Counting the Cost

For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life? (Matt. 16:26)

When I was starting out in the insurance business, I got to know a claim fraud investigator who had gotten his start as a street cop in New York City. He told me he always refused freebies from store owners on his beat. “Every man has his price,” he said, “but I wasn’t going to sell my soul for a cup of coffee.” This was around the time of the Knapp Commission investigation of police corruption in New York in the early 1970s, made famous by a whistleblowing cop named Frank Serpico. The commission report distinguished between major corruption, referred to as “meat eating,” and the nickel-and-dime stuff, called “grass eating.” My colleague refused even to nibble on the grass. He had the presence of mind to recognize that the devil, in whatever guise, will not offer you all the kingdoms on earth if your soul can be had for the price of a cup of coffee, which went for around a dime when he was a young cop.

“The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it,” Henry David Thoreau is often quoted as saying. The actual quotation from Walden is a bit wordier: “The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.” The phrase “immediately or in the long run” is worth noting. The cost of a thing is normally calibrated in dollars and cents, but Thoreau points out that you should think of in terms of how long you have to work to earn that money. In context, he was speaking of the cost of a dwelling, which might require the wages of half a lifetime to pay for.

The price of a cup of coffee isn’t much, if calibrated in dollars and cents. Even if you think of it in terms of how long you have to work for it, it isn’t much. When my colleague was walking a beat, the minimum wage was 75 cents an hour. But he wasn’t thinking in dollars and cents, and the amount of life he would have to exchange for it wasn’t how long he would have to work to pay for a cup of coffee. He was thinking about what that cup of coffee would cost him if he had to exchange a piece of his soul for it.

Some things can’t really be sold piecemeal. Selling a tiny piece of your own soul is like selling a tiny piece of your own flesh. You may survive such an exchange, but you will bleed, even if the bleeding is entirely internal. “For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life?” Jesus asks. “Or what shall a man give in return for his life?” The word translated as “life” here from the original Greek also means “soul,” the living part of a man. A cup of coffee only costs a few bucks these days. But we must take great care that we clearly understand what is being bought and what is being sold.

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