99% Invisible: Thomassons

Episode 129: Thomassons

Listen to the episode here: http://99percentinvisible.org/episode/thomassons/

Everyday, on his way to lunch, Japanese artist Akasegawa Genpei would pass a small set of stairs that led nowhere. The landing at the top of the stairs did not lead to a door. It led to a window–and even that window was a couple feet above the landing and didn’t appear to open. One day in 1972, Akasegawa stopped and asked himeself, “What are these doing here?”

He didn’t stop because the stairs led nowhere. They led nowhere everyday. That was not what had changed. Take a look at the photo of the stairs below, and see if you can pick out what caught his eye.

Did you notice that the bottom right wooden beam of the handrail had been repaired? This may not seem that significant today in a world of building owners concerned about liability, but this was 1972 and it was not a concern. Also, the piece really is not all that necessary for structure or safety.

So, time, effort, and money were spent to repair an insignificant piece of an obsolete structure. This is what captured his imagination, and he decided to keep his eye out of other items like this around his city. He found so many that he created an art project out of photographing them all.

He also gave them a name–Thomassons–named after American baseball player who had signed a lucrative contract in Japan but did nothing but sit on the bench. And it is the investment of valuable resources in something that no longer serves its intended purpose that makes something a true Thomasson.

Thomassons, however, are not simply limited to structures, utilities, and architecture. If we are creative and observant, we can begin to see Thomassons all around us. In fact, Jesus encountered Thomassons in his ministry many times. There were beliefs, rituals, and structures to religion that no longer served their intended purpose and yet carried a great cost.

One particularly vivid example is when Jesus cleanses the Temple. In the synoptic Gospels, Jesus accuses the merchants and money changers of corruption, however in John’s Gospel, there is no such accusation. In fact, Jesus does not seem to have an issue with the idea of the market–at least he doesn’t say so. His issue is that it is located inside the outer court of the Temple.

The idea behind the market and the money changers was to facilitate worship. You could come and purchase your spotless sacrificial animal right there at the Temple. This was a good idea. You could also exchange your money bearing Caesar’s image (likely the only money you had access to) for coins that did not bear the face of someone who claimed to be divine. This allowed you to enter the Temple and make your offerings. This was a good idea.

But the idea ceased to facilitate worship and advance the purpose of the Temple when it was placed inside the outer court. Instead, it divided the focus and distracted from the mission at a great spiritual cost. It was a good idea gone bad. It was a Thomasson.

This lectionary passage is read during the season of Lent, which is a time for reflection and repentance. We easily remember to focus on our sin and temptation and the ways in which we have allowed bad things to creep into our lives, but how often do we reflect on the good things and make sure they are still good?

Those stairs, at one time, served a purpose–likely leading to a door. But the building was renovated, the door was removed, and now someone is paying to maintain a structure without a purpose. The market, at one time, serve a purpose. But now it was working directly counter to the purpose it had been intended to achieve–facilitating worship and helping people connect with God.

This should inspire us to take a look at the good things in our lives, churches, denominations, families, and so on to see if there are things that have outlived their purpose yet still cost us valuable resources. If nothing else, perhaps there is some good dream or goal or vision that we are hanging onto instead of being open to something new that God has for us.

Discussion Questions
– Can you identify any “traditional” Thomassons in your city/town–for example, a fire escape on the side of a building that no longer has windows, yet the stairs get pressure washed or a fresh coat of paint from time to time?
– Can you identify any Thomassons in your life, church, denomination, or organization?
– What purpose did these things originally play, and how/why have they changed?
– Is the original purpose itself still necessary?
– What is the cost to “maintain” these Thomassons?
– How could we take the resources (time, focus, money, energy, etc.) being poured into them and reinvest in something that achieves the original purpose or some new purpose?
– When was the last time you evaluated the good things in your life? What was that like or why have you not done so?
– What good things might God be calling you to give up or leave behind so that you can follow God in a new direction?

Lectionary Connections

Mark 2:13-22
Year B – Epiphany – Eighth Sunday after the Epiphany
Year B – Season after Pentecost – Proper 3

John 2:13-22 – Jesus Clears the Temple
Year B – Lent – Third Sunday in Lent

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