The Up-side Down Kingdom (Essays)
Since it’s Saturday and you may have more time to waste spend on the world wide time-suck web, it seems like a good day to kick off a new series here at darnellia: Essays. These posts will usually be a bit longer than most because they’re papers I’ve written for classes.
As my professor Dr. David Alan Black (or “brother Dave,” as he prefers to be called) says, “If it’s worth writing, it’s worth somebody reading.” Well, he hasn’t read all that much of my writing, so you be the judge…
If you get bored, just read the last paragraph. I won’t tell.
“And behold, those who are last will be first, and those who are first will be last” (Lk 13:30, my translation throughout).
This notion of an up-side down kingdom — where the leaders are the lowest servants and the path to victory is surrender — permeates the Synoptic Gospels; indeed, it is central to the very message of the gospel as taught and lived by Jesus himself. The Synoptic Gospels teach that the kingdom of God is opposite the kingdoms of men in its ordering and priorities, and this is offensive, even scandalous to those who live according to the ways of the world.
Perhaps the most clear teaching of this principle is found in Mt 20:20-28, where the mother of the sons of Zebedee asks Jesus to grant her sons the most prominent place in his coming kingdom. Jesus tells her that she does not know what she asks, and when the other disciples learn of the incident, they are understandably upset. What Jesus tells them is worth quoting in full:
You know that the rulers of the Gentiles assert their authority over them, and their great ones rule over them. Not so will it be among you, but whoever desires to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever desires to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom on behalf of many. (Mt 20:25b-28, emphasis added)
Prominence in the kingdom of God, then, is granted in response to the complete opposite behavior that would earn it in any worldly kingdom. Service, even to the level of becoming as a slave (δοῦλος), is the way to become first in God’s kingdom. Thus, it is service that earns prominence in the eternal kingdom of Christ, and therefore increasing in servanthood is essential to being a healthy, growing disciple of Christ. This is the meaning of the many places in the Synoptics where Jesus teaches that the last will be first and the first last (e.g., Mt 19:30; 20:16; Mk 9:35; 10:31; Lk 13:30).
Another important passage relating to the ordering of Jesus’ up-side down kingdom is Mt 23:1-12. There, Jesus speaks publicly against the deeds the scribes and Pharisees, who “continually speak, but continually do not do” (v. 3). They enjoy the honors paid by men, including their titles, but Jesus goes on to forbid the use of titles among those who would follow him. His logic is that his disciples have one teacher, one Father, and one instructor, underneath whom all are brothers and sisters, equals under God. Though Christians are equal in this sense, Jesus continues, “But the greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Mt 23:11-12). Here again is the idea that the servant is greatest, and here again is an ordering that is counter-intuitive and opposite worldly wisdom: the one who strives to make himself great will in the end be brought down, but the one who seeks humble servanthood will in the end be raised to higher position.
Many further examples of Jesus’ laud of servants and servanthood can be found in the Synoptics. A few of these include the poor widow in Mk 12:41-44, who surrendered everything she had in service to Jesus; the woman who wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair and expensive ointment in Lk 7:36-50, whose service revealed that “she loved much” (v. 47) and whose sins are therefore forgiven; and the good Samaritan in Lk 10:25-37, who served his neighbor and loved him as himself. In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus praises those who are happy to serve in humility.
There are also many other examples of Jesus’ teaching on becoming as a servant. For example, when Jesus sends out the Twelve on their first mission trip without him (Mt 10:5-15), he tells them to refuse pay, which is to work as a servant for food only. The rich young man of Mk 10:17-31 is told to sell everything he owns in order to give to the poor, a challenge to selfless service. To his disciples, Jesus says, “Sell your possessions and give to those in need” (Lk 10:33), another challenge to radical, self-surrendering service.
In addition to the overwhelming evidence for servanthood the path to glory in the kingdom of God, it should be noted that there is a kind of serving which can distract from doing what is best. This is seen in the story of the sisters, Martha and Mary (Lk 10:38-42). Jesus came to their house, and Mary sat to listen to Jesus’ teaching while Martha worked to prepare food. When Martha complains to Jesus that her sister is not helping, he says to her in effect that her service is born of anxiety and that Mary has done the better thing. This sheds light on the kind of service that earns prominence in the kingdom of God: service can actually be self-serving when it is out of worry, whereas it is selfless service born out of love that is called for in the believer.
Of course, the ultimate model of servanthood in the Synoptics is the life and especially death of Jesus Christ. Jesus denied offers of worldly power, beginning with his temptation in the wilderness (Mt 4:8-10; Lk 4:5-8), and he died as a servant to all (Mt 20:28). Much more could be said on his life as a model of servanthood.
In addition to the servanthood component of the up-side down kingdom is the notion of scandalous love, a kind of love at which those who do not follow Jesus gawk or even ridicule. It is easy to grow so familiar with Jesus’ commands about love that their radical nature is forgotten. Two such commands stand out in the Synoptic Gospels: 1) “Love your enemies” (Mt 5:43; Lk 6:27, 35), and 2) the so-called Golden Rule, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt 22:39; Mk 12:31; cf. Lk 10:27).
To love one’s enemies is a scandalous and counter-cultural practice. It is unthinkable to human inclination that one would love those who unjustly persecute him, even to the point of a torturous death. Yet that is exactly what we find at the death of Jesus Christ, who practiced the scandal of what he preached when he prayed, “Father, forgive them [the soldiers who were crucifying him], for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk 23:34, cf. Mt 5:44b). To truly and visibly love one’s enemies would surely bring ridicule, for it is scandalous to the world.
To love one’s neighbor as oneself also goes against conventional wisdom, despite the frequent use of the Golden Rule for moral instruction both Christian and secular. The default human behavior seems to be closer to, “Treat your neighbor in whatever way serves your best interest.” Again, to deny one’s own status in order to treat others as equal to or better than oneself is a scandal to worldly wisdom.
The overwhelming evidence in the Synoptic Gospels for the ordering of the kingdom of God is that the way to greatness is through selfless service and scandalous love, and the way to victory as a disciple is through self-surrender. Ruling over others is absent in the up-side down kingdom; all are equals under the one Master. Honorific titles are worse than worthless, and the citizens of the up-side down kingdom are to love to the extent that it shocks those outside of the kingdom. In the end, “that which is exalted among men is detestable before God” (Lk 16:15).
Filed under: Essays, The Gospel | 3 Comments
Tags: Service, Theology