Narcissism

Sermon on Matthew 10:24-39 offered to the people of Trinity Church in Albany, TX on Sunday, June 22, 2014.

imgresSince moving to Texas, I have become fascinated by the life and career of Lyndon Johnson, who is easily one of the most interesting political figures of the twentieth century.  Johnson was known for his drive, ambition, and his thirst for power.  One of his most conspicuous traits, however, was his narcissism; he needed to be the center of attention wherever he happened to be.  Of course, we tend to expect this from successful politicians; they are used to being fawned upon and adored by those around them.  But Lyndon Johnson possessed this narcissistic personality even when he was a poor boy with few prospects in the Texas hill country.  Even at an early age, Lyndon insisted that the world had to revolve around him.  Johnson’s most thorough biographer notes that when he played baseball with his friends as a child, Lyndon would insist on pitching.  If his friends refused or demanded that one of them have a turn, Lyndon would take his ball and go home, leaving his companions stranded and unable to play.  Even as a young boy, Lyndon Johnson insisted that nothing could happen without his involvement.

We might criticize our 36th president for this self-centeredness, but if we’re honest, I think all of us can exhibit this narcissistic personality from time to time.  While very few of us insist on being adored by those who surround us, we all tend to imagine that we are the center of the universe in some way.  We focus only on things that impact our lives, we forget to pay attention to news from the other side of the world, and we are surprised when those closest to us change without our apparent influence.  How many of us have seen a young relative who has grown up significantly and thought to ourselves, “How did she get so tall?  I never said she was allowed to do that!”  How many of us have done something embarrassing in public and worried about what other people were thinking, not realizing that everyone else is so self-involved that they probably haven’t even noticed us?  I imagine that there are times when all of us pretend that the world stops spinning when we are not around, when we are convinced that we are indispensable, when we are tempted to take our ball and go home when things don’t go our way.

Today, we begin the season after Pentecost, what one friend of mine refers to as “the dog days of discipleship.”  We have just finished tracing the journey from Advent to Trinity Sunday, meditating on the significant moments from the life of Jesus.  The season after Pentecost is an opportunity to really dig into some of the great stories of the Old Testament and explore some of the challenging teachings of the New Testament.  And our lectionary began the season after Pentecost with a bang.  We heard the soap opera-worthy story of Hagar being expelled from Abraham’s household by her jealous mistress.  We heard Paul remind us that baptism is less about washing and more about drowning.  And we heard the hard teaching from Matthew’s gospel in which Jesus tells us that he did not come to bring peace to the earth.  These are all fascinating, but because it flies in the face of our expectations, I want us to take a closer look at the gospel lesson.

Jesus sending the 12The passage we read today comes from the portion of Matthew’s gospel when Jesus is sending out his disciples to proclaim the nearness of the kingdom of God.  In the passages immediately before the one we read today, Jesus gives his disciples instructions about what they should carry, who they should travel with, and how they should introduce themselves to new communities.  As far as we can tell, Jesus does not expect things to go well.  He specifically instructs his disciples about what to do if people do not show them hospitality.  He tells them that they will probably be dragged before the authorities for their evangelization.  He even gives them the specific warning that they should be “as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves.”  To put it mildly, being a disciple is clearly not an easy gig.  This is the background for today’s reading.  Jesus appears to be comforting his followers by telling them they know everything they need to know as they go off into the world.  At the same time, he is warning them that the message of the gospel has the potential to alienate disciples from their friends and families.  In all likelihood, this was a reality that the people of Matthew’s community were dealing with; they were finding themselves estranged from their mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, and other members of their household on account of their belief that Jesus was the Messiah.  So, on one level, Jesus is responding to this concern.  He seems to be saying, “Listen, the message of the gospel is going to make people uncomfortable, even people in your own household.  It may even divide your family.  You need to decide where your true allegiance lies.”  Jesus even goes so far as to use the metaphor of a sword to describe the family strife the gospel can bring.  It’s an intense moment, because it challenges our expectations of a Jesus who is meek and mild.

But why is it that we expect a Jesus who is meek and mild?  Yes, he talks about peace and yes, he shows forgiveness to those who have transgressed.  But if you think about it, meek people rarely challenge us and rarely expect us to make changes in our lives.  Yet, Jesus does this constantly.  He forces us to examine our lives and make often significant transformations.  One of the reasons we tend to think of Jesus as meek and mild is because he is easier to control, easier to pigeonhole, easier to ignore.  It would be easy for us to ignore what Jesus is saying this passage from Matthew’s gospel.  Many of us grew up in families where everyone at least nominally affirmed that Jesus was the Messiah.  Looking at our situation, it would be easy to assume that Jesus has nothing to say to us in this passage.  If we were to say that, however, we would be falling into the very trap that Jesus is warning against in this chapter of Matthew’s gospel.

The most striking element of this chapter is how it breaks down the expectations of the disciples.  At the beginning, Jesus gives his followers “authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.”  Jesus, in other words, gives his disciples the same authority that he himself possesses.  He leads them to think that they are spiritual rock stars.  Jesus then tells the disciples that in spite of their power, they will probably not be rejected for their message about the kingdom of God.   In the passage we read today, Jesus tells his followers that they will most likely be threatened with death, but not to worry, because God also pays attention to birds.  Jesus goes on to explain that the ministry of the disciples will cause familial strife before concluding with this ominous-sounding statement: “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

imgresThis passage is striking because of how thoroughly it breaks down the ego of the disciples.  Jesus begins by imbuing his followers with power and authority and then proceeds to explain to them in detail that they are not the center of the universe, that life is not all about them.  Jesus explains that there will be places where they are not accepted; he explains that their own families will potentially move on without them; he even explains that sparrows are as worthy of God’s attention as they are.  Jesus impels the disciples to examine their lives and recognize that the world does not revolve around them, that they are not the most important people in the world, that they have the same value as everyone else.  In spite of their status as disciples of Jesus and in spite of their charismatic authority, the disciples have no right to pick up their ball and leave when things don’t go their way, because life is not ultimately about them.  In the end, this is what Jesus is talking about when he says that “Those who save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”  While this statement clearly has the undertones of martyrdom, Jesus is also suggesting that those who lose their attachment to self-centeredness and ego will find a much larger life, one in which they are connected to everyone in a profound and meaningful way.

In some ways, this interpretation makes this hard teaching even more difficult.  If this passage were simply about being alienated from our families for our beliefs, we could take solace in our self-righteousness and continue to believe that we are the most important person in the world.  But if this passage illustrates the simple reality that life exists apart from us, it is one of the most challenging teachings in the New Testament.  We tend to believe that whatever we experience is the best: that our country is superior to every other country, that our time is more advanced than any other time, that our interests are more important than the interests of the environment, that our worldview is the most enlightened.  But when we acknowledge the simple truth made plain in this gospel passage, we are forced to recognize that there are other people in this world who are as valuable and as beloved as we are.  And while this may seem problematic at first, it is, in fact, incredibly liberating.  We do not have to pretend that we are indispensable, because we are not.  We do not have to pretend that everything depends on us, because it does not.  We do not have to imagine that we are the most important person in the world, because we are not.  Life does not center around us; it is grounded in the God who redeemed his entire creation through Jesus Christ.  May God give us the grace to recognize that we are as beloved by God as everyone else in this world.

3 thoughts on “Narcissism

  1. Interesting take on a confusing passage. This one was very difficult for me as a child, along with the notion that we had to stop what we were doing, and take up the cross, without going back. I couldn’t imagine not telling my parents where I was going, and not taking my cat. It always seemed that Jesus wanted too much.
    I’ve read a great deal about LBJ also, and I even wrote him a letter asking him to bring my brother Steve home from Vietnam. I mailed it with Green Stamps. I was seven. Had I known then that he referred to all persons except himself, as pissants, I wouldn’t have bothered.

    1. The most compelling artifact at the Johnson Library in Austin is the draft of a letter LBJ sent to the family of a soldier who had died in Vietnam. The initial draft was typewritten, clearly written by an aide, and contains all of the patriotic, jingoistic rhetoric about Vietnam we tend to expect from Johnson. But LBJ himself marked it up, crossing out the more pedantic phrases and inserting some lines of real pathos and regret. It’s fascinating to think about the possibility that LBJ was far more conflicted about Vietnam than history remembers.

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