The Economic Focus in the Parables of Jesus

John C. Rankin (April 10, 2014)

In the Gospels, there are forty-one different parables, twenty-eight of which are unique to a given Gospel, and thirteen that are recorded more than once. Forty of them have direct or indirect economic issues at play.

As I write about elsewhere, “economics” is rooted the Greek terms for oikos (family/household), oikonomos (the law of the household) and oikonomia (the management of the household). This concept is rooted ultimately in the biblical order of creation where the household (bayith) is defined as rooted in one man and one woman in marriage, their children and on outward. This Jesus affirms in Matthew 19:1-9, and is a true predicate for all his economic parables:

“When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went into the region of Judea to the other side of the Jordan. Large crowds followed him, and he healed them there.

“Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?’

“ ‘Haven’t you read,’ he replied, ‘that at the beginning the Creator “made them male and female,” and said, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh”? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.”

“ ‘Why then,’ they asked, ‘did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?’

“Jesus replied, ‘Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.’ ”

In the face of the question, Jesus reiterates the clear content of Genesis 1-2, where both chapters conclude with the oikonomos of marriage. As well, these Pharisees are deliberately dishonest in their question. Divorce under the Law of Moses was never “for any and every reason,” as Jesus makes clear, and Moses did not “command” divorce, as Jesus also makes clear.

Jesus comes to fulfill the order of creation and the Law of Moses, and all he teaches is to that end. Thus, in the parables – teaching through stories – the assumption of the economics of marriage are in play. This is made clear in Matthew 13:34-35, as Jesus quotes Psalms 78:2:

“Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable. So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet:

“ ‘I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world.’ ”

Let’s thus briefly review the content of the parables. The economic issues they address always prove to assume the biblical oikonomia and are used to address spiritual realities.

Matthew 7:24-37 (cf. Luke 6:47-49) focuses on the economics of building a house on a wise versus a foolish foundation. Matthew 9:16-17 (cf. Mark 2:21; Luke 5:36), two linked parables, speak about the material destructiveness of sewing unshrunk cloth onto old, and pouring new wine into old wineskins.

Matthew 13 is loaded with parables. In 13:3-8; 18-23 (cf. Mark 4:3-8; 14-20; Luke 5:37-38), Jesus addresses farming wisdom in how and where to sow seed so as to produce a good harvest; and 13:24-30; 36-43 uses the metaphor of farming vis-à-vis spiritual warfare. 13:31-32 (cf. Mark 4:30-32; Luke 13:18-19) is another farming metaphor relative to growth. 13:33 (cf. Luke 13:20-21) concerns bread-making with the yeast that makes it happen; 13:44 addresses discovery of treasure in a field, and the selling of all a man’s possessions to buy it; 13:45-46 is parallel relative to a man selling all he has to purchase a valuable pearl; 13:47-50 is a fishing parable relative to separating good and bad fish (e.g. for the market and consumption); and 13:52 speaks of a house owner having the resource of new and old treasures.

Matthew 18:12-14 (cf. Luke 15:4-7) concerns a shepherd who seeks out and finds the one lost sheep. Matthew 18: 23-34 addresses a steward who squanders money, is forgiven of a large debt, but then is unmerciful to a man who owes him very little. In Matthew 20:1-16, Jesus speaks of a landowner’s prerogative to pay his workers what he chooses in an open contract. Matthew 21:28-32 speaks of a faithful versus unfaithful son in their willingness to work in their father’s vineyard. In Matthew 21:33-44 (cf. Mark 12:1-11; Luke 20:9-18), Jesus addresses tenants who rebel against the vineyard owner, in attempts at theft and commitment of murder, and thus they lose their lives.

Matthew 22:2-14 (cf. Luke 14:16-24)  is a parable about a king’s wedding banquet, where invitations to the wealthy are scorned, they are then extended to the poor, yet one poor man is kicked out because he has no wedding clothes (which are provided by the king, thus have here been refused). In Matthew 24:32-35 (cf. Mark 13:28-29; Luke 21:29-31), the parable addresses a fig tree failing to produce fruit in season.

In Matthew 24:45-51 (cf. Luke 12:42-48), Jesus addresses a servant put in charge of his master’s possessions, but who abuses his stewardship in beating fellow servants while carousing. Matthew 25:1-13 concerns bridesmaids, some of whom are not materially prepared for the late arrival of the bridegroom, and when he arrives they run out of oil in their lamps, and do not have time to buy more oil before the doors are shut for the banquet.

Matthew 25:14-30 (cf. Luke 19:12-27) is the parable of the talents, where three servants are entrusted with large sums of money to invest while their master travels – two do so wisely, and one does not. And, finally in Matthew, in 25:31-46, the parable of the sheep and goats separates out those who care for the hungry and strangers, and those who do not.

In Mark 4:26-29, the simple parable is on how the seed planted grows to harvest due to the quality of the soil. Mark 13:34-37 addresses servants in charge of their master’s possessions while he travels, and to be sure to be ready for his return.

All the rest of the parables are ones unique to the Gospel of Luke. In 7:41-43, we see the story of two men with debts, one large and one small, both are forgiven, and the one forgiven more loves more. In 10:30-37, the parable of the Good Samaritan shows the nature of love for neighbor, and his willingness to shoulder the financial costs in extending great mercy. In 11:5-8, we read of the boldness of one man to seek and borrow three loaves of bread from one friend at midnight, so as to feed another friend who has dropped in unexpectedly.

In 12:16, a rich man is proven a fool because he hoards his material blessings, and neglects God. 13:6-9 speaks of the patience, with a timetable, for expecting a vineyard to produce fruit. In 14:7-14, Jesus notes the folly of seeking social status at a wedding banquet, and the demotion that follows. In 14:28-30, the comparison is made between a wise and foolish builder, where counting the cost of the project up front is key; and in vv. 31-33 that follow, the same counting of the cost is applied to a king measuring troop strength before going to war.

The parable in 15:8-10 concerns the joy of finding a lost coin. Then follows the parable of the lost son in vv. 11-32 where the heir of part of his father’s estate takes his money prematurely, squanders it, and later returns home in humility. 16:1-8 concerns a negligent manger of an estate who faces loss of his job as a result, and thus acts shrewdly in monetary terms to redeem himself. 19:19-31 is the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, and how the poor receive compensation in heaven, and the selfish rich do not.

17:7-10 addresses the nature of a faithful servant, and 18:2-8 highlights a persistent widow seeking justice against her adversary. And finally, in 18:10-14, we read of the contrast between a self-righteous Pharisee, and a tax collector who seeks God’s mercy.

In other words, parables are the principal means by which Jesus teaches about the oikonomos of the kingdom of God, and monetary economic relationships are at the center of his illustrations.

Jesus speaks into the economy of his time – farming, vineyards, fishing, building, regular commerce and investments. He speaks of wise risk-taking, concern for the poor and dispossessed, ownership, faithful stewardship, planning ahead, trustworthiness, mercy, boldness, patience, wisdom, shrewdness, justice and humility.

Thus, what are the economic realities we face today in our technological advances? They prove to be the same, and the church has the basis in the parables of Jesus to address any and all specific issues.