Sunday, January 25, 2015

Opportunity Costs

There once was a frugal accountant whose business had been in the family for generations and generations and during all that time they ran the firm out of the same office building.  It came to pass that the marble step at the front entrance wore down from years of wear and tear and it now posed a danger to clients.  The accountant reluctantly decided to have it replaced less someone fall on it and sue him.  He called a stonemason to give him a quote for a new step.  “That’s a big job,” the mason told him.  “I can get you a new marble step for $10,000.”  Well, there was no way the accountant was going to lay out that much cash for a step.  They he had an idea.  He asked the mason what it would cost to dig up the stone and turn it over so that the worn side would be on the bottom and new flat surface would be on the top.  “I can do that for $500,” the mason told him.  The accountant agreed and then got back to books.  An hour later the mason called the accountant to inspect the work.  To the accountant’s dismay, the new surface was even more wore down than the old one, but how could that be.  The mason, who himself came from several generations of stone workers said, “Over a hundred years ago your cheap great-great grandfather had my great-great-grandfather do the same thing.” 

For much of history business was family business where knowledge, skills, and tools were passed on from one generation to the next and the next.  People even took on family names that described their work: Miller, Smith, Baker, Tanner, Carpenter, and Farmer are just a few examples.  In this morning’s gospel reading we are introduced to four men who come from a long line of Galilean fishermen.

Scholars indicate that in biblical times somewhere between eighteen and twenty-four different species of indigenous fish lived in the Sea of Galilee.  There were several different ways to catch fish at the time. 

The text tells us that Jesus saw Simon (also known as Peter) and his brother Andrew “casting a net into the sea.”  This technique involved a circular net fifteen to twenty feet in diameter.   The outside perimeter of the net was lined with a rope that had weights attached to it so that the net would sink quickly.  The net was cast or thrown by a single person either from shallow water or from a boat.  As it is thrown, it spreads out and lands on the water like a parachute.  It descends quickly, trapping any fish that are underneath it.  To retrieve the catch, a fisherman would go underwater and one by one grab the fish and place them in a pouch.  Another method involved pulling the outer rope together, and dragging the haul either to shore or onto a boat.  

The two brothers easily mastered this relatively simple method of fishing.  Jesus invites them to follow him in order to fish for people.  The two immediately put down their nets and go with him.

In a short period of time the trio encounters two more brothers – James and John – who are also fishermen.  They are in their boats “mending their nets.”  Jesus invites them to follow him as well and they leave their father and hired hands to do so.

James and John are a part of a much larger and more complicated fishing operation that involves boats and employees.  Most likely they used a type of dragnet approach.  The nets could be several hundred feet long and up to twenty feet wide from top and bottom.  A rope along the top length had cork attached to it keep the net afloat.  A rope on the bottom length had weights so that it would sink.  A group of men on the shore would hold one end of the net while a boat took the other end out into the water, setting it out as it went.  Eventually the boat would circle back further down the shore where another group of men took hold of the opposite end of the net.  The entire net may cover the perimeter as large as our church property.  Once the dragnet was in place, both groups pulled the net into shore, trapping every fish that was inside.  The same process could also be applied in deeper water by utilizing more boats.

Obviously, fishermen needed to be physically strong.  But they also needed to know how to deal with people.  The diverse folks who showed up to buy their fish spoke Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic.  They had to know how to weigh the fish in order to ascertain its value and they had to understand the complexities of market pricing.  Income from each catch was divided into shares.  Forty percent went to the owner of the boats and the nets.  The remainder was divided among the crew with some getting a little more based on skills and tenure.  Those who mastered fishing made a better wage then the typical laborer or tradesman.  The bible hints that Peter’s home in Capernaum was more substantial than those around it.  In addition all four men were free to stop working when they wanted and return again when it suited them.  While not the wealthiest or most educated people in society, these men were not without means and ability.

Peter, Andrew, James, and John appear early on in Mark’s gospel from out of nowhere.  If you knew nothing of the story of Jesus and were reading this work for the first time all you would know of the four is that they were fishermen who dropped their work to follow Jesus.  You would also suspect that they are going to figure prominently in the story as it unfolds.

Scholars believe that Mark was the first person to write a gospel and that his work was done about thirty years after Jesus’ resurrection.  By the time it began to circulate throughout the early church most of its members had never met Jesus in person.  Either they were not born until after his life or they lived in another country at the time.  And while most had not met Jesus, many had met Peter, Andrew, James, or John.  They had achieved legendary apostolic status by the time Mark wrote and his readers would have known all about them and their lives.  They modeled what it meant to follow Jesus and their example was emulated throughout the early church.

Last Sunday our readings invited us to ponder who we emulate and how faithfully we are living out their examples.  It also invited us to reflect on the invitations we extend and the invitations we accept.  To what do you say yes?  Many of the same themes are present in today’s reading, but it adds a new dimension for consideration.  What are you willing to sacrifice in order to be faithful?  Christianity is more than confessing a creed.  It is more than being a good person.  It is about following Jesus, about being a disciple.

An economist might look at today’s gospel and use it to teach about “opportunity cost.”  When you do one thing, you are choosing not to do another.  You can’t spend a dollar and save it at the same time.  You can’t mow the grass and take a walk on the beach at the same time.  And unless you are John Rector, you can’t go to church and take a nap as the same time.  When the four fishermen follow Jesus they respond to an opportunity that has a cost.  They will loose income by not fishing.  They will loose time with their families.  They might get passed over the business’ pecking order.  Their lives will become more complicated, not more simple.  They will be exposed to hardship, ridicule, and danger.  These are some of the costs, but each decided to respond to the opportunity.

When I was in college it was popular to go to Florida for spring break in order to lie out on the beach and soak up the sun.  It was a wonderful week to relax and cavort.  I image not much has changed.  But there were some students at my school who choose a different path.  They signed up for a weeklong Habitat for Humanity build in Mississippi.  That opportunity cost them something.  They had to pay their way.  They couldn’t lounge around all day or party all night.  It made them tired and sore.  But even with all that, it gave them something even better. 

What did following Jesus cost Peter, Andrew, James, and John?  Initially it cost them some time at work and making money.  That is no small sacrifice.  Eventually it cost each of them their lives, but this had not yet happened when Mark wrote his gospel.  Mark’s readers would have looked at the examples set by their heroes and challenged themselves to do the same.

So here is a question to ask yourself: What does it cost you to be a Christian?  What does it cost you to be a member of St. Paul’s Church?  What does it cost you to follow Jesus?  If the answer is not much, you might want to ponder if you are truly following or not.