriam Piers, who accused pawpaw foragers of greed. “Let us leave this ‘treat’ to opossums, foxes, squirrels, raccoons and birds,” she urged.
I’m no longer surprised by such absurd comments, which elide simple questions such as “are any of those animals endangered or starving for food?” (The answer, of course, is no). And if we applied this risible logic to all the crops we share with the rest of the animal kingdom, we’d be the endangered ones. Nevertheless, that such blinkered thinking makes it into one of the most prominent newspapers in the country suggests a deeper stupidity: We are a civilization thoroughly confused about the role of initiative to better ourselves and even the natural world.
Robert Sirico, co-founder of the Acton Institute and a Catholic priest, has thought a lot about the role of creative enterprise as it relates to human flourishing. In his new book “The Economics of the Parables,” he identifies a surprising source of economic wisdom: Jesus’s parables in the New Testament. “I suspect it is precisely because so many of the parables draw from the enduring realities of economics and commercial life that provide lasting lessons,” writes Sirico. “This book, then, seeks to enhance the higher truths the parables contain by investigating the more practical ends of economics, commerce, and business ethics that can be overlooked.”
It might sound a bit cynical and self-serving for the founder of a pro-capitalist organization to argue that the Gospels promote private ownership, free enterprise, and prudential money management, as if Jesus didn’t come so much to save mankind as to free them to participate in a market economy. Yet Sirico is sincere in his claim that transcendent truth is what matters most about Scripture, and that any economic principles we can glean from it are secondary in importance. In every chapter that discusses a different parable, he ensures that the spiritual lesson, not the economic one, remains in the foreground.
Moreover, Sirico’s approach is not inclined to interpretive overreach, but simple observations of the implicit economic principles underlying the first-century world in which the parables were first presented. Whatever wisdom Jesus seeks to impart in parables contextualized by farming, commerce, employment, or inheritance, the presumption must be that the audience would infer certain economic ideas about what He describes. In that sense, Sirico’s approach is comparable to that of Adam Smith, whose writings were based on his observations of market activities, rather than an attempt to create an economic system out of whole cloth, contra Karl Marx.
For example, in the parable of the hidden treasure (Matthew 13:44), we read:
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto treasure hid in a field; the which when a man hath found, he hideth, and for joy thereof goeth and selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field.
At the supernatural level, the parable is quite straightforward: God and heaven are worth so much that it is prudential to relinquish everything you have to acquire them. But Sirico pulls the parable’s thread in another direction: The man who discovers the treasure does not tell the owner of the field what lies therein (otherwise, one presumes, the owner would be less willing to part with it). Is he dishonest? Not necessarily, because all commerce involves a subjective valuation of the good in question — think of the many times you encounter a particular product you assess is worth more than its price tag. Moreover, many economic exchanges involve one party perceiving a potential in the item (e.g. real estate) that the other party undervalues.
The parable of the hidden treasure, besides emphasizing the paramount importance of prioritizing transcendent goods, also directs us to other lessons. These include attentiveness, properly ordering our valuation of goods, and identifying how the acquisition of those goods can enrich us. “The future is always uncertain, so people who are willing to take responsible and informed risks are precious — all the more so when they risk their own resources.”
Sometimes, Sirico’s analysis goes in surprising directions. In the parable of the rich fool, Jesus refuses a request to intervene in an inheritance dispute between two brothers and even implicitly accuses the requester of covetousness. That’s a bit arresting because the requestor was likely a younger brother who, according to Jewish inheritance laws, would inevitably be the poorer one. “We rarely hear anyone point to the demands of the have-nots as being motivated by greed, and yet the poor, like the rich, can be inspired by ill motives,” writes Sirico.
A few times Sirico avoids significant debates, as I would argue is the case in his analysis of the laborers in the vineyard, the parable in which the vineyard owner pays the men he hired at the end of the day the same as those who worked a full day. Sirico notes rewards for labor are never distributed evenly, but by the subjective value of the final product. Fair enough, but many exegetes have argued that this parable endorses a living wage — whether or not that’s accurate, the popularity of that interpretation demands a response, one Sirico does not provide.
More broadly, Sirico notes that the entrepreneurial and business context of many of the parables, as well as other details in the Gospels, offer a compelling counter to prominent Christians such as Orthodox scholar David Bentley Hart, who believes the New Testament is, among other things, a socialist tract. Consider, for example, the fact that Jesus was friends not only with the poor but the wealthy, who funded his ministry. Several women are described as benefactresses to Jesus and his disciples (Luke 8:3), and Joseph of Arimathea, a “rich man” is the one who gifts the tomb in which Jesus (temporarily) is buried (Matthew 27:57-61). And when Jesus is crucified, among His few possessions is a garment “without seam, woven from the top throughout,” a highly valuable commodity at odds with the popular portrayal of Jesus as an impoverished itinerant preacher who eschewed all forms of wealth (John 19:23).
Sirico offers a rejoinder to those who claim that Scripture’s ubiquitous warnings about wealth mean one cannot be wealthy and Christian: The Bible speaks about wealth in much the same way it speaks of sex. For both, it is not the thing itself that is sinful or evil, but its abuse. “In the Christian tradition, neither material things nor sexuality can be defined as intrinsically evil,” he writes. Both can be used morally, “generously and faithfully.”
That reflects a theme consistent across “The Economics of the Parables”: what Sirico calls “the voluntary nature of the Christian commitment.” Men and women are exhorted, not compelled, to embrace the Gospel. There’s a corollary there to economic matters, which “pervade practically the whole of human life on earth.” If our economy, like our religion, is primarily defined by coercion, it will suffer ethical and intellectual decay.
Both our religious and our economic lives demand of us initiative, diligence, and moral rectitude, as we till the soil of our souls and our land. When we are neglectful, the outcome is indolence and chaos. “When limitations on human cultivation of the land are undertaken out of the mistaken belief that untilled land is somehow morally preferable to land that has been worked or cultivated, problems arise. The jungle is not always to be preferred to the garden,” writes Sirico.
“The Economics of the Parables” reminds us that if we apply some common wisdom that has existed for the last 2,000 years, we should be able to have our pawpaws and eat them too.