Jesus, John Templeton, and Confucius On Charitable Giving

Although John Templeton, the famous mutual fund pioneer, managed to create a $6+ billion fortune over the course of his lifetime, he never had too many periods in his adult life where he refused to “give until it hurts.” Templeton developed the personal philosophy that giving to others ought to be obligatory and enjoyable, and often argued that intelligent men should have no trouble being simultaneously generous while also getting a little something for themselves.

This is a strong contrast to the Confucian school of thought on charity—namely, that we have a series of obligations that flow outward. The general argument of Confucius is this: our first responsibility is not to be a charitable case ourselves, and once we have our personal matters settled, our obligations flow outward: you take care of your spouse, then kids, then parents, then extended family and closest friends, then friends, then acquaintances, then your township, city, state, and so on.

With this being the day that we traditionally celebrate the birth of Christ, I like to look to His wisdom for clues on whether it is ideal to give to charity when you are just starting out, or whether charitable giving is something that should be done when you are in a position of financial power to do so.

On one hand, we have the wisdom in the Gospel of Mark (Chapter 12, starting at Verse 41) which gives us the following:

“Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and to put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.

 Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others.They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.’”

In that passage, the suggestion is that the level of sacrifice is an important calculation to take into account because giving money when it scarce shows that we truly value helping others over taking care of ourselves. If you have $10,000,000 sitting in the bank, it does not require any sacrifice to make a $5,000 donation to the local food pantry. The message seems to be that the degree to which we are willing to help others at the expense of our own financial interests is what is admirable, rather than the gross amounts involved.

On the other hand, the 25th chapter in the Gospel of Matthew seems to give us another look at His wisdom. We see:

“Again, it 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. Then he went on his journey. The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. So also, the one with two bags of gold gained two more. But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.

“After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.’

“His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

 “The man with two bags of gold also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two bags of gold; see, I have gained two more.’

 “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

 “Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed.So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’

 “His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.

 “‘So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags.  For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

In this case, we are called to be productive. When you invest in General Electric, you are an owner of a company that is making medical devices so that people can have life-saving surgery. When you invest in Exxon Mobil, you are the part owner of an engineering team that is taking risks in third-world countries to extract oil that will eventually find its way to your car, so that you can travel to your work, to see loved ones, and engage in activities that you find worthwhile outside of your home. When you invest in Johnson & Johnson, you are the part owner of a company that is selling Tylenol literally so that your pain will go away. When you invest in Colgate-Palmolive, you are the partial owner of the capital that allows for the manufacture of toothpaste so that our teeth don’t fall out and we can eat food. Those companies require capital formation to serve the demands of the population, and it is a net benefit to the human experience that these companies exist.

Could you imagine if Bill Gates donated to the local church the money he harvested from an early Microsoft? Imagine if he had unduly restricted his potential by donating to charity the money that he needed to change the world and generate countless billions in profit. Now, Gates is saving lives through his charitable donations. There are people alive on this earth today that would have died of disease by now if not for the charitable intervention of the Gates foundation. The willingness to grow his labor into something big is what has allowed Gates to help others on a truly magnificent scale. If he chopped off his potential in the early days by selling his Microsoft ownership to someone else so that he could get that money into the hands of a charity ASAP, then he would have foreclosed upon his ability to do the good that he is doing now with his life.

Money is a tool, and we are judged according to how we treat the assets as a tool. If building wealth is solely for our own glorification, then it is a problem. But I think it is admirable to build wealth and turn your household balance sheet into a fountain of economic strength so that you can use your funds to give large amounts to your favorite causes in your life. Just about the most virtuous thing in the world is using your intelligence, labor, and the harnassing of time to build something great, and then give it to someone or something anonymously without any desire to enshrine your reputation or gain prestige among your peers.

Merry Christmas and God Bless.

-Tim