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The Upside-Down Kingdom – Br. David Vryhof

Offered at St. Paul’s Church, Greenville, NC

Luke 6:17-26

The most predictable thing about the ministry of Jesus was its unpredictability !

Jesus seldom acted in the ways people expected him to act. He bypassed the respectable and the “righteous,” preferring the company of “tax collectors and sinners.” He openly violated the religious standards of his day, preferring to show compassion. He shocked and scandalized the rich and powerful, preferring to care for the poor and lowly. He welcomed children and spoke with women and touched those who were considered unclean. He was always turning people’s expectations upside-down.

Nor did he speak in the ways people expected him to speak. He told stories in which the heroes were Samaritans rather than Jews, publicans rather than Pharisees, sinners and outcasts rather than priests and teachers of the law. In the kingdom that he was bringing into the world, the first would be last and the last first, and the greatest would be the servant of all. No one was expecting a Messiah who would come “not to be served, but to serve.” No one was expecting a Messiah who would come “to give his life as a ransom for many.” The kingdom Jesus proclaimed was an “upside-down” kingdom, a kingdom which completely defied everyone’s expectations, and which radically re-defined the very nature and purposes of God.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the Gospel of Luke. Luke makes it very clear that Jesus’ coming turned upside-down the religious and cultural norms of his day. Everything about him defied the expectations people had concerning the One whom God would send. Though he was the Son of God, Luke tells us, he was born in a stable and worshipped by lowly, insignificant shepherds. His mother and father were simple peasants, able to afford only the minimal offering at his presentation in the temple. His mission was clearly to the poor and the outcasts, rather than to the righteous and the godly. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” “because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). he declared in the synagogue at Nazareth ,

In the Gospel of Luke, the message of the kingdom that Jesus brings into being is good news for the poor, but judgment for the rich. In the birth of her son, Mary proclaims in her Magnificat , “[God] has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 2:51 -53). To those who store up wealth for themselves, who build bigger and bigger barns to house their excess goods, who say to themselves, “[We] have ample goods laid up for many years; [let us] relax, eat, drink, [and] be merry,” God will say, “You fools!” because when their lives are demanded of them, the quantity of their possessions will not help them one bit. “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed,” Jesus warns them, “for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” ( cf. Luke 12:13 -21). Like the rich man who daily ignored the plight of the poor fellow at his gate, they will find themselves in torment, unable even to warn their loved ones, while the poor are nestled in the arms of Abraham ( cf. Luke 16:19-31). In this “upside-down” kingdom, the rich will find that they “have received their consolation” in this world (Luke 6:24 ), while the poor will find that they have treasure in heaven. They will inherit the riches of God and be filled.

So it should not surprise us to encounter this text from Luke today, in which Jesus declares that he has come to pronounce blessing on the poor and the hungry, on those who weep and on those who are despised; and to pronounce judgment on those who are rich and satisfied and who are well-spoken of by others who admire their privilege and status. This is exactly the message of this “upside-down” kingdom. It is what Jesus proclaims by his words and his actions. “The Messiah who will come has come, proclaims Luke, and the prophecy of Isaiah [1] concerning the poor, the imprisoned, the diseased and the oppressed is no longer a hope but is an agenda for the followers of Jesus.” [2]

Sometimes I tremble at passages like these, don’t you? We who live in the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world, who enjoy a privileged status in the world by reason of our birth, who have used more than our share of the resources of the world to provide ourselves with a most comfortable living, what shall we make of these words of Jesus? We who claim as our identity the name “Christian” and who profess to love and follow this prophet of the upside-down kingdom, what shall we say about these words? I cannot help but think that we have not taken them seriously enough; that we have not done enough to ensure that the poor have had good news preached to them, that the hungry and the naked have been fed and clothed, that the stranger has been welcomed and the sick and imprisoned ones have been visited ( cf. Matthew 25:31-46).

Dorothy Day, a staunch advocate of the poor and founder of the Catholic Worker movement, once remarked:

“There are days when I want to stop all those poor people giving their coins to the church, and tell them to march on the offices of the archdiocese – tell all those people inside those offices to move out of their plush rooms and share the lives of the hungry and the hurt. Would Jesus sit in some big, fancy, air-conditioned room near the banks and the department stores where the rich store their millions and spend their millions? Would he let himself be driven in big, black limousines, while thousands and thousands of people who believe in him and his Church are at the edge of starvation? Would he tolerate big mansions and fancy estates and luxurious traveling, while people come to church bare-footed and ragged and hungry and sick, children all over the world? In my mind, there is only one answer to questions like these: No!

“I’m afraid that going to church puts many of us to sleep. We become so pleased with ourselves – our virtue, for attending Mass – that we forget about how others are living, who don’t have the kind of lives we have.” [3]

If Dorothy Day makes us uncomfortable, I suspect that Jesus would have made us uncomfortable as well.

What, then, shall we do ? Where shall we begin?

We should begin by heeding the cries of the poor, by attending to the cares of the dispossessed and needy. Unless we detach ourselves from our own concerns and genuinely listen , we will not be free enough to hear their cries.

A few years ago at the Seattle Special Olympics, nine contestants, all physically or mentally disabled, assembled at the starting line for the 100-yard dash. At the gun, they all started out, not exactly in a dash, but with a relish to run the race to the finish and win. All, that is, except one boy who stumbled on the asphalt, tumbled over a couple of times and began to cry. The other eight heard the boy cry. They slowed down and looked back. Then they all turned around and went back. Every one of them. One girl with Down’s Syndrome bent down and kissed him and said, “This will make it better.” Then all nine linked arms and walked together to the finish line. Everyone in the stadium stood, and the cheering went on for several minutes. People who were there are still telling the story. Why? Because deep down we know this one thing: What matters in life is more than winning for ourselves. What truly matters in this life is helping others win, even if it means slowing down and changing our course. [4]

I have no doubt that Jesus would tell those of us who are charging ahead in life, pressing forward to win the “prize” of success and recognition and wealth and privilege, to pay attention to those who have fallen, to be willing to turn around in order to help them, to sacrifice our own agendas and goals to assist them in meeting theirs. We can begin by listening to the concerns of the poor, by paying attention to their needs and concerns..

We can, and we must, also begin to make more radical changes in our patterns of consumption. Theodore Roszak’s words challenge us. In 1972, he wrote:

“Any discussion of world poverty that does not come round to demanding a radical change in our habits of consumption and waste, our tastes, our profligate standard of living, our values generally, is hypocrisy. There are no technical answers to ethical questions.” [5]

William Law, the 18 th century cleric and spiritual writer, challenged his hearers to orient their lives to the gospel values of Jesus rather than to the values of the world. He once wrote these words:

“To abound in wealth, to have fine houses and rich clothes, to be beautiful in our persons, to have titles of dignity, to be above our fellow-creatures, to overcome our enemies with power, to subdue all that oppose us, to set ourselves in as much splendor as we can, to live highly and magnificently, to eat and drink and delight ourselves in the most costly manner, these are the great, the honorable, the desirable things to which the spirit of the world turns the eyes of all people. And many a man is afraid of standing still, and not [6] engaging in the pursuit of these things, lest the same world should take him as a fool.”

As difficult as it is to “stand still” and not engage in the pursuit of those things the world considers valuable, as difficult as it is to change our patterns of consumption and simplify our lifestyles, we must consider it a vital and necessary part of our calling. We cannot hope that the poor of the world will be lifted up and the hungry of the world will be satisfied while we continue to consume vast amounts of the world’s resources to support our extravagant lifestyle.

It is as if we are on a moving walkway. If we do nothing, we will simply be carried along by the materialism and consumerism of our culture. If we do nothing, nothing will change. We have to be willing to turn around, to walk against the flow of the culture, to push back against the assumptions and values of a nation and culture that refuses to see that its actions are having and will continue to have severe consequences for the entire world.

Finally, we can begin by wisely stewarding our resources. Those of us who are wealthy in the world would do well to heed the words of Andrew Carnegie, when he said:

“This, then, is held to be the duty of the man of wealth: to set an example of modest, unostentatious living, shunning display or extravagance; to provide moderately for the legitimate wants of those dependent on him; and after doing so to consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds, which he is called to administer for his poorer brethren…” [7]

Jesus did not act in the way others expected him to act. He did not say the things they expected to hear. Shall we, then, his followers, live as the world lives, act as the world acts, strive for the things the world tells us to strive for, at the expense of our poorer brothers and sisters here and throughout the world? To faithfully represent his “upside-down kingdom” and to proclaim its “good news,” we must imitate the unpredictability of our Master by embracing and living the values he embodied. May God give us the desire and the strength to do this.

[1] Isaiah 61:1-2, quoted by Jesus in Luke 4:18-19.

[2] Craddock, Fred B. Luke (Interpretation commentary). (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1990), p. 88.

[3] Coles, Robert. Dorothy Day: A Radical Devotion. (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publ., 1987), p.76.

[4] quoted in Homiletics ; reference unknown.

[5] quoted in Less is More: The Art of Voluntary Poverty , by Goldian Vanden Broeck (ed.) (New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1978), p. 87.

[6] Ibid, p.139.

[7] Ibid, p. 59.

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13 Comments

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  2. Chet on February 2, 2015 at 15:26

    Would Jesus have called the shepherds “insignificant”? Was Jesus mission “to the poor and the outcasts, rather than to the righteous and the godly” or was it to everyone rich and poor righteous and sinner alike?

  3. Anders on June 17, 2013 at 10:44

    After reading this, it saddens me that the church is known perhaps more for preaching the gospel of wealth than poverty. The Matthew effect (“For unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance. But from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.”) is used to justify the increasing polarization of resources in our society, sellers of Italian fashion labels refer to their clothes as papal-ware, and the exclusive tone of Christianity often puts it more in synch with the Pharisees than Jesus. For this reason, I don´t blame people who see the church as irrelevant in today´s society, nor do I blame secularization as all negative.

    As a very human institution, the church also has a long history of fighting for social justice—the progressive and racial civil rights eras, and increasingly civil rights related to sexual equality. We have a variety of causes and changes worth fighting for, but I will accept some freedom as a follower of Jesus to be unpredictable, shockingly compassionate, and willing to finish the race arm-in-arm with those who stumble along the way, and it´s all good.

    • Bob on January 11, 2014 at 07:38

      And now we have pope Francis! Margo

  4. Selina from Maine on June 17, 2013 at 09:56

    How strikingly simple and revolutionary the Gospel is still after 2000 years. It does make me squirm ! To me this upside-down nature of the kingdom is the heart of Jesus’s message and yet I want to escape the directness of it, wrap it up in the cotton wool of theological-historical-sociological analysis –anything but live it. Yet…I also know that I need to say thank you Br David for this re-awakening call.

  5. DLa Rue on June 17, 2013 at 08:41

    Another paradox to be noted is that not only will the poor always be present, but they may not always be the more obviously poor.

    One might keep a few sets of good clothes, and live frugally, just meeting expenses.

    Unless they say something about it (which they well might not, given the stigma) they may never be recognized as indigent, nor their struggles to make ends meet realized or appreciated.

    I know there are people like that in our midst. A town like Cambridge encourages such courageous dissembling. How then to proceed?

  6. CMAC on June 17, 2013 at 08:41

    Yes. But let us ask: how did the wealthy man accumulate his wealth? Libraries carry his name and perpetuate the thought of his generosity, but what of the people who slaved to build that wealth for him. How did they live? cmac

  7. Ruth West on February 12, 2013 at 16:04

    How surprised were those who expected the Messiah to come riding in
    on a white steed dressed in regal splendor! The Gospel story is a paradox.
    Nothing like was expected. Unpredictability is a perfect word for it. He came without a place to lay his head, homeless, dependent, subject to every temptation, such as we have. He was in perfect submission to the Father.
    How might we be in perfect submission to Him? REW

  8. Susan Moore on February 29, 2012 at 04:25

    Thank you for sharing this very challenging homily. Your words make us squirm and think about our lives. Those to whom much has been given, much is expected.

  9. Fr. Fred Roeschlaub on February 29, 2012 at 03:45

    This talk really does speak to today with all the misery of the fiscal chaos and, unemployment and the need for “global bail outs”. We are looking at the lose of the human dignity and the personification of greed. We have been living for the last few decades in an “I” society and are now paying the piper his due. If our Lord came today where will he find the people who will listen?
    Yes, I know He is here and He weeps.

  10. Fr.Terry Lynberg on December 14, 2011 at 10:13

    Jesus presents gifts. From his heart and mind, the presents he gifts us in his enduring scripture-found words today guide us in our democratic culture to apprehend and comprehend Holy God’s life shining beyond mere economic preoccupations limited when only contrasting poverty and wealth long tarnished by disappeared gold-plated king’s (and queen’s) crowns, thrones, kingdom diction.

    Holy God is Love incarnate- in the flesh, in the heart, in the graceful acts of giving and receiving.
    “Upside-down” ?….well, maybe…yet also “inside-out”. Merry Christmas. Happy New Year.

  11. Cliff Waller on December 14, 2011 at 05:56

    Thank you for this challenging offering. It has brought me back to the Gospel and has made the upward /downward call of Jesus again audible and attractive. Again, thank you.

  12. Brian Lathrop on December 14, 2011 at 05:23

    “the kingdom’ brings ‘good news’ for the poor and ‘judgement ‘ for the rich…….isn’t judgement’ good news as well ? Clearly not for the writer……and what would the good news be for the poor if it didn’t include judgement as well ? What might that judgement be like, look like ? Now there is a thought.

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