If you or your church is at a transitional point—like seeking a new pastor or formulating a new vision statement, or desiring to branch out in new ways and shake up the same-oldness— sometimes it is helpful to go back to basics and study the words and life of Jesus.
So while Jesus has terse words for the Pharisees, in Kraybill’s book we dig beneath the stories to more profound understanding.
Our longtime pastor (24 years) retired last year and we are in this phase. This winter I helped to team-teach an adult Christian education class on The Upside-Down Kingdom by Donald Kraybill, taking an in-depth look at the historical and cultural context for Jesus and his teachings. Kraybill is a sociologist who has also written much on the Amish faith and traditions, and is a frequent spokesperson when news media seek statements or perspectives on the Amish.
The Upside-Down Kingdom was originally published by Herald Press in 1978, just after I finished college, so even though it has continued to be popular I never had the occasion or took the time to read this almost-classic. It was substantially revised in 2003.
In this book, Kraybill digs vigorously into what the various religious groupings at the time of Christ were all about. Pharisees, for example—often a word we utter with contempt because it has become synonymous with hypocrite—were super committed and faithful religious folks who emphasized putting faith into practice. They worked hard to apply their scriptures—the Torah—to everyday life. They were so zealous they went overboard and got hung up on the letter of the laws instead of the spirit—a practice Jesus brazenly critiqued. Kraybill points out how incredibly sad this is in light of their original intentions as religious leaders.
So while Jesus has terse words for the Pharisees, in Kraybill’s book we dig beneath the stories to more profound understanding. Kraybill also diligently points out that Jesus was of course a Jew, so Jesus was critiquing his own faith family. The principle that sincere leaders often become blind and misguided regarding their own foibles applies to all religions, not just one.
The Sadducees, of whom Jesus often speaks, were more tied to political and administrative structures, and benefited by keeping cozy connections with Rome. According to Kraybill, they were part of the elite aristocracy (chief priests, wealthy landowners, merchants, and tax collectors). They played nice with the governing bodies to profit from collections at the temple—which also helped pay for the temple upkeep—roughly a 35-acre compound that Kraybill compares to a modest shopping mall.
A third grouping Kraybill describes as priests, Levites, and scribes: those who physically kept the temple and its rituals and financial operations going. Levites were one of the 12 tribes of ancient Israel, which as a clan had that priestly function. Kraybill notes the temple treasury functioned as huge national bank.
These are just three examples of how understanding more about the functions and priorities of these groups helps us understand why Jesus—who appealed especially to the peasant classes—was such a threat to the religious status quo. As individuals, I’m sure many Pharisees, Sadducees, and Levites were sincere religious persons doing what they’ve been trained and taught to do. But as we head toward Easter, we are reminded of how, the day after his triumphal entry on “Palm Sunday,” Jesus lost his cool when driving the money changers out of the holy temple.
Kraybill’s book helps me better understand why Jesus did so, and why the religious establishment could not tolerate him and worked with the local government leaders to have him killed.
But that wasn’t the end of course. The Upside Down Kingdom gives incredible background for understanding the resurrection of Jesus and how Christ would have us live our lives today, in this time and culture. Reading and studying Kraybill’s book has truly helped me better understand the other stories and parables of Jesus and his disciples in the New Testament, and the triumph of the resurrection.
Bottom line, no matter what you are facing, the Jesus of the Bible offers a powerful and riveting example of one who never flinched from controversy, never bowed in the face of political and religious criticism, and willingly died the death of a common criminal.
That’s a faith worth examining and worth turning on its head as we seek to live faithful lives in our homes, communities and churches.
What do you think? Send your comments to me at , or write to Another Way, 1251 Virginia Ave., Harrisonburg, VA 22802.
Posted 3/26/2015 7:00:00 AM