Year B – 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Tipping Point

(Jon.3:1-5, 10; 1Cor.7:29-31; Mk.1:14-20)

In today’s Gospel, Jesus invites us to do what His first disciples did: to drop what we’re doing and follow Him. Jesus wants us to help Him spread His message about God’s love.

Now, in our distracted and hard-hearted world some might wonder, what’s the point? How can we possibly make any difference? The early Church did manage to convert the Roman Empire, but can we do it again? Modern society is a tough place.

In his book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Malcolm Gladwell compares the spread of ideas, products and behaviours with viruses. Initially only a few people are affected, but then at some point the idea or disease can spread like wildfire.

He gives the example of Hush Puppies. These shoes were launched in 1958, but only became popular in the mid-1990s. That’s when sales jumped from 30,000 to 430,000 pairs in one year. The next year, 2 million pairs were sold. 

Gladwell says the company didn’t cause the epidemic. Rather, it was caused by two very influential ‘hipsters’ in Manhattan who bought these shoes and started a trend.

Gladwell says that when social trends and viruses reach their threshold of critical mass, their ‘tipping point,’ they explode upon a society and their spread cannot be stopped. [i] 

The American author Fr William Bausch gives us an example of this, and makes the point that just one extra person can make a big difference.

The Japanese Snow Monkey has been studied in the wild for decades. In 1952, on the Japanese island of Koshima, scientists started giving these monkeys sweet potatoes to eat. The monkeys loved the sweet potatoes, but they didn’t like the taste of the dirt into which they were dropped.

One day a young monkey named Imo learned to wash her sweet potatoes in a stream. She taught her mother to do this, and her friends as well. Her friends then taught their mothers. Between 1952 and 1958 all the young monkeys learned to wash the dirt off their sweet potatoes. But only the adults who copied their children learned how to do this. All the other adults just kept eating dirty sweet potatoes.

By the autumn of 1958, 99 monkeys on Koshima Island had learned to wash their food. Then, one morning, something remarkable happened. The 100th monkey learned to wash its sweet potatoes, and by that evening almost every monkey in the tribe started to do the very same thing. 

Somehow, the extra energy of the 100th monkey created a breakthrough. 

But the most amazing thing is that this new behaviour wasn’t confined to that one tribe on Koshima. The scientists found that monkeys on other Japanese islands then started to wash their sweet potatoes as well. The practice had suddenly jumped over the sea.

William Bausch’s message is that when you reach the tipping point of a certain critical number of participants, a new awareness, a new behaviour can spread like wildfire. We don’t always understand how these things work, but the dynamic is real. [ii]

That’s what we saw with Covid. It only became a pandemic when the tipping point threshold was crossed, and it only took a few people to get there. 

So, what things help ideas or behaviours spread like wildfire? Malcolm Gladwell says that the initial group should be small, with less than 150 people.  And three types of people are important. Firstly, the ‘connectors,’ who are people with a wide social network. Secondly, the ‘salesmen,’ who have a gift for persuasion and a knack for ‘selling’ ideas. And finally, the ‘mavens,’ who are great information collectors and who like passing it on to others.

The American social marketing expert Seth Godin was once asked how to make something ‘go viral.’ He said that the best thing is not to try to make that happen. The best thing, he said, is to focus on just one person. To make an impact on just one person. ‘Even better,’ he said, ‘make it so they can’t sleep at night unless they choose to make a difference for one other person. The rest will take care of itself.’ [iii]

The lesson for us here today is that spreading Jesus Christ’s message isn’t as hard as we might think. All we have to do is play our part, and God will do the rest.

Too often we only think in terms of the physical world in which we live. But each of us also inhabits a spiritual world, and that’s the place where mysteries and miracles occur.

Sometimes it takes just one more person to make all the difference.

[i] Gladwell, Malcolm. The Tipping Point. Little, Brown Books, London: 2000.

[ii] Bausch, W. A World of Stories. 23rd Publications, New London CT. 2010:246-247