The following is a guest post from COTN partner Ben Garrison.
"[The Kingdom of God] will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag, each according to his ability..." - Matthew 25:14,15
There is a fundamental principle of economics that most people don’t think about: opportunity cost. You pay opportunity cost all the time without realizing it. When you make a decision, opportunity cost is the difference in value between what you actually did and something better that you could have done. A simple example: if you go to McDonald's and get two orders of 10-piece McNuggets ($4.69 each, or $9.38 total), you pay an opportunity cost of $4.38. Why? Because an order of 20-piece McNuggets is $5.00. With either option you would have ended up with 20 McNuggets. But by ordering wrong, you’re out an extra $4.38.
This cost is called an “opportunity” cost because before you make a decision, you have the opportunity to do anything. In economics, that opportunity is valued as the best of your available options. Once you choose anything but the best option, you incur a cost.
What does opportunity cost have to do with the story in Matthew? Each of the servants had an opportunity to do anything in the world with the money that was given to them. Two of the servants invested it and used the money to make more money. But one of them was scared, and hid the money, figuring that he could at least just give it back to his master. What he didn’t realize was that he lost the opportunity to do anything better with it. Let’s see how that worked out for him:
His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant ... you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest. Take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags.’ - Matthew 25:26-28
The master was angry because he gave his servant the opportunity to at least earn interest on his bag of gold, but he didn’t. The opportunity cost was that interest.
What kinds of resources has God given you? Are you being wise with they way you use them?
God expects us to use our opportunities wisely, and not to waste them. This shows up again and again in the Bible, often related to money. For example:
"Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days." -James 5:1-3
Why do moth-eaten clothes and corrosion of wealth testify against someone? Corrosion and moth-snacking are both things that happen when something is stored and unused for a long time. The wealth wasn’t intrinsically bad, it was bad that it wasn’t used for something better.
The Rich Fool
This raises the question, however: how do we decide what’s “better”? God doesn’t give us rules, but He does give us some examples of what to do and what not to do. One of my favorite examples is two sections of scripture that most people don’t realize are connected. The first half is the parable of the rich fool:
Then [Jesus] said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.’" - Luke 12:13-19
This parable paints a picture of a man who had an opportunity: surplus possessions. He could have done any number of things with them, and he chose to save it, hoping that it would make things easier for him later. We should pause to note that for most American Christians, this sounds like a very wise thing to do. If this man was our friend, and he told us his plan, we would probably praise him for being a good steward. It might be confusing, then, to read God’s accusation:
"But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God." -Luke 12:20-21
How can you do a better job of trusting God to provide, so you're not relying on yourself to be the hero?
I’ve heard many people express confusion when reading this passage, because it doesn’t seem to them like the man did anything wrong. I’ve heard people ask “What else was he going to do with his extra crops, let them rot in the field?” I think most of the confusion about this parable is because it is usually read in isolation. Let’s read on, and note the “therefore,” which indicates that what Jesus is about to say is connected to the parable about the rich man:
"Then Jesus said to his disciples: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear... But seek His kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well." - Luke 12:22-31
Great! So we shouldn’t worry about earthly possessions, but should seek his kingdom instead. That’s nice and comforting and all, but it still doesn’t really explain what was so bad about the rich man’s actions. What should he have done with his surplus crops, anyway?
The Forgotten Opportunity of Giving
Jesus continues with the answer:
“Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” - Luke 12:32-34
“Sell your possessions and give to the poor.” That was the lost opportunity. The man was so concerned about ensuring his own happiness and safety that it didn’t even occur to him that there could be something better to do with his possessions.
The rich man in the parable is very similar to the servant who was given one bag of gold. The servant was given the opportunity to return the bag with interest, and the rich man was given the opportunity to alleviate much suffering in the poor around him. Both of them wasted the opportunity that was given to them.
Remember Your Opportunities
Even though we don’t usually do a good job of thinking about the opportunity cost of our decisions, we can get better. A report published in the Journal of Consumer Research
showed that consumers make much better purchasing decisions if they’re simply reminded of what else they could buy with the money.
You don’t have to have someone else remind you—you can remind yourself. Look at the website of an organization that serves the poor and needy and see how much various things cost. Then, when you make purchasing or saving decisions, compare it to what else you know can be bought with the money:
Thinking like this is important, because it helps ground us in the opportunities God has given us, and hopefully we will then take advantage of them.
It’s important to remember that opportunity cost doesn’t just relate to money; we can incur it with every decision we make with our time and talents as well. The time we spent on frivolous pursuits isn’t intrinsically bad, but we need to remember that time spent doing one thing means we lost the opportunity to do something else—something that might have been more important. James puts it this way:
“If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.” - James 4:17
It’s potentially debilitating to compare everything we do to what we could do instead, especially in the new globalized world we live in. However, I don’t believe that God intends for Christians to be debilitated by the fear of doing the wrong thing. In fact, I think the thing that God wants isn’t that we optimize our decisions perfectly, but that we desire to use our opportunities as best we can. In our ignorance, we will make a lot of mediocre decisions, but the heart is what really matters.
In fact, if we’re thinking about it correctly, it should be far from debilitating. Instead of worrying about what we can spend money on, we should be thrilled with all of the opportunity we have to do so much good.
You’ve been given a great gift: a life full of opportunity.
Use it well.