This parable is one of the most difficult to understand. On the one hand it seems to praise the unscrupulous, but on the other hand, it bluntly draws the line: “You cannot serve both God and mammon.”
Christ praising the children of this world can be understood when placed in two contexts. First, remember that he loved to mix with tax collectors and sinners, to the dismay of the Pharisaic crowd. Two, he praised them not for their principles or values, but for their initiative and foresight, which was more of a critique of the absence of these in the children of light.
The critique is the starting point of the process; seemingly using the shock value of his example—as one commentary puts it, “a bad man’s good example”
—to call attention to the message. We who desire to follow Christ, to be his disciples, must learn to have initiative and foresight in living out our faith.
Initiative and foresight is to trail-blaze and to have vision, a horizon of a dream larger than life. This is to jumpstart our faith journey. Then Christ throws in the work ethic: “The person who is trustworthy in very small matters is also trustworthy in great ones…”
Then the gold standard is set: “You cannot serve both God and mammon.” “It is either you are for me or against me.” There is no middle ground.
Recently I had lunch with a retiree who was the head of the corporate executive dining services of the company he worked in. His story is amazing.
His first employment in a hotel as a dishwasher was purely “accidental.” He accompanied a friend who was applying for the job, but he ended up being hired. From there he worked his way up; after four decades, he retired as chef and business unit head.
Another example is the manager of a resort in Laiya, San Juan, Batangas. Starting out as a janitor in a hotel, he worked his way up, leading to foreign postings in the hotel industry. Returning home to be with his family, he did not have problems landing a job.
Both are highly accomplished in their profession. Both started from the bottom and were driven by a simple dream—to work so they could help their families. Both are at the stage in their careers and journeys where they are looking to give back.
Both are examples of men who worked with initiative and foresight, who worked hard for the money, but was never held hostage by it. They were able to put material things in their proper context and, in the end, are able to give back, to live a life of giving back.
They could very well serve as examples of Christ’s message in today’s Gospel. His message in the parable gives us key themes in our journey, a formation journey toward a total offering of the self as his follower.
Psychologists, spiritual guides or mentors would say that the first order of business in the formation journey is to ask what one’s dream is.
Five hundred years ago, Ignatius of Loyola pretty much said the same thing. Should anyone want to become a Jesuit, ask him if he has holy desires, or at least the desire to desire holy desires.
It was all about what inspires or fires up a person—your passionate dream; the desire and passion that are ingredients of initiative and foresight.
This is how we start our formation program for public school teachers. We put them in touch again with the dream and the desire, the passion that made them choose teaching as their mission and vocation.
Using Ignatius’ basic process of formation, we lead them through a renewal of this sense of mission and the view of teaching as a vocation—the combination of desire, passion and transformation that moves one toward a recommitment to mission.
The critical element in this process and framework is the emphasis on action, which is the fruit of jumpstarting the passion, coupled with reflection and prayer. This contemplative-in-action balance is the synthesis of the process at this point.
Action as a fruit of prayer and contemplation becomes infused not simply with hard work, but a work ethic characterized by what we can call “doing-your-home”—preparation, research/
studying the situation. In short, a very concrete and grounded expression of initiative and foresight, and an inherent pursuit for excellence.
This is a portrait of a driven, inspired person who delivers quality results in his/her profession. Equally important in living one’s passion, fire and inspiration is total surrender—the commitment of the person to the one who calls and sends, to the one who missions.
“You cannot serve both God and mammon.” This then becomes the final stage in the process. In the passionate and difficult pursuit of mission, the final “test” is in the prayer: “Lord, not my will, but your will be done.”
“You have given all to me, to you I return them that you may dispose of me totally according to your will. Give me only your love and your grace…”