Profit Margin

Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

In the most elementary definition I can find, an investment is the allocation of resources toward the expectation of some future benefit, which is either a tangible profit or the increase of the value of an asset. A simple example from the world of commerce and finance relates to funding in an effort to gain some future measurable return. There is usually some fine print involved, like who takes possession of the resource upon its allocation, some well-defined terms delineating its use and by whom, how much time is allotted for such use, how profit or loss is measured, shared, and among whom, when the investment matures and may be collected by the investor, and any penalties that may be imposed for non-compliance. And that’s just those things I understand. It’s probably not as simple in legalese. And I’m sure there’s more fine print in the fine print.

I’m also not trained to read the fine print with a critical eye. And you would have never heard me use any of those terms before because it has taken me years of Finance Council meetings asking stupid questions and having elementary concepts explained in mind-numbing detail before I learned the business side of things necessary to function as a pastor, who effectively is CEO of an organization with an annual budget business people would not recommend a person to lead who has the academic qualifications and work experience I have.

But not to worry. All that was early on in my 28 years of church ministry. I’m sure few people have that kind of innate talent. The rest of us have to learn on the job. And my eyes will still glaze over when reviewing financial reports. I do still need things pointed out to me, so I know what I’m looking at. Of course it helps very much that I have competent and reliable advisors. And there’s multiple layers of accountability. So we steer clear of actual and figurative ditches, land mines, and quicksand.

A little more than half a lifetime ago, when I made first vows in a religious community I was given assurance I would never have to worry about drawing a paycheck, keeping a bank account, paying bills and taxes, or designating who takes custody of my personal estate when I cross into the hereafter. But I joined the ranks of the secular clergy. So I did eventually end up drawing a paycheck, keeping a bank account, paying bills and taxes, and designating who takes custody of my personal estate when I cross into the hereafter. Such is life. If something can be measured, it will have to be measured repeatedly. Math has never been my strong suit. My undergrad was in Philosophy and a minor in Education. My teaching minor was Math. But there’s always plenty of people to help with that. The other parts I’m often figuring out as I go.

We read from the book of Proverbs an ode to the worthy wife. It’s a high bar for sure. We probably know such highly motivated people who accomplish great things and are proud of all their hard work. If their efforts fall short of their expectations, they have little trouble coming back with renewed energy and purpose. They will not pass up the opportunity to do better even if they experience occasional setbacks. And while ultimate success in marriage and family life cannot be measured in material wealth and high profit margins, the investment is sizable in terms of patience, perseverance, hope, compassion, faithfulness, honesty, and trust. And that’s just those things I understand. Make sure you read the fine print. It’s not always written down. But it’s there.

Jesus tells us a parable that presents an image of God investing in some human capital. Scripture scholars tend to agree that parables tell us more about God than they tell about us. And Jesus does intend to elicit some response from his listeners, probably hoping we choose to cooperate with God and bring God’s will to fulfillment. At times he is successful. And at other times, he only manages to confuse his listeners. But in the end, it will be our choice entirely how we respond. If Jesus convinces us, we might heed his message and choose to modify our thinking and behavior. Although Jesus alone calls us to follow him, each of us is still responsible for putting one foot in front of the other and moving in the direction he points out. We can run, sprint, jog, walk, mosey, sashay, crawl, scootch, drag, or park and throw a tantrum. The possibilities are endless. Now in the parable, the measure of God’s generosity is not the issue. Instead we have to figure out which of the three servants we choose to imitate. God has charged us to bring in a measurable return on his investment. We are permitted of course to respond as we please. Even abdicating responsibility is an option. But just so we know, there will be consequences whatever our choice.

So how do we bring in a positive return on God’s investment and raise our profit margin? The experts of course will argue their opinion. Some among them are scripture scholars and preachers and religious authors and pastors, even parents and spouses and nosy neighbors. There is no lack of wisdom out there to remind us what God asks of us. But Jesus’ words and example alone give us sufficient food for thought. Never mind what anybody else says. Jesus spoke about not judging our neighbor and turning the other cheek. He said to take out the beam in our own eye before attempting to remove the splinter in a brother’s eye. He taught us to forgive one another from the heart. He encouraged us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and those in prison, and welcome the stranger. He spoke about giving from our poverty instead of from our surplus, about resisting temptation and not putting obstacles in the path of others, about loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us, about being salt for the earth and light for the world, about trusting that God cares for his little ones and so should we, about not doing good things for show, but rather so those who see it will give glory to the Father. God will not look to the experts, the scripture scholars and preachers and religious authors and pastors, our parents or spouses or our nosy neighbors. God will look to us alone to account for our success or failure. Our profit margin will be entirely for us to own and explain. Some people want to sit down with God when they enter the pearly gates and demand God explain a few things to them. Instead I suggest we prepare the speech to explain our profit margin.

St. Paul offers us his two cents. “Brothers and sisters, … you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief at night. But you are not in darkness. You are children of the light and children of the day. … Therefore, let us not sleep as the rest do, but let us stay alert and sober.” When you finally sit down with God to give an account of your service, will you have good news to share? Measure that profit margin now. And work on that speech. And don’t say no one told you.

Rolo B Castillo © 2020

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