Disruptive innovation

1908 was the year.  Karl Benz had introduced the first road automobile to use an internal combustion engine in 1885, but it was in 1908 that the first Model T Ford rolled off an assembly line in Highland Park, Michigan.  It was in 1908 on the streets of New York City that the number of automobiles surpassed the number of horses for the first time.[i]  After that, the transformation was so swift as to cause whiplash.  Horses had been the primary means of transportation since 3000 B.C., and all that changed in a heartbeat.

Car and horse.jpg

Almost immediately after the ascendancy of the car, automated taxicabs followed.  The taxi medallion, that iconic license to operate a cab, became for most of the twentieth century an investment as rock solid as gold.  A dozen years ago in San Francisco, taxi medallions sold for $250,000.  It New York City, they went for upwards of $1 million.[ii]  As recently as 2006, New York taxi medallions were advertised with this tagline: “In New York, the capital of world finance, the hottest investment isn’t stocks, bonds, commodities or even Manhattan apartments. It’s taxi medallions, the metal plates affixed to the hoods of the city’s 12,779 yellow cabs.”[iii]  Entrepreneurs and family patriarchs alike would invest in a taxi medallion as the safest of bets.

Then, in 2009 Garrett Camp and Travis Kalanik launched a little company named Uber, through which one could summon a complete stranger through a smartphone (which was itself a new thing) and take a ride in his Toyota Corolla.  A decade later, according to Forbes Magazine, Uber and Lyft control 70% of the business traveler market in the United States, while the taxi industry controls 6%.[iv]  (Yes, you read those percentages correctly.)  New York City taxi medallions have lost 85% of their value.  They’ve crashed faster than tulips in seventeenth century Holland.

Harvard University business professor Clay Christiansen coined the term for such phenomena: “Disruptive innovation.”[v]  Initially, in its nascent moments, such an innovation is received by people as novel and whimsical.  People see it as intriguing but don’t detect the portent that the innovation may redefine their entire lives.  (Think of old, grainy photos you’ve seen of the very first automobile drivers in their goggles and gloves, smiling blithely as they pass horse-drawn wagons on dirt roads.)  But then, as the full impact of the innovation slowly dawns, lighthearted infatuation gives way to wary apprehension, followed by startled anger and fear as the full implications of what is occurring settle in.  Life is disrupted.  The world is changed.  What was thought to be reliable and valuable suddenly doesn’t seem so.  Nothing can ever be the same again, and there is no going back.

Taxi medallion

This morning’s Gospel passage follows immediately upon last week’s Gospel.  In fact, today’s reading repeats the final line from last week in order to underscore the connection.  Last week Jesus arrived in his hometown of Nazareth.  There, Jesus went to the synagogue and read from Isaiah 61, which says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

In today’s Gospel passage, the good people of Nazareth react.  At first, Jesus’ performance seems novel and even whimsical.  The son of Joseph the carpenter, who left home months (maybe years) before on a hair-brained journey to follow his crazy cousin John, has come home and taken the place of a teacher in the synagogue.  And, to his fellow Nazarenes’ surprise, Jesus recites well.  Jesus’ neighbors and kin are casually intrigued.  Word has previously reached Nazareth about Jesus’ remarkable acts in other towns around the Sea of Galilee.  The people of Nazareth hope that Jesus will, perhaps, offer them a parlor trick or two.  Some may even imagine that he’ll set up shop now that he’s home and draw a little more business to their tiny town.  Life will go on as usual, except that Jesus will add a dash innovation to their mundane lives.

But Jesus keeps talking.  He’s not a sideshow, he tells them.  He is a prophet, and more than a prophet, and he hasn’t come to tweak the town and add spice to their lives.  Jesus has come to disrupt their lives, to change their world.  He has come to claim Isaiah’s future-oriented prophecy as his own present mission.  They’ve all been blind, Jesus says, but his Good News will give them new sight.  What they had thought was valuable in the world isn’t really so.  They will come to value what God values, to love what God loves.  Now that Jesus is there, nothing will be the same again, and there’s no going back.

For the neighbors and kin of Jesus, the full impact of what they’re hearing slowly dawns.  Casual infatuation shifts to wary apprehension, which morphs quickly into seething rage.  The good people of Nazareth don’t want their world disrupted, and so, Luke tells us, they physically manhandle Jesus south of town to a precipice and prepare to throw him off the cliff.

Image result for jesus nazareth cliff

Here’s the thing: You can’t kill disruptive innovation that way.  Try as they might, the taxi lobby hasn’t slowed Uber and Lyft down.  I suspect the horse-and-buggy cabal probably sought to stop the automobile, but to no avail.  When one stands at the precipice of a value-altering disruption, a world-changing innovation, rage and bluster may grant momentary satisfaction, but they do nothing to stem the tide.  One can check out and leave the grid entirely, or one can align one’s life with the new reality.  Those are the only options.

Granted, when we are talking about disruptive innovations in technology and economics the social results, especially in the short term, are a mixed bag.  Real people experience real distress.  As Harvard professor Clay Christiansen says bluntly, “It hurts to be disrupted.”

The pain is no less real when our lives are disrupted by the Gospel, but then it is the pain of shedding things that are not God’s good for us, the pain of giving up commitments that are not in keeping with Jesus’ vision from Isaiah, the pain that is a necessary part of healing our spiritual wounds.  The pains of Gospel disruption, individual and social, are always Good News.

We are the Nazarenes.  We hear the words of Jesus, and we are casually infatuated.  We enjoy the aesthetics of worship.  We like that when we are low Jesus buoys us up.  But Jesus is about more than that.  He is a prophet and more than a prophet.  Jesus is God incarnate, and especially in this Epiphany season, he bestows upon us new eyes to see the world completely differently.  He redefines what is valuable in this world and in a life.  He shows us what to love and how to love.  And now that Jesus is here in this space and has entered into our lives, he will not leave.  He is the cosmic disruptive innovation, through whom God is remaking the world, and it turns out that it is us, and not Jesus, who stand at the precipice.  Will we go off the grid and pretend that nothing has changed, or will we, blessedly, realign our cares, our loves, our lives to his new reality?  It hurts to be disrupted, but it is also the way to new life, and that abundantly.


[i] https://www.quora.com/How-long-did-it-take-to-get-horse-drawn-carriages-off-the-roads-in-favour-of-cars

[ii] https://www.npr.org/2018/10/15/656595597/cities-made-millions-selling-taxi-medallions-now-drivers-are-paying-the-price

[iii] https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelgoldstein/2018/05/09/uber-and-lyft-the-cost-and-benefits-of-disruption/#515289eedfcb

[iv] Ibid

[v] https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2019/01/28/689198803/tech-industry-confronts-a-backlash-against-disruptive-innovation