The Strange, Upside Down King

CoverThis is an excerpt from my upcoming book, “Upside Down: Jesus’ Strange Way of Happiness,” coming (Lord willing) in spring 2018.

 

Jesus is really weird.

Is it okay for me to write that? I do mean it with all due respect, of course. But seriously. The guy is totally off his rocker. If you don’t agree with me, you obviously haven’t been reading your Bible carefully enough. Go back and look again at the kind of things Jesus says and does. I sometimes think that we’ve gotten used to Jesus acting like Jesus, but try to imagine experiencing him for the first time, and you’ll start to see what I’m getting at.

Like, for example, have you noticed how Jesus always seemed to go out of his way to offend the wrong kind of people, and befriend the wrong kind of people? He does this almost exclusively. Think about the Pharisees. Now, if you’ve grown up in church and gone to Sunday School, then you probably think of the Pharisees as sort of the boogeymen of the gospels. You’ve always heard that they’re the bad guys. But the only reason we think like that is because we know the end of the story, and how the end up conspiring to kill Jesus. But you have to understand, in first century Israel, the Pharisees were the good guys. These were the ones who were devoted to their relationship with God, who strove to obey him. They were dedicated to training God’s people to live in holiness. They were the most respected, admired members of the community because they were so passionate about God and God’s people. Every parent wants their kid to grow up to be a good Pharisee.

And then here comes Jesus. And to these respected pillars of the community, well, he’s just rude. There’s one time in Luke 11 that Jesus comes to town, and a Pharisee invites him over for dinner. Because that’s what you do when you’re a leader in the church: when the guest preacher comes to town you invite him to dinner. And right in the middle of dinner, Jesus stands up and starts yelling at the Pharisees who are sitting around the table: “Woe to you Pharisees! For you love the best seat in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplace. Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without knowing it!”

Whoa. Calm down, Jesus. But it gets worse. There are other church leaders at dinner, and one of them is a lawyer. (In the first century, a lawyer wasn’t like a lawyer today—it meant they studied and taught God’s Law, the Bible, for a living). And this lawyer speaks up and says, “Um, teacher, you’re insulting us.” And so Jesus turns on him, too: “Woe to you lawyers also!” Seriously, don’t invite Jesus over to dinner.

But then, not only does Jesus go out of his way to insult all the wrong people, he also goes out of his way to befriend all the wrong people. In Luke 19, he’s coming into town and he sees a tax collector named Zacchaeus. This is one of those Sunday School stories that many people know—“Zacchaeus was a wee little man,” and all that—so once again, we’re just used to Jesus doing stuff like this. But obscured beneath all our Sunday School familiarity with Jesus is the fact that Jesus is really offensive here. To see that, you have to understand about tax collectors in the Gospels and why everyone hated them. It’s not just that people don’t like paying taxes. It’s because tax collectors were traitors. The Romans had invaded, taken over, were a brutal occupying enemy force, and these tax collectors were Jews who had gone over to work for the Romans, to help them oppress their own people. Tax collectors were the traitors and collaborators. They were the cowardly slime balls working to oppress and enslave their own people… and ripping people off in the process. And Jesus rides into town, walks right up to Zacchaeus, and says, “Zacchaeus, I want to have dinner at your house today.” He just invites himself over. (Which is sort of weird to begin with).

And this, of course, starts people talking. They’re shocked:

When everyone saw it, they all grumbled, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” (Luke 19:7)

And we always shake our heads at the crowd because we think we know better, but you know what? They’re right! Jesus just got to town, and the first thing he did was go and have dinner with the collaborator and traitor. And not just any collaborator; Zacchaeus was the “chief tax collector,” the head guy in charge of funding the Roman occupation in the city. So the people are scandalized, and rightly so. They’re saying, “Jesus, do you have any idea who this guy is? The horrible, evil things he’s done, and the horrible, evil things he’s helped others do? He should be hanged for treason, not hung out with.” But no, this is who Jesus wants to have dinner with.

It seems like Jesus is operating with a completely different set of values and priorities than we do. It’s like everything he does is upside-down and backwards. Whatever we would do, he does the opposite. No wonder the Pharisees wanted him gone—can you blame them? Everything is upside-down with this guy. He does everything wrong.

And yet, there’s something about him, something you can’t quite put a finger on. He’s different, that’s for sure, but in a way that was strangely compelling. Like, in John 6, for example—after another strange episode where Jesus feels like he’s gotten too popular and so he’s trying to alienate everyone, and it’s working:

After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:66-68)

Peter’s like, “Jesus, sometimes the stuff you say is whack, but there’s no one else like you. Even when your words are weird, they’re life. Where else would we go?”

That’s Jesus: bizarre, backwards, upside down… and utterly compelling. There is no one else like him. Everything he does is strange, but it’s strangely beautiful, as if he’s plucking some chord deep down in our hearts that we’ve forgotten how to play. He’s so different, so contradictory, so… well, upside-down is the best way I can think of to put it (hence the title of the book). He is a strange, upside-down king.

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