“Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable”

October 22, 2017
Jonathan Rumburg
Matthew 21:23-32

Introduction

Raymond Loewy was an immigrant who arrived in Manhattan in 1919, expecting New York to be an elegant and stylish place.  When he arrived Loewy found a grungy product of the industrial age, saying, “It was bulky, noisy and complicated.”

Loewy wanted to change things and began work as an industrial designer, designing products that were anything but bulky, noisy, and complicated.

Loewy did design work on International Harvester tractors, the Exxon logo, the Greyhound bus logo, the Coca-Cola bottle, and Frigidaire ovens.

His most infamous work came during the Kennedy administration, when he got the opportunity to redesign what he felt was a “gaudy” look for Airforce One.  Loewy spent hours on the floor of the Oval Office, cutting up shapes of blue paper before finally setting on a design for the nose of the plane that has been in place ever since.

The press referred to Raymond Loewy as The Man Who Shaped America, The Father of Streamlining and The Father of Industrial Design.  One reporter stated, “Loewy did more than almost any person in the 20th century to shape the aesthetic of American culture.”

So, what was Raymond Loewy’s secret?

He knew consumers were torn between two opposing forces: a curiosity about things that are new, and a fear of anything that is too new.  As a result, people are attracted to products that are bold, but also instantly comprehensible.  Loewy believed people want things that are “Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable.”

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          Think about it…You probably find yourself drawn to the joy of a new discovery, but at the same time you want something familiar, because it makes you feel safe.  That’s the Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable concept at work in your own life

We buy new clothes, but they are strikingly similar to our old clothes.

We buy new cars, but they are the same make we’ve always bought, or at least a familiar style.

Cell phone makers know this Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable concept to be true.  Every year a new phone comes out which is touted to be more advanced than ever, yet it looks, feels, and functions just like the older version.

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          Raymond Loewy shaped the “aesthetic of American culture” with his Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable concept; realizing people are torn between a curiosity about new things and a fear of anything too new.

But this concept was already understood by Jesus centuries earlier, and it shows up in our text for today where Jesus first has a debate about authority with religious authorities (always fun!) followed by a parable that illustrates his concept of Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable.

Move 1

In the temple, Jesus is led into a debate when the chief religious authorities confront him about what he is doing, and by whose authority.  Willing to play along, Jesus asks them, “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”  The religious authorities quickly realize they are beaten because they know whatever they say will land them in a heap of trouble.

You see, the people love John because his baptism is new and thrilling, so if the religious authorities say, “John’s baptism comes from heaven,” then Jesus will say to them, “Why then did you not believe him?”

And yet, if the priests and elders say, “John’s baptism is of human origin,” the crowd will become enraged, because people regard John as a prophet, and his baptism as rooted in religious tradition.  John is Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable.

And because of this, the religious authorities are unable to answer Jesus, and say, “We do not know.”  Their attempt to trap Jesus backfires, resulting in Jesus showing just how Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable his truly is—his teachings are both new and traditional.  And because his teachings are such, they offer an attractive and viable path forward to the place we all want to be.

Move 2

But Jesus isn’t done.  After he wins the debate, Jesus tells a parable that illustrates his ability to be simultaneously surprising and yet familiar.

A man has two sons, and he asks both of them to work in his vineyard.  The first says, “No, I don’t think so,” but later he changes his mind and gets to work.  The second says, “Sure, I’ll go,” but he fails to lift a finger.

Jesus asks, “Which of the two did the will of his father?”

The priests and scribes say, probably reluctantly, “The first.”

Jesus follows, saying, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”

Now such a declaration no doubt blew the minds of the people who heard this.  Prostitutes going to heaven ahead of priests?  That kind of thinking isn’t just Most Advanced, it’s unheard of.  It’s not just new, it’s ludicrous, preposterous—it is unimaginable.

But Jesus still isn’t finished.  “For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him,” he explains, “but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him.”

That kind of thinking—that the sinner and outcast are made righteous— is entirely traditional and most acceptable because this is what the people long for, it is what they hope for, it is what they need.  And it’s what we need.

Jesus is saying both he and John are delivering a message that is new even though it has been preached for generations and that if these religious authorities really are “religious authorities” then they better start living it because it is the faithful path forward.

Move 3

In this text and throughout the gospel of Matthew we see the design Jesus has for this Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable concept that has at its core a path forward through: change, righteousness and love.

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          First, the path of change.  In his teachings, Jesus offers a new but traditional approach to transformation—a fancy word for change.  In his parable of the two sons, he honors the son who changes his mind and goes into the vineyard to work for his father.  More important than his initial response is his willingness to turn himself around and go in the right direction.  This is why the tax collectors and prostitutes who repent are miles ahead of the religious authorities.

The Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable message of Jesus is that change is always possible.  Our futures are not determined by our choices from the past.  Meaning none of us is trapped in the life we are living.  Like the first son in the parable, we are free to change our mind and go a better way.  And if we need help, Jesus is ready to offer it.

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          Next, the path of righteousness.  By righteousness, Jesus is talking about righteousness through right relationship with God, and also right relationship with fellow human beings.  It is not a righteousness based on religious obligations, which Jesus makes clear when he criticizes the religious authorities for being hypocrites.  Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable right relationship righteousness is grounded in faith in God, and in the showing of compassion, kindness, generosity, and love to others.

In the early church, James was furthering the teachings of Jesus when he posed the question of what Christians should do when they see a person without clothes or daily food.  He asked if it is enough to say to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill.”  No, of course not.  Right relationship righteousness means we do what we can to supply those without basic needs their basic needs.  Anything else is not true righteousness.  James concluded that “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (2:14-17).  Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable Jesus would agree.

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          Finally, the path of love where Jesus demonstrates again he is both new and traditional.  In chapter 22 Jesus is asked by one of the religious authorities to identify the greatest commandment in the law.  Jesus answers, “‘You shall love the Lord your God [and] you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (vv. 34-40).  Although this sounds like a new discovery, it is really quite familiar and instantly comprehensible.  “Love the Lord your God” comes from Deuteronomy 6, and “love your neighbor as yourself” is a quotation of Leviticus 19.

          The Jesus love-path is attractive because it is both bold and traditional.  It implies a wider love of God and others, while emphasizing a new way of life that every human being wants and needs.

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          These three concepts are at the core of moving forward in the way of life Jesus calls us to live.  They aren’t new, but they certainly are advanced.

Conclusion

Raymond Lowery was right.   We are torn between curiosity about new things and a fear of anything too new.   Anyone bought themselves a self-driving car yet?

There is a desire to change, but we fear it will be too hard.

There is hope for righteousness, be we fear our past is too wrought with skeletons.

There is need for love, but we fear it will lead to pain or betrayal.

But Jesus leads us to see that there’s no reason to fear these new things because they are already at the heart of our very being—for we were created in the image of God, we were made to be in right relationships with God and others, and we are already loved unconditionally and taught to love likewise.

These are known, traditional, ways of life, and we advance them when we choose to live in them and not be in fear of them because they are concepts we know to be worthwhile and good and they are paths forward to new and better days.

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          So may we see the advancement of Christ’s ways—change for the better, righteousness through right relationship, and love—as Most Advanced Yet Acceptable.

And may we set ourselves to follow this path, knowing that while they aren’t new concepts, they will advance our lives, our culture, our world.  Amen.

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