See part one yesterday.
Yesterday, we saw how the Beatitudes are essentially an announcement of good news for those in Israel who have been waiting for God to act. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” Today, we look at the final two Beatitudes, which stand out from the rest. Given the good news of the first seven, these next two seem a little surprising:5:10-12 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
While Jesus’ audience would have agreed that being comforted, inheriting the earth, and being shown mercy were blessings, I wonder how they would have taken his statement that being persecuted was a blessing?
For a start, it gives us a signal that Jesus’ announcement kingdom of God doesn’t mean life would be perfect for Jesus’ followers. From elsewhere in the Gospels (and we’ll encounter this later in Matthew) we see the kingdom breaking into the world in the ministry of Jesus, but not in its final, all-encompassing form. The coming reign of God is indeed good news – but in the interim there may well be suffering and persecution for God’s people.
You can see why this teaching of Jesus was preserved by the early church, can’t you? What’s described in verses 10-11 is exactly what happened when people began to follow Jesus, bringing hostility from the synagogue communities and from the wider Roman world. So here we have Jesus warning them that this would happen, and describing it as a blessing rather than a problem.
In fact, this is common in what’s often called minority group rhetoric. This happens where a group has different beliefs and behaviours from the wider community which make it ridiculed, ignored, or shamed by the majority. If the group is to survive, they need to find a way to deal with this disapproval, and find an alternative source of approval.
Some of the writings of the New Testament address their readers as a minority group (e.g. 1 Peter 1:1; 1 Peter 2:11) – indeed, all first century Christians were a minority group – some doubly so if they were Jewish Christians living scattered throughout the Mediterranean. And so the New Testament writers employ these minority group strategies, showing how God should be where Christians look for approval, not the world; and why rejection by the world is actually honourable.
This is what Jesus is doing here. He’s being up-front that those who embrace the kingdom of God risk suffering persecution for the sake of God. Not just physical persecution, but ridicule, insult, and social rejection. But that’s OK, says Jesus – you’re actually blessed. For a start, it means a reward in heaven. God is the one who is the ultimate judge, not human society. And if you suffer for the sake of being identified with him, that’s honourable in his eyes.
More than that, rejection by the world is a sign you’re on the right track. After all, those in the past who embraced God’s message were mistreated by the majority: the prophets God sent were rejected by a stubbornly rebellious Israel. (This is the main theme of Stephen’s speech in Acts 7 – and he gets treated accordingly.) And as we see later in Matthew, Jesus, too, was rejected and persecuted by the majority of Jews. So persecution, then, is a sign you’re doing the right thing, and that you’re on the winning side – God’s side.
A number of years ago, Mark Latham had just published The Latham Diaries, which took aim at just about everyone Latham had previously worked with. (For international readers: Latham is a former Australian opposition leader, and considered a loose cannon even by his own party.) I remember one politician – one of the many former colleagues whom Latham had criticised in his book- being asked for his reaction. His reply: “If Mark Latham is criticising me, I must be doing something right.”
This is essentially the same strategy employed frequently throughout the New Testament: if you are being persecuted by those who oppose God, it’s a sign you’re doing the right thing. Suffering is honourable, and stands in the tradition of Israel’s prophets, along with Jesus himself.
This is the aspect of Jesus’ message that many of us in the West need to hear, particularly those who emphasise prosperity as the sign of God’s blessing. Yes, God wants to bless us. But it may be the blessing of persecution and suffering on account of his name!
To think about
What kind of persecution do you face, big or small? Have you been insulted or falsely accused for the sake of Christ?
How can you view persecution as a blessing?
What can you do to train yourself to look to God – not the world – for approval, and to seek eternal reward rather than acceptance in the here-and-now?