Though in modern times profits are oftentimes assailed as greedy, there stands above all a single example, which, though not attempting to deliver in treatise, or enlighten by lecture, imparts a defense of profit without any sort of controversy. In this case, I speak of Jesus’ own occupation as a carpenter.
Consider that a carpenter can only use so much furniture, particularly when he lives in poverty. No, it can only be said of his craft that he produces a surplus of goods, engineering and masterfully working the chair and table he didn’t need, for people he may or may not have known. One thing is certain, and it is that Jesus did not build himself thousands of lampstands for his own enjoyment. He may have taken pleasure in the work itself; a God-man, creative beyond human understanding, and capable of grasping the most pertinent of spiritual truths, couldn’t be imagined as creating sub-par and non-inventive crafts. His application of reason to His surroundings could only have been fit for a genius, though an empire of craftsmanship in His case did not comprise His mission, and so was not maximally utilized. But a carpenter doesn’t hoard his surplus product for enjoyment; he is a carpenter by trade because he builds to sell.
When a man has more than what he needs of a particular object, he values the surplus less than what he does use and need. The chair upon which he regularly sits means far more to him than the extra chair upon which he never sits, or the extra bed upon which he never lies. He seeks not only someone who values the chair more than he does, but someone to whom the price of purchase appears lower than the buyer values it. In this light, as Mises wisely noted in Human Action, no exchange is ever equal. Each participant in a market society gives what they value less, and receives what they value more, or an exchange would not take place.
Price doesn’t necessarily negate the fact of universal profit by exchange: though two items are equal in price, they remain unequal in subjective worth. The price of the chair competes with every other item on the market, and men will only buy what they personally value more than other items, though two items cost the same amount. Therefore, though price conveys a sense of value, it cannot raise the value above what people themselves set; it merely places a numerical value upon a good, attempting to reconcile a medium of exchange with a general sense of subjective worth. To the owner of the saleable product, the price is always too high for him to purchase it himself: he values the money far more than he does the good; and though two men may buy something for the same price, it does not guarantee that they both buy it. To some, $20 worth of Italian parmesan is an excellent deal; for another, it seems a waste. The latter prefers $20 of something else more than the parmesan.
And what does this say of Christ? Having never seen Him work, His business can be said largely a mystery. But we can be sure of certain business practices, that Christ never gouged (that is to say, He priced well), that He always provided some sort of enjoyment for someone else, and they provided some sort of enjoyment for Him. Both parties gave what they valued less, and received something they valued more, a dance of cooperation in which His buyer left satisfied.
In this sense, Jesus Christ Himself took part of the market, something which defines markets as inherently moral, provided they exist within the Law. Righteous profit does not cheat another, though whether Jesus priced or allowed His buyers to haggle, He valued His own particular woodwork less than another valued it, and He thereby from a subjective viewpoint received more, just as they did. A free, non-monopolistic exchange does not yield a winner and a loser; it results in two winners.
We can rest assured that Jesus cared for the poor; He may have done some work without charge, or at a heavily discounted rate. We may take comfort in that His business never cheated the hired hand of promised wages (Lev 19:13), or used imbalanced scales to deceive (Lev 19:36), or built a mantle without pride in craftsmanship. But we can also rest assured that Jesus’ business would not have survived, had he priced every work at what He personally valued it — as surplus — and allowed everyone to haggle Him into a loss. Jesus’ craftsmanship was worth that for which He sold it, and vied for the attention of His buyers with both quality and careful pricing. Had this not been the case, He would not have owned a business and been a professional: carpentry would have simply been a hobby. If this was really the case, the Bible might as well have said He was an avid canasta player, or enjoyed playing a ukelele.
When Jesus called his disciples into ministry, He did not call them to leave business behind as though profit was bad, as He told the adulteress to sin no more, and brought prostitutes out of prostitution; when He appeared in resurrected form, His found His apostles at work in their old fishing business. He rather called them into a business for heavenly riches, a reward which surpassed every earthly diamond, and every corporate empire. They were not called into a ministry for simple altruism, but were called to receive crowns of life, to be called sons of God, to reach for ecstasies which may be defined in material terms, but in reality surpass everything they ever saw and knew. And Christ Himself? For the glory set before Him, he endured the cross (Heb 12:1-2). He did not suffer to simply suffer, but with the hope of heaven on the horizon, pressed forward, though Israel itself stood in His way, and hell attempted to swallow Him whole. By leaving their businesses behind, they did not condemn profit; they profited, in a different sense, by something far greater.
If Christ can profit, and then enter heaven not simply as citizen, but as King, then His children can profit as well. Let Christians be content, then, with learning in which ways we may not profit, what the Bible itself says exploits the poor, and then call profits what they really are: an indication that someone has provided a service to another, and improved another’s life by honest labor.