My first exposure to cost benefit analysis was as a child one summer with my grandfather, Burl. I know of my four grandparents, he has gotten the least attention in my tenure here. Mostly, that is because he died the year I met my wife, so there has been no new news about him, at least up until the recent military ball. Anyway, Burl had worked at a number of jobs over the course of his life. He had served in the Army during WWII. He had owned a men’s clothing shop in the metropolis of Clendenin, WV. He had worked a few other jobs as well. I knew him as an oilman. More specifically, I knew him as a Wildcatter, of sorts. By the time I came along on the family scene, Burl was drilling wells and selling oil. He was trading these things called mineral rights. He was connecting pipes to pipelines. And, best of all from my youthful perspective, he would pump oil. Those of you who have travelled through Oklahoma or Texas may have some confusion at that last statement. None of his wells produced enough oil to warrant automation or continual pumping. As he drilled wells and began pumping them, he had to figure out how quickly the reservoir replenished so as to make sure it was near full when he started pumping. Each well had a schedule. This well was pumped on Tuesday and Friday mornings. That well was pumped on every other Friday afternoon. That well could be pumped once a month. You get the idea. On those days, he would head out to the well, start the engine, and begin pumping. Once the oil ran out for the day, he would stop the engine and head home.
The reason I loved going with him as a child was because most of these wells were way out in the woods. Those of you who were boys and loved exploring the woods would have killed for this kind of adventure. We would be what seemed like hours from civilization, even though we were often only a few miles or couple ridges aways from paved roads and civilization. Kitty would pack us a sack lunch and a cooler of drinks, Burl would grab a thermos of coffee and a jug of water, and we would head out to pump oil in his pickup truck. The roads we sometimes travelled were better than any amusement park ride. This was four-wheeling the way God intended, and with purpose! We would get to the well, get everything serviced on the pump, and then fire her up. The engines all sounded the same to me, and I can still hear them when I stop and think about it. I would always try to get to the big tank before the salt water started flowing in. Once the water was drained and the oil was flowing, we could do whatever Burl had planned. I learned to shoot a number of pistols, rifles, and shotguns at those wells. He would teach me the different tracks of animals in the mud. Sometimes, we would walk the pipes and inspect them. Sometimes, there was maintenance to be done, and I got to hand him the tools.
It was also a great way for me to learn some life lessons. Burl would share his thoughts on everything, whether I wanted to listen or not. One of those lessons was what the business world calls cost-benefit analysis. At one of the wells, we would occasionally walk over the hill to a spot between his well and a well owned by someone else. The two wells produced only 25-30 barrels of oil each week combined. He was convinced, however, that the two were on the fringe of a large reservoir. He had an itch and really wanted to sink another well in this particular spot. When I asked him why he didn’t, he explained that there were a couple reasons. At the time, oil was only worth about $30/barrel. Drilling a well had a fixed cost. If the new well was dry, he was out all that money it would cost to sink a well with no way to recoup those losses. Plus, there was a chance that the new well could decrease the production of his well, in which case it would take longer to get back his money. I did not understand until I was older that this risk-reward relationship he was describing was called cost benefit analysis in economics. I did understand the math, however. If the new well produced at the same rate as the two other wells, and if the price of oil stayed nice and high, it would still take him four years before the well became profitable for him. If the price of oil dropped, it would take longer. Plus, there was a chance he would be cannibalizing his well. He never sank that well before he died. The risk was too large for the expected benefit, particularly when he considered the possibility that the spot would be dry.
Why do I share a story about cost benefit analysis? Partly, my mind was on those experiences this last week. My mother called to tell me that she my uncle were selling the mineral rights to that well to one of Burl’s old buddies as part of their efforts to settle Kitty’s estate. I even texted her that I bet he sunk that new well straightaway, as he had journeyed over the hill with us on more than one occasion. The other part of the reason was Matthew’s Gospel lesson this week. In the last five verses of our reading this week, Jesus describes the cost of following Him and the benefit of following Him. What is that cost? What is the benefit?
Jesus, in what must have been an utter shock to His disciples, specifically mentions taking up one’s cross and following Him. As most of you know, crucifixion was a particular brutal form of capital punishment used by Rome to enforce its will on those within the empire. Jesus’ experience of carrying the crossbeam to the site was not at all uncommon. Those of you who have asked me about the show Spartacus know that the empire was efficiently brutal. It had to be. How else could a city in Italy keep so many nations under its thumb for so long, particularly in a day and age where faxes, e-mail, television and other social medias did not exist. We see fights playing out daily in Ukraine and Syria and Iraq. We get notified within minutes if Hamas fires a rocket or if Israel bombs Gaza. Rome was sometimes lucky to hear of rebellion within a couple months of its beginning in the outlying provinces such as Judea. Crucifixion generally killed you by exposure. Part of why Pilate was surprised by Joseph of Arimathea’s request to have the body is that Jesus died so quickly. We think that Jesus’ death in six or eight hours is brutal. Pilate expected His suffering to last for a couple days, at least!
Add to that understanding the cultural understanding of Jesus’ disciples. We have talked often of the Jewish perspective on crucifixion. The torah taught that anyone hanging from a tree was accursed by God. To them, Jesus’ manner of death was proof that He was a blasphemer. Were He really God’s Son, were He really the Messiah, God would never have allowed Him to die such an accursed death. When Jesus asserts that to follow Him, one must deny oneself and take up their cross and follow Him, they have to be utterly appalled and confused. Why would the Christ mention crucifixion? Where is the glory in the cross?
What Jesus was teaching them, and us, is that discipleship means that we must die to ourselves in order to follow Him properly. Such a death is painful, such a death can seem shameful to those around us, such a death seems absolutely stupid by modern ideals and values. We live in a “Have it your way” culture; we live in a “he/she who dies with the most toys wins” culture. The focus today in on me, myself, and I. In many ways, our culture teaches us to worship the ego, the I. Virtues such as patience, sacrifice, and love are eschewed for immediate pleasure. Want that new toy? Don’t have enough money? Here, pay us 22% interest for 30 years and you can have your hearts desire! Your marriage is not fulfilling? You are not happy? Caring for your spouse and kids is weighing you down? Here, have a no fault divorce. You want something? Take it! Those are the messages with which we are bombarded each and every day as we pass billboards, listen to our radios as we head to work, see and hear on our television as we veg at night. Jesus wants us to give up all of that? Jesus says that discipleship means dying to all of that?
Yes. He not only says that, He commands that. He commands that we must die to ourselves and live according to God’s will. There is no mushy middle. There is no suggestion. This is a command, given by our Lord. Die to yourself, kill your ego, and follow Me. That He uses the image of crucifixion to describe the killing of our ego is certainly appropriate. We know that such is the manner of death that He will face. But He also knows the temptation of the flesh and the ego. He understands that such a death is not easy. He understands that the ego will revolt at any given opportunity. Like a whining child our ego will demand that we seek ours, that we serve ourselves, that we honor and glorify ourselves. He understands far better than we that exposure is what it will take to kill our egos, exposure to His love, His grace, and His instructions in our lives.
Whew! That’s quite the cost, is it not? Can you imagine the shock on the faces of the disciples? Peter has just gotten ripped by their Lord for His focus on earthly things, now Jesus is telling them they must die by crucifixion. Why? Jesus explains the reward. Those of us who follow the ego reject God’s will. We are commanded, we are instructed, that we should at all times and in all places live as He taught, loving Him above all things and our neighbors as ourselves. Our egos rebel against that teaching. But what about mine? Where is my honor? Where is my glory? What good is my suffering? Jesus teaches that this dying to oneself is the only way in which one can obey God properly. If we seek the glory and riches of this world, we lose the glories of the world to come. In essence, we trade a few years of comfort and pleasure for an eternity of suffering. Those, however, who choose to follow God, are likely to suffer in this world. Like our Lord we will be teased, we will be mocked, we may be taken advantage of, we may look like fools. But Jesus reminds us that we are called to act with eternity in mind. If we seek our egos and reject God, the consequences are dire. If we seek God and His kingdom, though, we are promised a share in His eternal glory. What should be of our utmost concern is the fate of our soul, not our creature comforts or the whims of our ego.
But can’t the two co-exist? Can’t I serve God and follow my hearts desire? Jesus has much to say on serving two masters elsewhere. In this section, though, He reminds His followers and us of the value of eternity. He uses a word, antellagma, which our translators define as forfeit. It is a word which signifies a stupid exchange. The word is used only in the New Testament in this passage and in Mark’s version of this teaching. The only other place we find it is in Sirach, where that author describes the value of true friend and a devoted wife. In Sirach, a true friend and a devoted wife are of such inestimable value that they can never be exchanged. Put in modern MasterCard language, a true friend and a devoted wife are priceless. Think of that for just a second. Jesus is teaching us that we should never exchange our souls for anything on earth. Giving up our souls for anything of this world, money, health, pleasure, or anything else, is like exchanging a devoted wife or a faithful friend. I mean, other than the Cubs, who would ever do something so stupid? Who would ever make that kind of trade? That’s what Jesus says about the kingdom of God. Our BCP reminds us of that truth, too. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. We leave the world the same way we enter. None of our goods go with us. None of our accolades continue on. Either you claim Christ as Lord, or you reject Him. And that decision has consequences of unfathomable value to us.
Hmmm. You make an interesting point. Let me think on it before I decide. It never ceases to amaze me, in this world of instant gratification, in this world where we think credit card debt and enslavement is better than waiting, we think that this decision is the one that we have all the time in the world to make. Adorable pair of shoes? They can’t wait. The most awesome latest gadget ever? I need it yesterday. I need a break? Screw it, I’ll put it on the card and go. I deserve this. Salvation? Let me think about that one. It sounds ridiculous, does it not? Jesus even spends two verses reminding us that not deciding is deciding . . . the wrong way. He will come again with the angels to repay what is done. If He is not your Lord, how will you repay what you have done? If He has not washed you in His blood, how will you stand before His judgment? That judgement will surprise everyone. Elsewhere, He describes His return like a thief in the night. Yet many of us will clearly be caught unprepared. Many of us will, indeed, be surprised.
Back to my economic phrase. Back to that cost benefit analysis. What is the reward promised? What does Jesus offer in exchange for becoming His disciple? How does He describe what He offers? Is there anything on earth for which you should be willing to trade Kingdom life? No. Emphatically no. Trading Kingdom life for anything is worse than giving up a ton of picks and players for Herschel Walker. Trading Kingdom life for anything is worse than denying entrance to Murphy the billy goat during game 4 of the World Series. Trading Kingdom life is worse than losing a faithful friend or devoted spouse. Trading Kingdom life for anything is simply a bad idea. Why? To claim a share of all those blessings offered what must we do? Build tons of churches? Go door to door trying to get more neighbors to join us than others in our congregation? Give a certain amount of money? Do a certain amount of good works? No. All we must do is repent, pick up our cross, and follow Jesus. He has paid the price of our salvation! He has done the heavy lifting of saving me and you. He has done all that was necessary for us to be adopted as first born sons and daughters. And, that we might know He alone has power to keep His promises to us, God raised Him that Easter morning, demonstrating to us and to all that His words are true and that His call on our life is priceless. Knowing that you cannot save yourself, knowing that your wealth and your works are not enough to ransom your life, knowing that He might come any moment and demand an accounting, knowing the consequences of choosing poorly, how do you choose? Who do you follow? Knowing the cross and His love for you demonstrated in His climb to Calvary, why would you ever bet on anything else? Why not choose life as His disciple and a share in His eternal kingdom? Nothing, absolutely nothing here on earth compares.