Upside-Down Kingdom

A Kingdom for the Poor, the Young, the Weak, and the Lowly

Juliette Alvey / 4.30.20

I find a lot of junk in my 9-year-old son’s room when I clean up, but sometimes I find treasures. Here is a recent one:

His note says, “My dear subjects, I shall command you, and you shall obey. I will be a great King. I will have a little more wealth than you, and a little more power.”

How very generous of you, wise ruler! I love the measured mix of humility and arrogance in this little note. He is the king who makes the rules and expects you to follow them, but he isn’t going to be too much wealthier or too much more powerful.

A good leader is someone who is powerful but humble. A good leader uses power for good and tries to be as fair as possible—while still remaining above others in status. In this world, we don’t like weak rulers or on the other hand corrupt leaders who use their power for evil. So my son’s decree, while hilarious and completely ridiculous, is actually pretty much in line with what we want from people in power.

This is what makes the kingdom of God such a mystery. Jesus causes a lot of confusion on this subject because the things he says always seem so upside-down:

Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God. (Lk 6:20)

Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. (18:16)

The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. (22:25-26)

For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. (Mk 10:45)

Practically speaking, a kingdom that belongs to poor people and children is not going to be too impressive. It will not survive long if the greatest and strongest make themselves servants. And a ruler who does not protect his own life but gives it up leaves his kingdom unprotected and weak! Jesus’ words about the kingdom of God and his actions as the king do not make sense to the disciples or to us today. We are so accustomed to kings and kingdoms having to take power and hang onto it for dear life that the giving up of power and wealth does not compute for us. We believe that if you give those things away that you will become nothing.

There is a challenging story in Luke 18 about a rich young ruler who fits our reasonable definition of having power and being a good person. I’m guessing we would want him as a leader. He is even looking for feedback, which is something all good leaders should be open to, right? But does he actually want feedback, or does he want to hear about how great he has been? When he approaches Jesus, he calls him “Good Teacher,” and Jesus asks, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone,” and then Jesus tells him to follow the commandments. The young man says he has followed all of the commandments and wonders what else he lacks. Jesus tells him to go sell all of his possessions and follow him. The man goes away sad because he has great wealth.

We tend to view this story as a judgment on the rich young man because he didn’t seem willing to give up everything, and so we use him as a bad example: See, we should not be like this guy but rather be willing to give up everything and follow Jesus. But even the disciples observing the conversation were shocked and asked, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus answered, “What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.” Jesus answered their question at the very beginning of the conversation by saying, “No one is good but God alone.” He will save us! In the very next verses in Luke he tells his disciples plainly that he will be beaten, killed, and on the third day rise again. He is the one to give everything, because the rich young man couldn’t, and we can’t.

I was reading Aladdin to my kids last night, and I thought about how Jafar is an example of what we definitely do not want in a leader. He is power hungry and uses all of his wishes trying to make himself the most powerful being in the world. Spoiler alert (is it considered a spoiler if you’ve had 28 years to see it?): He ends up enslaving himself as a genie with “phenomenal cosmic powers” in an “itty bitty living space,” the lamp. Not many of us relate to Jafar. We don’t want to be the most powerful person in the world or anything. Maybe we want to be more like Aladdin, the good guy. After all, he gave one-third of his wishes that he could have used to make himself more wealthy and more powerful to free someone else. He steals, but only because he has to survive. He lies, but it’s only because he loves the princess so much. Like Aladdin, we don’t want to grab a ton of power for ourselves, we just want a little more. If I just had a little more control over my kids, if I just had a little more money, if I just moved up a little higher in my profession, etc. Like my son, the everything-in-moderation ruler, we’re not asking for much.

Jesus is not like Aladdin. Jesus starts with power and gives it all up. He does not give one-third, he gives the whole. This reminds us that Jesus is a king who does not want to give us what we ask for. He does not want to give us just a little more to satisfy our small dreams. He wants to give us everything, the whole kingdom. Jesus says, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Lk 12:32). Give the kingdom to its subjects? Who has ever heard of such a thing? Be a fair ruler and take care of your people, of course, but give it away?

This reminder of the upside down nature of God’s kingdom is especially meaningful during this time of loss. We have lost our freedom in a sense (you may feel like you’re living in an “itty bitty living space” too), many have lost wealth, and we have lost power and control over our lives (did we ever have it?). Thank God that Jesus, the King of kings, doesn’t rule in the way that we would. A ruler like my son makes it achievable to be good, wealthy, and have a little power. But in the kingdom of God, we are poor and weak and being good enough is impossible, and in this upside down kingdom, this turns out to be good news.