Prior to the use of currency, men and women bartered to obtain the goods they needed. If one man made shoes and another raised chickens, a pair of shoes could be traded for a certain number of chickens and vice versa. In this case it is clear that both parties profited from the exchange, the hungry cobbler received food to eat and the farmer with cold feet received shoes to wear.
Today we use money to facilitate trade, and rarely do we think the purchaser profits from an economic transaction. Clearly, the shoe salesman profits if he sells a pair of shoes to me for ten dollars if it cost him five dollars to make them. Yet I profit as well. The value I put on having shoes is higher than the value I put on keeping ten dollars in my pocket. In fact, I value the shoes he sells at fifteen dollars, so they are a bargain to me at ten. If the salesman charges sixteen dollars, I do not purchase the shoes since I do not profit if the value I place on them is lower than the price he charges me.
All of this illustrates the subjective theory of value, which recognizes that the price I am willing to pay for a specific good or service is different than the price others are willing to pay for the same good or service. In a coercion-free market where contracts are honored, people get a fair trade if they are able to purchase a good at a price equal to or below what they think it is worth. Thomas Aquinas notes that all this trading and exchanging of our talents and goods meets the needs of others and fulfills one of the Lord’s designs for us.
The subjective theory of value is an economic reality on the human level, but from God’s perspective we must value Him most of all (Ex. 20:3). Therefore, we must prize His glory and the extension of His kingdom more than anything else (Isa. 48:11). Yet subjective value can play a role here as well. For example, the value I place on one-on-one ministry may be so high that I forego monetary wealth and become a full-time missionary. Someone else might highly value giving large sums of money to a multitude of outreaches and seek a profession that pays very well. Both of these love God’s ends most of all, but the ways they value the means to achieve these ends differs.
Our work and purchasing serves to meet the needs of other people. Every time we buy something we put somebody, somewhere, to work. Yet each purchase we make also involves making a decision of what not to buy, since a dollar spent on one thing cannot be used for another. Our treasures, as today’s passage teaches, truly do indicate where our highest priorities lie. Where does your heart lie, according to your bank statement?