In the sequel to his gospel, St. Luke records the accusation leveled against Jason and some of the other disciples of Jesus in Thessalonica, “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has entertained them as guests. They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus” (Acts 17:6-7 NRSV). In The Upside-Down Kingdom, sociologist Donald B. Kraybill embraces the underlying truth of this first-century accusation (namely, the potentially subversive nature of Jesus’ mission and message) and presents its ongoing, contemporary relevance as his central thesis: “the kingdom of God announced by Jesus was a new order of things that looked upside-down in the midst of Palestinian culture in the first century. Moreover, the kingdom of God continues to have upside-down features as it breaks into diverse cultures around the world today” (9). Accordingly, the argument of the book hangs on the following three hinges: what Jesus really did, what Jesus really taught, and what faithful witness to the way of Jesus really means in today’s world. (And, yes, Kraybill contends contemporary people really can discern these things.)
In the initial chapter, “Down Is Up,” Kraybill defines the meaning of the kingdom of God, explains the overarching image of his central claim, and addresses five “detours” or reasons that are frequently given by people as a means of circumventing the claims Jesus’ teachings make on their lives. First, the kingdom of God is the “dynamic rule or reign of God” (18). As such, it entails a collective order or a collectivity (an interdependent group) of “persons who have yielded their hearts and relationships to the reign of God” (19). The point is the kingdom of God is inherently social such that “[i]t involves membership, citizenship, loyalties, and identity” (18). Second, the upside-down imagery is intended to convey the way the kingdom of God challenges the prevailing social order – how the values of the kingdom stand in an inverse relationship to the values of the world. That is, what is highly valued at the top of one order ranks at the bottom of the other (17). Third, the surprising, upside-down nature of the kingdom of God, which often reverses the way things are in startling ways, is uncomfortable. Consequently, people frequently attempt to get around Jesus’ call by asserting one or more of the following propositions: “Jesus Is Lost in History,” “Jesus Is Wrapped in Culture,” “Jesus Goofed on the Timing,” “Jesus Only Spoke of Spiritual Things,” and “Jesus Only Addressed Personal Morality.” Of course, Kraybill astutely argues why each of these claims really constitutes an invalid excuse for avoiding the challenge of Jesus’ radical message.
In chapters two, three, and four, Kraybill unpacks the meaning of the upside-down kingdom by contrasting it with the “right-side-up” political, religious, and economic temptations Jesus faced during his forty day ordeal in the desert – temptations he continued to encounter and thwart all throughout his ministry. To begin, Kraybill shows how Jesus was faced with the right-side-up option of establishing a political kingship using violent force or coercive power (51). And, by way of contrast, how Jesus demonstrated humble service as the new way of ruling: “his upside-down revolution replaced force with suffering and violence with love” (55). Next, he uncovers how Jesus was faced with the right-side-up option of endorsing institutionalized religion and receiving its accolades. And, by way of contrast, how Jesus critiqued established religion from within: “when religious practices grew stale he turned them upside-down and inside out and called them back to their original purpose” (69). Last, he displays how Jesus was faced with the false dilemma posed by the right-side-up options of either responding violently or miraculously to end economic oppression. And, by way of contrast, how Jesus forged a third way to reverse injustice by redefining what it means to be truly rich and calling those with abundance to “stop hoarding and give generously” (82).
In chapter five, Kraybill presents the principle of Jubilee as the center of his argument because it is the core of Jesus’ mission and message. In fact, the broad contours of the book fit neatly into the following chiasm (a special symmetrical order that emphasizes the point in the center):
Political temptations (chapter two)
Religious temptations (chapter three)
Economic temptations (chapter four)
The principle and practice of Jubilee (chapter five)
Economic affairs (chapters six and seven)
Religious affairs (chapter eight)
Political affairs (chapters nine, ten, and eleven)
Since the central element in a chiasm is paramount, considering Kraybill’s answer to the question, What is Jubilee? is crucial to understanding his case for the upside-down kingdom.
So, then, What is Jubilee? According to Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Leviticus, the Jubilee was part of the Hebrew calendar. In the creation story, God instituted the Sabbath by resting on the seventh day. This divine pattern of work and rest was extended beyond the weekly cycle. The seventh year was commemorated as a sabbatical year and the seventh sabbatical year (the forty-ninth or fiftieth year) was celebrated as the Jubilee. The sabbatical year contained three significant practices or “shake ups” that turned social life upside down: 1) land was allowed to rest or lie fallow, 2) slaves were set free, and 3) debts were canceled. The Jubilee year contained an even more substantial provision or social “shake-up”: real estate reverted to its original owners (86-87).
Why is the Jubilee crucial to understanding the kingdom of God? The short answer is because Jesus ties his messianic role to this grand “shake-up.” Indeed, in the inaugural message of his public ministry, Jesus summarizes his mission by quoting from the prophet Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor”
(Luke 4:18-19 NIV).
If the connection is not readily apparent, look again: “The ‘year of the Lord’s favor’ refers to the Hebrew Jubilee . . . . The sermon is, in essence, a Jubilee proclamation” (85). What’s more, “the Jubilee vision permeates Jesus’ teaching, not only at Nazareth but throughout his entire ministry” (97).
The theological principles of the Jubilee form the framework of the upside-down kingdom. In the second half of the book, Kraybill expounds the social consequences/radical repercussions of this vision as he revisits Jesus’ teachings on economic, religious, and political affairs. Here is a short sketch of the significant subjects he sheds light on: the dangers of greed and wealth as well as the ways they distort our theological beliefs (chapters six and seven), the pitfalls of pompous piety (chapter eight), and the calls for enemy love, nonviolence, just peacemaking, inclusive hospitality, social equality, and self-giving service (chapters nine, ten, and eleven).
Given the favorable nature of this review, it probably goes without saying that I highly recommend this book. I certainly concur with the caution on the cover: This Book Could Change Your Life! However, in keeping with Kraybill’s final chapter on active obedience, costly commitments, and determinative decisions, I want to leave readers with an even more definitive alert: God Will Change Your Life! The kingdom of God is already breaking out on earth as it is in heaven. Lives are being changed in response. God is actively welcoming recruits and frustrating rebels: paths are being straightened, “detours” eradicated.
“The LORD watches over the strangers;
He relieves the fatherless and widow;
But the way of the wicked He turns upside down”
(Psalm 146:9 NKJV).
“Ho, everyone who thirst,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
(Isaiah 55:1a NRSV).
Book Review by Michael Kallenberg