“We must carefully practice what the Savior of our souls was accustomed to say, as the ancients have informed us, ‘Be good bankers,’” writes St. Francis de Sales in his Introduction to the Devout Life (III.22).
The “ancients” he refers to include St. Clement of Alexandria, St. Jerome, and Origen, all of whom report that Jesus used to say this. It’s one of the few well-attested sayings of Jesus outside the canon of Scripture.
Besides, it rings true and has some resemblance to sayings in the Gospels: “Trade with this [talent] until I return” (Lk. 19:13); “How does a man profit if he gains the whole world at the price of his soul?” (Mk 8:36); “The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking pearls, who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went his way, and sold all that he had, and bought it,” (Mt. 13:45-46); and “Use unrighteous mammon to make friends for yourself,” (Lk 16:9).
All these sayings reveal that Jesus liked to use skillful trading and shrewd investment as a model for prudence in discipleship. One wonders whether these various images somehow went back to St. Matthew’s calling, just as images of fishing and fishermen went back to the calling of St. Peter and St. James.
St. Francis gives a particular meaning to “Be good bankers.” He says that it means we should sift out the good from the bad in our relationships: “That is, don’t take in counterfeit money along with the good. . . .Why should we indiscriminately absorb a friend’s tares and imperfections along with his friendship?”
St. Clement, in contrast, gives the saying a very general sense. Astonishingly, he says that Jesus was recommending a “true dialectic,” of the sort which Plato wished to find, which is a general ability to sift out true from counterfeit, good from bad:
This true dialectic is the science which analyses the objects of thought, and shows abstractly and by itself the individual substratum of existences, or the power of dividing things into genera, which descends to their most special properties, and presents each individual object to be contemplated simply such as it is. Hence, it alone conducts to true wisdom.
Clement ostensibly would make those well-trained in Christian philosophy the best “bankers” of all. They can best tell counterfeits and recognize a truly “good deal.”
St. Francis introduces this remarkable saying in a telling way. It is not something that “Jesus” or “the Lord” said, but specifically the “Savior of our souls” (le Sauveur de nos ames) – the only time, in fact, that St. Francis uses this mode of reference in his book.
Why is this telling? Because it makes sense that we would be asked to take good care of something that was purchased for us at great price. “Empti enim estis pretio magno! (1 Cor 6:20), you and I have been “bought at a great price.” We must bring into our life, to make them our own, the life and death of Christ” (St. Josemaria, The Way of the Cross, Station 14).
The soul is something Jesus has saved from eternal loss by his very death: now you save it by your prudence.
It’s typical to depreciate these days the contrast between body and soul. Isn’t the Scriptural distinction, rather, between “spirit” and “flesh”? Doesn’t talk of a soul seem too close to the harmful dualism of Descartes? But one merit of the older way of speaking is that people could easily see that the soul is something we “have,” which we can be exhorted to take care of, just like any other possession.
What do I mean? Well, consider this. A human being is rightly defined as a unity of body and soul (just as in the Real Presence one finds the “body, blood, soul, and divinity” of Christ, CCC 382).
But when we die, our body surely does not survive right then. Only the soul survives. This soul, again, is not the entire human being; thus it is only a part. And in Christian wisdom we find that the life of the whole man now is understood as directed toward the guiding to safety, upon death, of this “part.”
Just consider some representative teachings in the Catechism. The soul is something we are endowed with. (CCC 1703) God immediately creates our soul and entrusts it to us. (CCC 366) At death, “Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death.” (CCC 1022) Sanctifying grace specifically perfects the soul. (CCC 2000)
Classical philosophers used to distinguish between “external goods” such as wealth and “internal goods,” which included the body and the soul. Being a good banker for them would have meant trading external goods for internal, and goods of the body for those of the soul. Plato actually has Socrates speak in this way in the Phaedo. The Christian tradition is continuous with the classical tradition in this sense, not at odds with it.
The old reputation of Socrates is that he went around Athens telling his countrymen that they had souls and then asking them why they put so much care into making their bodies look good but no care at all into acquiring the virtues, which made their souls look good.
Can’t the same question be asked in Christian cities today? You wash your cars once a week: do you ever cleanse your soul in Confession? You exercise each day: do you pray even more frequently? You look for the best foods: do you take care to receive the manna come down from heaven? You keep adding to your retirement account: but what about your eternal account?
Have you invested only for short-term returns? Do you continue to hold, irrationally, poorly performing investments? Have you even learned how to recognize good investments? Have you been a good banker?
The Investor who created and saved your soul wants to know.
*Image: The Parable of the Talents by Herman Janz Muller, 1580 [Mooney Art Exhibit , Charles City Public Library, Iowa]