I just finished reading Donald B. Kraybill's book The Upside-Down Kingdom which was the winner of the National Religious Book Award in 1979. This book is in its third revision and the current revision is a 25th Anniversary Edition. Kraybill, Provost of Messiah College and a sociologist, challenges the church and followers of Jesus to respond to the challenge from Jesus to be an Upside-Down Kingdom. Kraybill examines Jesus’ counter-culture message that calls for a way of life that resists the worldly culture of established society and turns social inequities upside down. Jesus led the way, not by seeking power and prestige but by serving and advancing a preferential option for the poor. Kraybill probes the depths of the meaning, significance and ethics of the Kingdom of God.
Kraybill zeroes in on several key scripture passages, the first of which is John the Baptist’s Proclamation of Isaiah in Luke 3:4-6, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’” Kraybill focuses on John the Baptist’s description of four surprises associated with the Kingdom of God: full valleys, flat mountains, straight curves, and level bumps. Mary’s Magnificat is also examined. “For the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” Luke 1:49-53. In Mary’s song, Kraybill looks at five types of people mentioned: the proud, the powerful, the lowly, the hungry, and the rich. Mary fully sees a social revolution connected to the Kingdom of God.
The first chapter of the book deals with characteristics that make the Kingdom of God an upside-down Kingdom and ways that people have tried to take detours around the radical nature, life and message of Jesus. The detour that claims that Jesus is in all reality “lost in history” enables many to discount his message and life. Another detour is that Jesus is wrapped in an ancient culture that is so different from our modern cultures – of technology, globalization, sophistication, education, and complexity – that his life and message are irrelevant. The third detour holds that Jesus’ message was tainted by his false assumption that the world would end soon. The forth detour spiritualizes Jesus’ words which ultimately eliminates the radical and practical implications for everyday life.
In the second chapter, Kraybill looks at Jesus’ three temptations in the wilderness and explores the deeper social, political and economic significance of them. He accomplishes this by focusing on five symbols that are connected to Jesus’ temptation – bread, devil, desert, mountain, and temple. “The temptation points to a right-side-up kingdom encompassing the three big social institutions of his day: political (mountain), religious (temple), and economic (bread).”1 Jesus was being offered a chance to be “Jesus, the Great” when he was offered the kingdoms of the world on the mountain top. Kraybill describes the historical context (Alexander the Great, Maccabean revolt, Herod the Great, Roman Imperialism, Political unrest, etc.) that makes this offer to Jesus very significant. Jesus resisted the temptation and “taught that the radical call of the kingdom undercuts loyalties to other human institutions.”2
Jesus was tempted to throw himself off the pinnacle of the Temple. Kraybill says this was an instant ticket to widespread acceptance by the people of his messiahship. The book deals with Temple worship, ritual and logistics, along with the dynamics of the Religious parties and occupational roles. Kraybill shows how Jesus fulfilled the legitimate role of Messiah, an upside-down Messiah compared to what the religious environment of the day was expecting. “The new heroes were the castaways of institutional religion. They were repentant sinners, publicans, confessing tax collectors, and harlots. And what of the old heroes—scribes, priests, Pharisees, and Sadducees—the guardians of sacred ritual? They now were dethroned, brought low, and told to become like children. No wonder his message annoyed them. No wonder they killed him.”3
Related to the temptation to turn stones to bread, chapter four deals with the implications of Jesus becoming a welfare king. Miraculously feeding the poor would have played really well in the midst of the poor economic situation prevalent among the people of Israel. Kraybill examines the realities of a very rich class of people and the poor. A middle class didn’t really exist. The book documents the economic environment with lots of historical data. He explains the burdensome double taxation system of civil and religious authorities. His examination of the economic status of Jesus’ family was quite interesting. Kraybill concludes the chapter by writing, “When the values of Jesus’ upside-down kingdom become our bread of life, the economic institutions of society lose their grip. Rich folks who accept the eternal bread freely share their daily bread. This is an upside-down way of feeding the hungry. It is neither revolution by angry peasants nor miraculous loaves from heaven. Rather, those with abundance, those moved by God’s mercy, stop hoarding and give generously.”4
Kraybill focuses a significant portion of the book to explore the significance of the concept of Jubilee. Not only does he do a thorough job of explaining the various dynamics connected to Jubilee, he builds a solid argument for the practice of a Jubilee mindset for living a Kingdom of God life. This concept forms the foundation for Kraybill’s premise of the upside-down Kingdom of God. In chapter six, the author deals with the sensitive issue of private property and wealth. How much is enough? How much is too much? How do we respond to the Gospels insistence for the simplicity of a non-hoarding lifestyle and the Kingdom value of generosity? He points out in the start of chapter seven that “Our economic commitments often distort our reading of the Scripture and divert us around the biblical teaching on wealth. We’re tempted to lift verses out of their context and twist their meaning to ‘bless’ our personal economic philosophy. In addition to spinning Scripture our way, we often use nonbiblical folk wisdom to rationalize affluence.”5 Kraybill examines the Parable of the Talents, and many verses that are consistently used to connect affluence with the special blessing of God. Other detours we latch onto are, “The poor are always with you.” “If we give, we get.” “Just tithe.” “We can’t be a witness to the wealthy unless we live like them.” “We should be rich because we are Children of the King.” The book looks at practical ways to downscale and be a blessing to those in need.
In chapter eight, Kraybill turns to the impious piety of Jesus and his irreverence to the civil, social and religious laws of his day. Jesus consistently violated Sabbath rules and the oral traditions of his culture. He didn’t follow ceremonial rules for cleanliness and he sought out friendship and connection with the undesirables of the day. He didn’t see eye to eye with the religious rulers, he cast out money changers from the temple and insisted that he take the great Good News to the Gentiles. Chapter nine is filled with examples of how Jesus taught that even the enemies of Kingdom people must be loved, forgiven and embraced. The Prodigal Son, The Good Samaritan, and other “upside-down responses to our enemies” are looked at in depth and filled with historical data which adds significantly to the understanding of the radical nature of this Kingdom of God value. In dealing with Jesus’ willingness to reach out and accept outsiders, Kraybill builds a strong case for the reality that the Kingdom of God will be filled with a lot of diversity. He does a thorough job of dealing with Jesus’ interaction and validation of woman as equals, showing how he redefines the role of women.
Kraybill does a very effective job of displaying the upside-down world of the Kingdom of God. Jesus redefines what it means to be fully human. Jesus shows another way, a way that uses power to empower the poor, a way that influences by serving, a way that seeks to be last – not first, a way that involves losing one’s life in order to truly find life. Kraybill concludes the book with a look at three symbols that are essential for understanding the nature of the upside-down Kingdom of God. The three symbols are the basin, the cross and the tomb. The basin was the equipment of the slave and yet Jesus used the basin to wash his disciples’ feet. Jesus wasn’t using a cheap illustration. The basin (service) was a part of who Jesus was. The cross is something we are asked by Jesus to pick up and carry. This act involves denying ourselves, dying to self in order to really serve.
Kraybill ends his classic book with a challenge to pledge allegiance to the way of Jesus and his upside-down Kingdom. “Generosity, Jubilee, mercy, and compassion—these are the marks of the new community. Freed from the grip of right-side-up kingdoms, we salute a new King and sing a new song. We transcend earthly borders, boundaries, and passports. We pledge allegiance to a new and already-present kingdom. We pledge allegiance to the Lord of the worldwide kingdom of God and to the values for which it stands—one kingdom, under God, with compassion and forgiveness for all.”6
- Donald B. Kraybill, The Upside-Down Kingdom. 2003, Herald Press, Anniversary Edition, Scottdale, PA. Page 33.
- Ibid., Page 54
- Ibid., Page 70
- Ibid., Page 82
- Ibid., Page 120
- Ibid., Page 256