Success Secrets in the Gospels

Jesus criticized the rich. But he also used economic metaphors extensively in his teaching. Within those metaphors, he leaked quite a bit of useful wisdom, wisdom you can use to accumulate treasures in Heaven—or here on earth. Treasure in Heaven is to be preferred, but taking care of you and your family requires a bit of treasure on earth. Taking care of the needy requires more. Maintaining institutions that are not in the hands of militant secularists requires more yet.

And finally, if you are poor, here is a bit of help. The wisdom that follows is useful, and I’m not charging you anything for it. The only price is that you have to wade through my sometimes over-complicated sentences. No effort. No gain.

The Matthew Effect

Matthew 25:

14 "For it is like a man going on a journey, who summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them.

15 To one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey.

16 The one who had received five talents went off right away and put his money to work and gained five more.

17 In the same way, the one who had two gained two more.

18 But the one who had received one talent went out and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money in it.

19 After a long time, the master of those slaves came and settled his accounts with them.

20 The one who had received the five talents came and brought five more, saying, 'Sir, you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.'

21 His master answered, 'Well done, good and faithful slave! You have been faithful in a few things. I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master.'

22 The one with the two talents also came and said, 'Sir, you entrusted two talents to me. See, I have gained two more.'

23 His master answered, 'Well done, good and faithful slave! You have been faithful with a few things. I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master.'

24 Then the one who had received the one talent came and said, 'Sir, I knew that you were a hard man, harvesting where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed,

25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. See, you have what is yours.'

26 But his master answered, 'Evil and lazy slave! So you knew that I harvest where I didn't sow and gather where I didn't scatter?

27 Then you should have deposited my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received my money back with interest!

28 Therefore take the talent from him and give it to the one who has ten.

29 For the one who has will be given more, and he will have more than enough. But the one who does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.

30 And throw that worthless slave into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'

(NET Bible®)

It takes wealth to make wealth. We do not start out with the same amount of wealth. This strikes many on the political Left as unfair, and the more radical among them work to quash the efforts of the successful in order to allow the rest to catch up. The results are often disappointing.

There are entire college departments devoted to studying how unfair life is, and how to become touchy at the slightest insult or difference in privilege. For a few such study can be profitable, should they win a lawsuit, for example. But in the lesson Jesus gave above says don’t go there.

Jesus taught that you should use what you have. Use it well and you will likely end up with more.

If the servant given only one talent had multiplied it like the others had, he would have ended up with a stake equal to what the middle servant started with. Given a couple more rounds he could have had more than the most trusted servant started with. If the other servants were to slack off he could have eventually caught up.

But if the other servants keep going, so what? The value of money is roughly logarithmic. The relative difference in well-being between earing $20,000/year and $40,000/year is far greater than the difference between $500,000/year and $1,000,000/year. In billionaire circles money is just about keeping score.

If you are poor and wanting to rise up economically, it is usually in your best interest to downplay the unfairness of your lot, and focus on the positive (but real). The 10th Commandment is for your own good. (That said, should you succeed, the Bible repeatedly says you are under obligation to do your part to reduce the unfairness of this life by helping out the less fortunate.) This is not always easy. Success is not always easy.

To see the principle in action, let us look first to what we call “talent” today: intelligence, musical ability, etc. Now go back in your mind to you school days. Think of the bullies, clowns, and others who actively resisted learning, and often made it a mission to interfere with those who were trying. Most of them probably did have less inherent mental abilities than the top students. But the gap in achievement was hugely widened by the difference in effort. Top students frequently do more than what is assigned. They practice their talents. They read books because they are interesting. There are popular books out now such as Talent as Overrated by Geoff Colvin, that claim that most of what we call “talent” is really the result of thousands of hours of deliberate practice. Methinks there is an element of wishful thinking in such books, that willingness to put in the long hours is in part a function of inherent talent. But it is not all wishful thinking by a long shot.

(Alas, the public school system encourages this bad kind of thinking through how it grades students. Grades are issued on how well you do compared to your peers. Do worse and you are a failure, vs. simply behind. Methinks we should grade students based on how much achieved in absolute terms vs. relative to peer group. Think role-playing game or video game levels as models. More learning is better. If it takes you until age 21 to master first year algebra, algebra is still useful. The same holds for mastering proper grammar.)

The principle also applies to money itself. Who buys most of the lottery tickets in this country? Poor people, people who could be getting guaranteed rates of return that would make a Wall St. hedge fund manager drool with greed, if they used their lottery money to pay down high interest debts. They are treating what they have as near worthless, and thus losing it.

I am a bit guilty in this regard myself. No, I don’t buy government issued lottery tickets, or play the slots at casinos. But I have played the stock market too aggressively, while overlooking more conservative financial actions that had a good near-guaranteed rate of return. I was treating my savings as not significant unless multiplied greatly, and so risked it unduly.

I have also expended a great deal of time and effort ranting against the complexity of our tax laws. Had I spend a fraction of that time and effort figuring out how to use the maze of loopholes properly, I would be far more wealthy today, maybe wealthy enough to play politics to win and fix that mess of a tax code…

And yes, perhaps I have spent too much effort trying to acquire talents I was not given vs. fully exploiting those I have been given.

At this point some of you may be thinking: “Multiplying your wealth is all well and good if you have some to start with, but I am starting with nothing. Nothing times two is still nothing.” This brings us to the nuts and bolts of applying this principle. To multiply your blessings, it helps to count them first.

Count Your Blessings…and Use Them

Many in the money-mindset community write of cultivating an attitude of thankfulness. Much of what they write strikes me as a bunch of New Age woo-woo. Those who [try to] practice the Law of Attraction go full-on New Age woo-woo; they try to be thankful for what they don’t actually have in an effort to send out Quantum Cartoon Waves so that The Universe delivers their desires.

This is not what I am writing about.

I am not writing about attitude here. I am writing about accounting, about taking inventory. Your assets consist of far more than just money in the bank. If you invest those non-monetary assets instead of “burying them in the ground” or gambling them away stupidly, you can get a rate of return that includes many desirable things and eventually money.

Are you free? Then you own your body. That’s worth something, even though there is no direct market to determine the value of such today (fortunately!). In the bad old days we did have such a market. In this slave auction in Savannah Georgia in 1859, a healthy man in his prime went for $1600. Back then gold was $20/ounce. Today, it’s around $1100/ounce. So in terms of gold, an illiterate slave was worth $88,000. A slave owner expected to extract that much value plus profits after taking into account the significant expenses needed to feed and house said slave. You can probably extract more value, since it is in your interest vs. the interest of your oppressor to be productive.

But note this was the value for an illiterate, for whom very little capital was invested.

If you are reading this, you can read. (Duh!) If you made it through twelve years of public schools, then the state invested at least $100,000 in you. Add that to your book value.

You are reading this in English. This is a useful skill. If you are a citizen of one of the fully developed English-speaking lands such as the United States or the United Kingdom, you have an asset which many would risk their lives for, and spend many thousands of dollars if they had them. Add that to your book value.

You are reading this on the Internet, a colossal library, that didn’t exist for earlier generations. On it you can find free instruction, both text and video, on just about any subject. All you needs is interest and willpower to make use of it. (Like-minded friends also help!)

The United States is a land of cheap food. We have fat poor people!

Are you black? You have access to various affirmative action programs. Are you white? You have White Privilege.

Here in the U.S. we have free public libraries, parks, beach access, sidewalks, roads, museums, and more.

Are you using these assets? Are you using the Internet for enlightenment or cute cat pictures? Did you study when the government provided you free schooling? If you are poor, are you making use of thrift stores and/or Craigslist, or are you squandering your earnings at rent-to-own stores? Are you exercising and taking care of your body or are you filling it with deep fried crappe?

This is not Positive Thinking.

Do not count assets you truly don’t have. And you don’t need to be a full-on Pollyanna. I realize that many public schools are bad, that affirmative action can be a double-edge sword, that many public facilities aren’t all that great, etc. And yes, I could easily write a far longer list of things that are wrong in this country and this world – just look around the site.

But unless you are severely handicapped, severely ill, or in jail; if you live in a rich country you have quite a bit to start with.

Count also some other useful assets: skills you have developed, knowledge you have gained beyond school, college credit, social connections made, reputation…

For all these things, ask:

  • Am I making use of these assets?
  • Am I protecting them?
  • What can I do to improve on them?

Finally, I would note that we live in an age of relatively easy leverage. Interest rates are low, and many people have built billion dollar businesses with very little capital by aggressively outsourcing all but the core parts of their business. Consider this a potential asset too, albeit a bit dangerous, and overrated. If you read the biographies of the financially successful, you will usually find that their roads to riches were longer than popularly realized. Most of the successful built non-monetary fortunes in terms of skills, knowledge, connections, etc. before their bank accounts ramped up.

There is More

Whew! This chapter has passed 2000 words and I have only covered one parable. And there is more that I could have written about this one. But I think it best to stop here for a while and let this lesson sink in before proceeding to the next chapter. Do the above exercise with pen and paper. Take your time. And then, if you like, you might peek at the Further Reading below and build on this lesson from an unusual angle.

But please bookmark the next chapter and come back when you are ready to learn more. And if you haven’t read it already, do check out the wealth lessons compiled by King Solomon.

Further Reading

See the Mr. Money Mustache blog for ideas on living well and getting rich using a very conservative strategy, based on recognizing just how rich the rich countries of the world are, and living like it’s 50 years ago in order for the wealth to pile up. For example, see this post on making full use of what is available for free in many cities.