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Turning the World Upside Down

As Jesus finds himself standing before Annas in John 18, who represents the height of religious and political power in the Israel of his day, he is a participant in an effort to exert political power over a “troubler of Israel.” We must remember that Jesus is no unwilling participant in the sham “trial” or interrogation that happens ever so obliquely in John 18. When he permitted himself to be betrayed and arrested, he also permitted himself to be wrapped up in the political machinations of the religious authorities of his day. However, finding himself in this moment and under this scrutiny, he does not cooperate with the proceedings but rather reveals them to be what they actually were: a farce, a political expedient.

In his non-conforming participation in this interrogation before Annas, we see the seeds of a much larger theme in the Scriptures: how God tends to turn the whole world upside down when he acts in the world. The most obvious link in this thematic chain throughout Scripture is the cross of Christ whereby an object of terror and oppression is turned into one of wonder and freedom. But in many other ways, when God acts, he turns the world upside down, and this particular situation highlights how our Lord stands political leaders in their totalizing efforts on their heads.

By totalizing political efforts, I mean the efforts of those with political power to bring everything under the umbrella of the state. Jesus is, from Annas’ perspective, the outlier, the stray sheep that must be brought back to the fold whether dead or alive, the dangerous revolutionary who threatens the delicate balance of power that has been so carefully maintained for so long. This point of view is corroborated earlier in John’s gospel when the religious authorities lament how successful Jesus’ ministry had been and how threatening that success could be to “our place and our nation” (cf. John 11:48). What happens in John 18 is an outworking of the political maneuverings set in motion in John 11 when Caiaphas prophetically suggested that “it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish” (John 11:50 ESV).

The irony, of course, of this situation is that the religious authorities’ preconceived plan to put Jesus to death as a political expedient actually factors into their own downfall. This scene in John 18 is a small example of the biblical notion that the last will be first and the first last. Commenting on this aspect of how God turns the world upside down, especially with respect to the totalizing efforts of politics to bring everything under the umbrella of the state (in contrast to yielding to God as the ultimate authority), Christopher Watkins writes,

[T]he proclamation that the last will be first and the first last strikes a blow at the social hierarchies of any age. The statement comes at the end of a parable in which a vineyard owner pays those who have labored all day their due wage but rewards those who have only worked for an hour with the same amount. No one is underpaid, but those who have borne the heat of the day are indignant that they were not given more. The vineyard owner issues a stinging rebuke: “Are you envious because I am generous?” (Matt 20:15). Jesus's message is as uncomfortable as it is destabilizing: in the kingdom of God all the petty calculating hierarchies of merit and virtue by which we compulsively rank ourselves against others are dashed aside to make way for a richer ethic of generosity. Our petty bastions of social superiority are unceremoniously flattened by the generous juggernaut of the kingdom of God.[1]

It is important to point out that this is not a call to abandon politics, for God is at work in every state, every government, every political situation to turn it upside down. Moreover, God has called his people to be salt and light in the world. This means that God has called his people to be instruments in his world upending efforts in every facet of life, including politics.

But this discussion also helps us to remember that although politics presents itself as the most important thing, and in some cases the only solution to the deepest problems that humanity faces, it must always be viewed as something relative, temporal, and ultimately insufficient in meeting our needs. When Jesus turns the world upside down by his non-conforming participation in these political machinations, he turns our attention to a much greater concern: a whole-hearted devotion to God.

 

 


[1] Christopher Watkin. Biblical Critical Theory: How the Bible’s Unfolding Story Makes Sense of Modern Life and Culture. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2022. https://search-ebscohost-com.rts.idm.oclc.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=3301672&site=ehost-live.

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