Over the past nine weeks we’ve been working our way through the beatitudes, with a break for Easter in the middle, and we are going to finish this series today by looking at the longest of Jesus beatitudes; “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who went before you”.. When we follow Jesus we will find ourselves in conflict with the world Then I want to do a quick summing up of the whole series.
Once again this beatitude runs contra to the predominant way in which we think of people who are blessed, or happy in our society. We are a society that values comfort and ease, getting ahead and being liked, we want the worlds high five not to be slapped down. We would see the absence of persecution and opposition and oppression, not its presence, as a sign of being blessed. Being maligned or imprisoned or disadvantaged for doing the right thing or believing in Jesus does not readily sound like something to rejoice over, party down about, it seems far from being blessed.
Jamie Arpin-Ricci asks the obvious question “why would we be persecuted? Why should our faithful commitment to build a kingdom characterized by humility, mercy, peace, reconciliation and justice cause people to hate us and harm us?” It’s a good question isn’t it? His response is that “the sad truth is this: Injustice is a profitable venture.. the power structures of the world, be they political, economic, military or even religious have a long history of establishing their power base through the casual neglect or blatant exploitation of others, all too often the poor as we become a people characterized by making justice in the world, calling other to join us, we actively threaten those very systems and powers of injustice.”
I really struggled with this beatitude maybe it’s because I’m not sure we really know what it is to be persecuted here in the New Zealand. It does happen at low levels. I remember friends of mine way back in high school being very upset after their first sixth form Biology class when the teacher had said that any creationist should leave then and there as they had no place in that class. Last year a student at Uni came and talked to me one night as she didn’t really know what to do. She had gone to see a lecturer and when another lecturer came into the office she had found herself being belittled by both of them because of her faith. She wanted to know was it a Christian thing to lay a complaint?
According to various sources more Christians were martyred for their faith around the world last century than the previous 19 put together. In a magazine that came across my desk this week there was a short update on what is happening in Northern Sudan. IT read “Christians in North Sudan are living beneath a blanket of fear since South Sudan seceded on July 9 2011. Just one month after the South voted for independence, pressure increased on churches and Christians, with Muslim groups threatening to destroy churches, kill Christians and purge the country of Christianity.”
You’ll note that the promise attached to the first part of this beatitude is the same as the first beatitude blessed are the poor in spirit; there’s is the kingdom of heaven. I think it means two things; the first is that just like recognising our spiritual poverty is a prerequisite to entering the kingdom of God, so too is willing to suffer for righteousness or justice. Those who do that, identify with the poverty of others, will find the kingdom of Heaven because they have gone out into the world and found where God is at work and joined themselves in a costly way to seeing that kingdom come. I’m not talking about salvation by works here, rather that such people are aware of God’s reign, they too are to be included in God’s revolution of Grace. Dietrich Bonheoffer says “ It is important that Jesus gives his blessing not merely to suffering incurred directly for the confession of his name, but to suffering for any just cause’.
Secondly, it adds an almost cyclic nature to the beatitudes, those who know their spiritual poverty, who mourn, who are meek and humble before God, who are merciful, are pure in heart; they have had their hearts waster clean by Jesus and are singleminded about following him, who are peacemakers, seeking the wholeness of the world, will be prepared to suffer for righteousness. It stops this last beatitude being a salvation by works but also shows that for those who follow Jesus they should put seeking justice and righteousness before their own wellbeing, trusting in God to take care of that… later in the Sermon on The Mount in teaching on the economics of the Kingdom of God, Jesus will say not to worry about what we wear or drink but rather to put first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.
Jesus then links being persecuted for righteousness with suffering for him and in doing so the beatitude becomes very personal, he moves from the third person to the second person from those to ‘you’. He points to three types of suffering, being insulted; this is something that most of can relate to, persecuted; which is specifically physical opposition and being falsely accused; being lied about. One of the chief complaints in the laments in the book of psalms, like psalm 31, is very much the false accusation, that people would say of the psalmist that they have done evil when they know they were Innocent. When you have a look at these we need to acknowledge that Jesus suffered all three forms of opposition, they point directly to the cross. That in its self is reassuring for us as Jesus is not asking us to face anything he hasn’t already faced. It is echoed in Jesus words in Matthew 10 and in John’s gospel that Jesus disciples will face suffering because the student is not greater than the master.
Like the university friends I talked about its hard to know how to handle these things, how do we react?
Jesus says we are to rejoice. The early apostles in Acts are a good example of this in acts 4 when Peter and john are whipped and told to stop preaching they give thanks that God has seen fit for them to share the suffering of Christ, likewise Paul and Silas in prison in Philippi, bring the place down with their raucous singing of praise. Jesus give us two reasons to rejoice… The first is that our reward is great in heaven, and while the rest of the promises in the beatitudes are benefits from Jesus presence in the world here and now, now we see with this one the reward is in heaven. The joy of being with Christ fore eternity well outweighs the suffering we will face in this life. Karl Marx called this Christian hope an opiate for the masses, because he thought it was designed and used to keep people quiet and content with their lot. But that’s not the case as Jesus second reason for us to rejoice shows, Jesus says we should rejoice because we are in Good company, that’s how they treated the prophets that had gone before us. The prophets in the Old Testament were often maligned and persecuted. What the prophets did was that they challenged Israel about the injustice in their society, calling them back to going God’s way, which is anything but an acceptance of the way things are like a drug induced indifference. I don’t think either of these things deadens the pain of suffering or persecution but they put it into perspective.
Now I want to turn to wrapping up our look at the beatitudes.
Dallas Willard in his book the Divine Conspiracy talks about what he calls the puzzle of the Beatitudes, and I hope I haven’t added to you being puzzled about the beatitudes. He says that in Jesus ‘blessed are sayings, like many great teachers before him and after him Jesus is answering the puzzling question ‘which life is the Good life?’ and his answer is puzzling as it goes totally contra to the way we think about the good life.
WE are used to thinking that the good life is only available to the select few, the elite, the fortunate, the deserving, or those who have earned it. But Jesus beatitudes are saying that God’s blessing is available to all. Willard puts it like this, even spiritual zeros enjoy heaven’s care, not just the spiritual hero’s however you would define it. It’s a revolution of grace, the great invitation that in Jesus the kingdom is for everyone. Paul Simon captures this well in his song ‘blessed’ where he says blessed are the sat upon, the spat upon and the ratted upon.” And goes on to talk of the street people he sees round him on the streets of New York City, people left out and side-lined by the western materialistic dream of the good life, just like those thought beyond God care by the religious people of Jesus day.
We may also think the good life is defined by what we have, our standard of living and our state of mind, or what we do (and in the rest of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus does answer the question who is truly good), but in the beatitudes Jesus says that the good life is not dependant on our circumstances and situations; rather it is from the presence of Jesus and his kingdom.
The spiritual poor are blessed because in Christ the kingdom of God is theirs
Those who mourn are blessed because in Christ they will be comforted
The meek and humble are blessed in Christ, they will inherit the land, a land of Gods promise
Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, they are blessed, in Christ, the righteousness of God , they will be filled
Blessed are the merciful, because in Christ the merciful one they will receive mercy
Blessed are the pure in heart, the will see God. Jesus has washed their hearts and in Christ, Immanuel God with us, we will see God
Blessed are the peacemakers, they will be called the sons of God, they share the peace they have received in Christ, they show that by Christ they have been adopted into God’s family.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, Christ has prepared a reward for them and they are in good company even Christ’s company who also suffered for Righteousness.