Christians in Finance Discuss Their Work (Video)

Video / Produced by TOW Project

In this video, New Testament scholar Sean McDonough argues that the profession of finance has its roots in the Bible, specifically Matthew 25:14-28. Starting at minute 6:25  professionals in the finance industry share how the Christian faith changes their approach to their work. This video is part of Jesus And Your Job, a video series on how Christians in different industries view their work. To find out more about this series and how you can use it as a small group study, go to the Jesus And Your Job homepage.

A Biblical Basis for Finance

Of all the things people do, finance may be the one that’s least understood by the average person. In the mass media it’s the profession people are most quick to condemn. You will recall last week we were talking about the unrighteous steward and his plan to secure future homes for himself. It struck me that this really could have been one of the places I turned to think about Jesus and finance. Not only is finance woven into the fabric of the story, but the point of the story, as Jesus makes clear in verse 9 when he says, “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” (Luke 16:9)

On one hand, we see a certain skepticism towards financial dealings, particularly by the label ‘unrighteous wealth.’ At the same time, Jesus recognizes that wealth is the means by which one is going to secure eternal dwelling. We talked last week in detail about how that refers to one’s open handed generosity with what one has. This demonstration of your commitment to God by being committed to his people is what in one sense functionally welcomes you into the kingdom.

And so, wealth presents specific challenges and temptations, to the point where it can be labeled unrighteous. But it’s the temptation, not the dollar bill that is intrinsically unrighteousness. I was thinking yesterday: it’s not as if dollar bills congregate on the sidewalk carrying switchblades and uttering curse words and harassing passersby for no good reason, therefore demonstrating the intrinsic unrighteousness of wealth. Money is just a tool, like a hammer or a shovel. You could use these to build or to dig, or to beat someone with (which is really not a recommended use of either implement except in emergency). Even then, it’s not the shovel’s fault if it’s bashing in a neighbor’s head. It’s the wielder who’s in trouble.

When money is in the hands of unrighteous people it becomes sort of infected with their unrighteousness. It becomes the tool of unrighteousness, and therefore Jesus can label it as such. But as I said, at the same time money is the means by which you can be a blessing to others. Therefore, it has a key role in Luke’s economy of divine salvation - taking what you have and shrewdly using it for blessing others.

But as I said, that was last week. Today we really want to turn to Matthew 25 and the well-known parable of the talents.

“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents.

Matthew 25:14-28

Talents here are not what we call talents as in talent show - it’s a lot of money. Estimates vary on the amounts of money, but suffice it to say it’s a lot. The irony is that when we get to the application of the parable, the point is not about investing money per se, but about investing all that you have, all that’s within your capacity to do. In that broad sense it includes talents. But that’s just an accident of the language, not a literal translation.

To sum up, everything we have is meant to be poured out into God’s service, and when we do that God blesses us. Money is a part of that exercise of faithfulness to God. We get a pretty clear sense of this in the next parable, the famous image of the sheep and the goats. In this parable, those who have exercised open handed generosity, particularly to the poor of the community, are blessed, while those who have refrained from doing good with what they have are sent away from God’s presence. The lesson is the same one as in the parable of the unrighteous manager from Luke 16. We want to take what we have and use it for the good of the kingdom by open handed generosity. Our panelists can tell us what role shrewdness plays in that.

The reason I wanted to bring up the parable of the talents for our discussion of finance is this parable’s hidden premise that there is such a thing as economic growth. There is this almost magical principal at large in the world that Jesus can here draw upon. When you have a bunch of money, and you invest it in some way, suddenly there’s more of it. As someone who is very limited in his economic understanding, I’m struck that there’s something remarkable about economic growth.  It’s astounding that things can turn into more things when you invest them wisely.

For our panel of professionals, I’d like the economist to open us up by explaining what money is and why finance exists. It’s a pretty basic question, and yet when you stop and think about it, we often don’t stop and think about it what it is that we’re extoling or lamenting.

Bob’s story:

I’m Bob, and I’m a real live economist. Sean caught me downstairs and asked me to do this, so I had a lot of prep time. What Sean did not know is that my grandfather many years ago told me that there are three things in life you need to be prepared to do at a moment’s notice. Those three things are: Preach, pray, and die. I very much hope that Sean’s request is in the arena of the first.

What is money? Money is simply a medium of exchange. That’s it. It replaced barter: your service or your product in exchanged for something else. When societies became more complex, you started to see the first formations of capitalism sometime during the 1200s. Financial systems started to be developed because exchanges became complex. And people started using money for the purpose of leverage -- that means gaining interest on the lending of money, better known as debt.

Jesus never said that money was bad. Jesus said that the love of money was bad. Money is simply a medium of exchange that morphed or evolved into financial systems because of the complexity of economic life.

God gifted us, blessed us, because of his sovereignty, with different types of gifts and different types of talents. You’re better at certain things than I am. I’m better at certain things than you are. Consequently when we go off and apply our gifts or talents, develop whatever it is that we’re good at, whether it’s a product or a service, then we have to interact with one another. God did not make us self-reliant. Because of the fact that we are all interrelated, I produce certain things that you need and you produce certain things that I need. We can analyze that in the form of what you demand and I supply, and what I supply and you demand: hence supply and demand curves.

David’s story:

The work I do in finance is help very large sophisticated organizations with complicated investment plans. People have a negative impression of the finance industry because, like anything, the small minority often takes on the persona of the whole. We know this as Christians – some people have horrible views of Christians because they knew one person who did something. They don’t know the hundreds around them that are wonderful people doing great things. I think that’s true of the financial business in general.

With investment management in particular, you have a subject that many people know nothing about whatsoever. I know many people who are PHDs and brilliant people, and when you talk about a stock or a market their eyes just cross. I have a great responsibility to help manage their money in a responsible way, so they have money for retirement, or money to pay for their child’s college. A person’s future, the family’s future really depends on how you handle their assets.

Question:

Do you face particular temptations in the financial industry? One imagines that a purveyor of donuts might be tempted to sample the snacks often. Since you work in money, does that present, either at the level of individual struggles, as you’re working in this industry, what do you wrestle with? But also kind of corporate culture, are there some things in the financial world, the corporate culture, which present unique temptations, or which you find difficult to deal with?

Janice’s story:

I majored in finance, and I have been in finance for most of my life. I’ve been in different industries – I worked for a rotary kiln bricking company, then in healthcare, and for the last 21 years in the lighting industry. I’ve done everything from journal entries to studying economic indicators that would affect our industry.

As an accountant, you can put something in the wrong column and make your financials look better. You can make a journal entry that makes your books look better, thus “cooking” them. You can be asked to do such a journal entry and change the financial results, which might change your stock price. Do you refuse to do that? Or do you just do what you’re told?

I’ve had a couple colleagues who’ve done what they were told and are no longer with the company. I think that’s on the front line as an accountant. You can have temptation.

When I was 18 I was a cash office clerk in a retail store. This was back in the day when people wrote checks and used dollar bills. I would balance and count, and I remember I would have $30,000 in cash on my desk. I’m just going: Wow, this is like a new car! But they had trusted me with that. I could have slipped a fiver in my pocket, probably, I could have tried to figure out how to hide that. But they had trusted me, and I took it really seriously.

I think all of us, wherever we work, are entrusted with something. Whether it’s your expense account, or how much paper you use, you are entrusted with some kind of resource. Whether that’s time and wasting time on amazon.com during the day. We’re all entrusted with resources, and we’re all tempted every day. 

Discussion Questions:

  1. What resources do you steward in your job? To what extent do you control whether resources are used righteously or unrighteously?
  2. Read Matthew 25:14-28. Sean’s take-away is: the way we use money shows faithfulness to God. How do you exercise faithfulness with your money?
  3. David views his job in investment as a responsibility to protect his clients' future. If you work in finance, do you see your work as a sacred responsibility? If you work with finance professionals, do you think of them as ministers?