The ancient Greeks told the story of a young man who was so extraordinarily handsome that every woman fell in love with him at first sight. But this young man returned no one’s affection. He was so self-absorbed, so self-contained, so focused upon his beauty, his life, his accomplishments, that he was incapable of truly interacting with anyone. He was so emotionally impervious and frozen that he angered the gods, who arranged an appropriate, condign punishment. They arranged for him to gaze into a crystal pool and there behold a beautiful creature – himself. The mesmerizing beauty of himself so captivated this young man that he could not turn away. He lost all other interest in life, became insensate even to his physical needs, until he withered away and died. The gods then transformed him into the beautiful plant that now bears his name, the Narcissus.
Naturally, psychologists have made great use of this eloquent image. A “narcissist” is one whose excessive interest in his own beauty, his own comfort, his own importance, his own abilities, renders him incapable of relating healthily to his environment. Narcissistic people are so truncated in personality, so stymied in emotional maturity, that they cannot meaningfully interact with others. They are so self-absorbed as to be incapable of compassion or empathy, fixated solely upon themselves. Paul admits that there was time in his career when he was a narcissist. In Philippians 3 we find Paul in an unguarded, reflective moment when he asserts, “Some of you think you have confidence in your Jewish credentials? I have more. I was circumcised on the eighth day, of the purest pedigree, born of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews, as to the law, a Pharisee, as to zeal, a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the Law, blameless.” There was a time in his life when Paul regarded all of these factors as guarantors of his spiritual worthiness, credentials that warranted his being accepted by God. But then the voice of Christ and the Light of Christ blinded him and ironically, also opened his eyes. Paul came to realize that all of the credentials that he thought made him acceptable to God were nothing but garbage. Dictating to his secretary Paul said, Tell them it was all garbage. Tell the church at Philippi that after I came to know Christ, everything that I had thought validated and substantiated my prestige came to have the touch and smell of refuse.
If I say the name, “Ted Baxter,” some of you will remember the egotistical anchorman of the old Mary Tyler Moore Show, someone completely wrapped up in himself, whose only guiding principle was the furtherance of his own career. We laughed at Ted Baxter because his narcissistic self-absorption was amusingly obvious. But I assure you, the disfiguring power of the sin of Narcissus is no laughing matter.
True story: a few years ago, I came upon a busy intersection and saw two cars in front of me trying vainly to turn left, stymied by the heavy oncoming traffic. Finally, the light turned red, and both of them made the turn. But there was a third car behind them – I was behind him. This Narcissus had been frustrated by the first two cars’ inability to turn left. He kept inching forward so as to goad them into taking a tragic risk. Indeed, after the two cars had turned left, this Narcissus was so impatient, so self-absorbed in his own petty agenda, that he floored the accelerator and sped forward through the light, barely missing the first car that actually had the right of way and had to slam on brakes. This man was so self-absorbed in his own personal schedule and priorities that he put another person’s life in peril just to satisfy his narcissistic impulse. The sin of Narcissus had disfigured this man’s soul!
No one who examines the psyche of the modern world can fail to see the pervasive sin of Narcissus. Impatience, selfishness, and egoism are self-evident to anyone who analyzes our culture. Let me quickly cite four real life examples of narcissism. A frustrated mother of a cheerleader arranges the murder of a girl who had been chosen ahead of her daughter. A Georgia sheriff arranges the murder of the man who defeated him in an election. A businessman torches the homes of a competitor who had bested him. True stories! A kid-league umpire is mauled by enraged parents for making calls that went against their team. The prevalent politics of self-interest is the direct product of narcissism. People declare, “I don’t care what happens to other neighborhoods; I am only focused upon mine.” They say, “I don’t care what happens to your school or your kids; I am only concerned about mine. They say, “I don’t care what happens to countries far away from us. All that matters is that I get what I think should be coming to me!” At all levels of society people are wrapped up in the pursuit of their narrow agenda. People want what they want! They do not care what pain they cause, what grief they inflict, whom they scar. They care nothing for the suffering of others. They are insensitive to how their actions affect others. They want what they want! This is so universally true that it is no overstatement to say that narcissism is warping the modern human identity!
In a culture of narcissism, it is hard not to become narcissists ourselves. Our basic impulse is to turn as selfish as those around us. Somebody cuts us off in traffic; we feel duty-bound to compete with them in craziness; to cut them off, too. We see a colleague consistently engaging in self-destructive brinkmanship and being rewarded for it. We think okay, that is how the game is played. We see unbalanced celebrities and politicians promote monomaniacal self-aggrandizement and be lauded by the world. We think, I guess that is now how one gets ahead in the world.
No. No! If the Christ of the cross calls us to anything, he calls us away from the sin of Narcissus. Think of what Paul wrote in Philippians 2: “Do nothing from self-interest. Do not act out of conceit. Act from humility. Start with the arresting notion that others are better than yourself. Have the mind in yourself that mirrors the mind of Christ Jesus.” In other words, Paul counsels us, see yourself as a servant of others. See yourself as the servant of the world, a servant of God. That advice strikes our ears as absolutely strange. Live in humility before others? To live accommodating the agendas of others? To see ourselves as everybody else’s servant? Put other people’s interests ahead of our own? How utterly bizarre! It is bizarre! It is also the Christian faith, the Christian Gospel in all of its strangeness. When we come to this Holy Week and behold the perfect disclosure of God’s nature by following Christ’s footsteps in the coming days, we must try to wrap our minds around one arresting truth: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. While we were yet trapped in our own narcissism, God saw us not as we are, but as who we could be. While we were wrapped up in ourselves, focused upon our own aggrandizement, while we were fixated on our needs and ambitions, Christ considered us not as we are but as who we could become. Holy Week is the perfect disclosure of God’s nature. And when we ponder this perfect disclosure of God’s nature as revealed in Christ, we see God coming to us as a servant. Christ regarded equality with God not a thing to be grasped, but rather, he humbled himself, not only accepting our vulnerability and mortality, but accepting even the gruesome, excruciating degradation of death on a cross. Christ humbles himself absolutely to disclose the servant nature of God. And if we are going to understand this God, if we are going to worship this God, then we must open our being, escape our prison of narcissism, and expand our being to encompass the welfare of others and to recognize our kinship with them.
All of this sounds like ethereal preacher talk, I suppose. It isn’t. It’s as gritty as real life. It’s as down to earth as the story Erich Remarque tells in his famous novel, All Quiet on the Western Front. A German soldier jumps into a foxhole only to find a British soldier. Thinking of self-preservation, he readies his bayonet. Then he sees that the man is severely wounded, so wounded that the German is moved to give the man a drink from his canteen and receive a look of gratitude. The Brit motions that he wants the German to open his breast pocket. When he does, an envelope of pictures falls out. The man wants to look at these pictures one last time. As the British soldier draws his last breath, the German holds up to him the pictures of his wife, his children and his mother. Pondering those pictures the German ceases to see the man before him as an enemy. All he sees before him is a fellow human being. He sees the man in the full context of his life. He sees him as a brother. He recognizes him as his neighbor.
The Christian faith is about opening our eyes to recognize our kinship with one another. We are called to expand our vision from fixation upon our own needs and see our commonality with the entire human community. And these moments of recognition, when we comprehend our unity, our kinship with one another, can come at any time, in any place. Some years ago, I was driving to pick up some fast food and happened to be listening to a radio station that was playing a love song crooned by a male vocalist who always sounds as if he has strained something important to him. He wailed, “How am I supposed to live without you — after I’ve been waiting for so long?” Then it happened: I looked over at the next car, and there was a woman obviously listening to the same station. She was singing along with the singer — and her face was full of anguish. Tears were rolling down her face. Gazing upon her I knew those words had real meaning: “How am I supposed to live without you? Now that all I’m living for is gone?” Of course, I didn’t know her name. I never saw her again. But my heart was touched by her pain, and I found myself moved to utter a prayer on her behalf. I sensed, in some strange way, she was my neighbor. I felt kinship with her.
The sin of Narcissus has infected every human community. Jesus knew it. “Who is my neighbor?” he was asked, and he told the story of a battered, bloodied Jew who lay helpless on the side of the road. Two of his fellow Jews looked at this man through the prism of their own needs. The Levite saw the battered man as an unbearable encumbrance. The priest saw the bloody mass as a nuisance, a potential source of defilement. Both ignored the man. Only the Samaritan broke out of his own context and saw the man in terms of the man’s own need. Only the Samaritan looked with eyes of compassion and saw the man as his responsibility, his neighbor, his brother. Only the Samaritan accepted and acted in the role of divine servant.
As we approach Holy Week, take two images, the image of the Samaritan who stoops to aid the wounded man, and the image of the Christ who humbles himself to the cross – superimpose those two images upon each other. Then you will understand the nature of God. What is God trying to say to us during these events that culminate in the cross? God is trying to say to us, God in God’s nature is a servant. And if we want to worship that God in anything more than a superficial manner, if we want truly to claim the name of Christ upon our lives, then we must expand our sense of self and allow our vision to encompass our kinship with others and live as a servant to others like unto the ministry of our Lord.
Again, I recognize that such language sounds like mere preacher talk, but in truth this truth of expanding our sense of self to encompass the needs of others is the foundation of all healthy relationships. I think of the premarital counseling session that Melissa and I attended, now forty years ago. I remember only one sentence from that session. The counselor said, “In marriage your highs are higher and your lows are lower.” He didn’t explain those words, and I spent a long time pondering their meaning. I finally came to understand that he was speaking a profound truth. When you are single, your triumphs and your losses, your wins and losses, can be shared with others, but there is a limit to how intimately you can do so. When you are single, your victories and defeats are mostly yours and yours alone. But when one is married, you relish your victories, not only for yourself, but you relish the joy of a beloved who delights in your accomplishments, too. And when you are married, you not only experience despair and disappointment for yourself, but you also look through the pained eyes of one who suffers with you and for you. The Bible says that two people come together and become one flesh. That is not simply a sexual image, it is a spiritual, psychological and emotional image as well, so that our moods become our spouse’s moods, their hopes become our hopes, our ambitions become their ambitions, their triumphs and tragedies become ours. Expanding our sense of self, until our lives become one with that of our beloved – that is what a successful marriage is. In fact, incorporating another’s life into our own is the basis of any meaningful relationship. A good marriage is the opposite of narcissism. A healthy Christian faith is the opposite of narcissism. Any meaningful relationship is the opposite of narcissism. A profound engagement with the needs of the world is the opposite of narcissism. So, on this Palm Sunday, we begin this week of following the path of our Christ, who in his servanthood reveals not only the nature of God, but also the nature of who we are meant to be. Come, let us follow.