The Topsy-Turvy Kingdom
Having come of age in the 1990s, I saw the Disney The Hunchback of Notre Dame movie prior to reading Victor Hugo's novel. The emphases in the plots are just a...tad different. I can appreciate the one through nostalgia and the other for its literary, philosophical, and spiritual complexity and import.
Still, I gotta say I love the music of the Disney version. One of the seemingly sillier pieces is Topsy Turvey, a song led by Clopin, the gypsy narrator. He energetically leads the celebration of the Feast of Fools, which culminates in the crowning of the King of Fools.
Everyone is bizarrely garbed, taking on a variety of ridiculous and grotesque characters. The hunchback Quasimodo, however, is the only authentic person in the crowd and by nature of his naturally repellent features is crowned the King of Fools. Not understanding the nature of topsy-turvy day, which celebrates the ugly, bizarre, and ridiculous, he initially thinks the crowning is a great honor. He mistakenly thinks that he has been immediately accepted for who he is, while the crowd is merely impressed with what they think is the most brazenly grotesque costume.
Everything is topsy-turvy on this day.
Isaiah 29 also describes a topsy-turvy situation. This chapter is entitled "Woe to David's City" in the NIV translation and contains the famous section, "These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me." As mentioned in the first blog post from this Isaiah project (https://www.isaiahfortoday.com/post/the-guide-to-successful-photography-blogging), I'm currently reading from my NIV Student Bible which has quite a bit of highlighting from my favorite sections. If I was going off my teenage self's highlighted sections, I'd definitely be focusing on the above verses.
However, having tried to go that route for this blog, with many starts and stops, it's the "topsy-turvy" verse, further down the page, that has captured my gaze:
Woe to those who go to great depths to hide their plans from the Lord, who do their work in darkness and think, 'Who sees us? Who will know?' You turn things upside down, as if the potter were thought to be like the clay! Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, "He did not make me"? Can the pot say of the potter, 'He knows nothing'?
The people are refusing to listen to and are actually trying to hide from the Lord, all the while going through the motions of worship as they merely adhere to their own man-made rules. It's a warning for then, and then Jesus applies it to first-century Israel (see Matthew 15 and Mark 7), and it of course applies today.
God describes this situation as being "upside down." The human view of what is right-side-up and what is upside-down is all jumbled. Just like the Feast of Fools, God's view of right-side-up sounds backwards to us:
In that day the deaf will hear the words of the scroll, and out of gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind will see. Once more the humble will rejoice in the Lord, they needy will rejoice in the Holy One of Israel. The ruthless will vanish, the mockers will disappear; and all who have an eye for evil will be cut down--those who with a word make a man out to be guilty, who ensnare the defender in court and with false testimony deprive the innocent of justice. (Isaiah 29: 18-21)
These are beautiful words, powerful words that flip the narrative and put the weak and oppressed on top and the unjust on the bottom. Would that we would follow our Master in enacting this flipped narrative! Isaiah paves the way for what Jesus describes more fully in his teachings. When God came to earth, His entire ministry was focused on themes such as these.
The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute has an article entitled, "Jesus' Upside Down Kingdom" (https://tdbi.org/devotionals/jesus-upside-kingdom/). In describing how Jesus' words must have rocked the Roman-Jewish audience listening to him, author Preston Sprinkle writes,
It is through being defeated by earthly powers that Jesus conquered the spiritual forces of evil and set up his kingdom. It's an upside-down kingdom where leaders are servants, neighbors and enemies are loved, and poor widows give away half their money. Under the Lordship of King Jesus, humility is exalted, the first shall be last, offenders are forgiven 70 times 7, and ethnic outsiders kneel down to help 1/2 dead strangers lying in a ditch. The way of Jesus is countercultural. It is upside-down and inside-out--a kingdom, where weakness is power, power is weakness, and suffering leads to glory.
This of course brings us to the Sermon on the Mount, that classic discourse that flips the narrative. I'm re-reading Dallas Willard's The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God. The first time I read this, I wasn't ready to receive what he had to say about how we misread the Sermon on the Mount. I'm not sure I'm convinced of everything he writes in that book, but I find it to be a much more helpful take (and one that matches Jesus' emphasis) than those that view this Sermon as additional laws for us to follow. Willard's emphasis helps us to see that while we "turn things upside down," and view Christ's Kingdom (in our heart of hearts) as being backwards, this Kingdom is actually the only thing that is rightside up! In considering the Beatitudes in particular, Willard explains,
In general, many of those thought blessed or 'first' in human terms are miserable or 'last' in God's terms, and many of those regarded as cursed or "last' in human terms may well be blessed or 'first' in God's terms, as they rely on the kingdom of Jesus. Many, but not necessarily all. The Beatitudes are lists of human 'lasts' who at the individualized touch of the heavens become divine 'firsts.' The gospel of the kingdom is that no one is beyond beatitude, because the rule of God from the heavens is available to all. Everyone can reach it, and it can reach everyone. We respond appropriately to the Beatitudes of Jesus by living as if this were so, as it concerns others and as it concerns ourselves.
In this explanation, "Blessed are the poor in spirit..." is not "You will be blessed if you make yourself poor in spirit." It is instead a statement of what is in God's Kingdom, not an additional rule to follow. It's a declaration of the present-and-coming Kingdom and its realities. We want everything we have to be something we earn or deserve. Not so in the Kingdom. And actually, those who are pathetic, those who are helpless, those others don't think of as having it all together are much closer to the Kingdom...although, not all, as Willard points out. Sometimes being downtrodden breeds anger and a multitude of unfortunate sins that push the individual even further from the Kingdom. What do we do to participate in this Kingdom? Try to mourn (Matthew 5:4) and be persecuted (Matthew 5:10)? No. We rely on the Kingdom of Jesus. I touch upon what this looks like in this post: https://www.isaiahfortoday.com/post/trust-and-double-peace
And yet, as Willard also describes, participation in the Kingdom means mirroring our lives after Christ in true discipleship so that we do seek to emulate His behavior. Our behavior matters. We don't throw up our hands at the impossibility of living out the Sermon on the Mount and say things such as: "He can't possibly mean that we should try to live this way! If we tried to follow it, we'd become downtrodden! We'd always lose. People would always look down on us."
The question is whether we actually have faith in Christ and therefore see His Kingdom as the one that we belong in. If that is so, our social status, respect that others have for us, and our ability to enact our rights all fade away in importance. I'll close with Willard, describing a situation that was true in Isaiah's time, true in Jesus' time, and true in many (most?) moments of church history.
The Law and the Prophets had been twisted around to authorize an oppressive, though religious, social order that put glittering humans--the rich, the educated, the 'well-born,' the popular, the powerful, and so on--in possession of God. Jesus' proclamation clearly dumped them out of their privileged position and raised ordinary people with no human qualifications into the divine fellowship by faith in Jesus.