Money truths on a bi­b­li­cal scale

The ‘Matthew ef­fect’ is all around us, from the stars in the sky to the fluc­tu­a­tions of our for­tunes.

Sunday News - - FRONT PAGE -

IT’S a strange time of year. Joy­ous for some; mis­er­able for oth­ers. The dif­fer­ence be­tween the haves and the have-nots is al­ways stark­est dur­ing the hol­i­days.

I am­not a re­li­gious man. But I keep think­ing about a para­ble told by Christ, which con­tains some pow­er­ful wis­dom about the proper use of money.

In ye olden times, a ‘‘tal­ent’’ was a unit of mea­sure­ment, equiv­a­lent to about 36kg of sil­ver. A man en­trusted his tal­ents to three ser­vants while he went on a long jour­ney, di­vid­ing it up ac­cord­ing to their abil­ity. The first re­ceived five tal­ents, the sec­ond two, and the third, just one.

Upon the man’s re­turn, he found the first and sec­ond ser­vants had dou­bled their tal­ents through savvy in­vest­ments, and re­warded them hand­somely. But the third ser­vant had buried his sin­gle tal­ent in the dirt. Fu­ri­ous, the mas­ter cast the wretch into the pits of Hell, tak­ing his only tal­ent and giv­ing it to the guy who al­ready had ten.

The moral of the story is that you have to take risks in life, and put your tal­ents (fi­nan­cial or oth­er­wise) to work. This is solid ad­vice.

But there’s a darker mes­sage be­neath the sur­face. No­tice how the game was rigged from the start. One ser­vant was given 10 times as much money as the other. He had plenty of room to breathe. If he lost a tal­ent or two through bum in­vest­ments, it didn’t mat­ter. The poor ser­vant with a sin­gle tal­ent was des­per­ate to keep his head above wa­ter.

Here’s the con­clu­sion of the story, as re­counted by St Matthew:

‘‘For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abun­dance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.’’

Two thou­sand years later, sci­en­tists started notic­ing this phe­nom­e­non crop­ping up in all sorts of un­likely places. The ‘‘Matthew ef­fect’’ is a math­e­mat­i­cal prop­erty re­spon­si­ble for the ar­range­ment of stars in the sky, the height of tree trunks, and wealth in­equal­ity. Ev­ery­thing com­pounds on it­self. Fa­mous re­searchers get un­fairly cred­ited for the work of ob­scure sci­en­tists. Kids who learn to read early have an ad­van­tage that per­sists through­out life. An ini­tial suc­cess spi­rals into more good for­tune; bad luck begets more bad luck.

Know­ing this, the para­ble of the tal­ents seems kind of cut­throat. Per­haps it’s only meant to de­scribe the harsh re­al­ity of the world, rather than sug­gest we should be OK with it. Christ cer­tainly wasn’t.

I used to be a great be­liever in ‘‘mak­ing your own luck’’. That you can pull your­self up by your boot­straps. That ev­ery­one gets what they de­serve. I now know this is not an ac­cu­rate de­scrip­tion of re­al­ity. But nei­ther is the op­po­site view.

Here’s amore nu­anced take­away: 1. Work hard to build up some ini­tial mo­men­tum. That means sav­ing and in­vest­ing early in life, and re­pay­ing debt as ag­gres­sively as pos­si­ble. 2. Don’t get com­pla­cent. Be­ware the creep of lifestyle in­fla­tion, and try not to let your spend­ing in­crease as fast as your in­come. 3. Once you have mo­men­tum on your side, use your po­si­tion to help oth­ers. Suc­cess of any kind has di­min­ish­ing re­turns. An ex­tra mil­lion won’t make Bill Gates any hap­pier, which is why he’s us­ing it to save hun­dreds of lives in the fight against malaria.

‘ You have to help your­self be­fore you can help oth­ers. Once your tal­ents are work­ing for you, see what you can do for the less for­tu­nate.’

The 18th cen­tury cleric John Wes­ley de­liv­ered a fa­mous ser­mon on the proper use of money, which he sum­marised in this line:

‘‘Hav­ing first, gained all you can, and sec­ondly, saved all you can, then give all you can.’’

This strikes me as the per­fect bal­ance be­tween prag­ma­tism and com­pas­sion. You have to help your­self be­fore you can help oth­ers. Once your tal­ents are work­ing for you, see what you can do for the less for­tu­nate. No preach­ing in­tended; just some­thing to think about – ’tis the sea­son for giv­ing, af­ter all.

St Matthew and Guido Reni. the An­gel, by

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