Those Persecuted for Righteousness
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. Matthew 5:10-12
Persecution takes many forms, none of them pleasant. Sometimes it is physical, as in a beating, lynching, or other act of violence. Other times, persecution is emotional, such as being devalued, made to feel insignificant, or misunderstood. Persecution can also be social, as in bullying, gossiping, or otherwise isolating someone from a group. Although we all suffer, not all suffering is persecution. Much of what we suffer from cannot be controlled. For example, if we are genetically disposed to cancer or heart disease, we may suffer a serious physical ailment regardless of how well we attend to our health. Persecution can occur from things we have little control over. Particularly in bullying, someone may be persecuted because of the way they look. Perhaps a speech impediment or birthmark brings the unwelcome and hurtful ridicule of others. On the other hand, there were kids from my school days who seemed to invite persecution for no obvious reason. They seemed to annoy others for the sole purpose of getting attention, even when the attention they received was negative. Regardless of the cause or motivation, persecution is painful.
Jesus refers to a specific type of persecution in this passage, however; one that is consciously chosen. This is a persecution brought about by the overt practice of one’s sincerely held beliefs. In Jesus’ words, it is being “persecuted for righteousness sake,” meaning suffering condemnation for what one believes is right. In a sense, this type of suffering is self-inflicted, for if one backed away from their expressed beliefs, at least in theory, the persecutors would stop persecuting. This suffering is consciously chosen in service of advocating for a position that is not in line with those in power. The act of speaking truth to power is an example – standing up to those in authority to point out injustice or the unethical use of authority. This type of suffering requires a dedication to a cause or a position that overrides one’s concern for one’s own safety and comfort. It is entirely selfless and can be dangerous.
It is wholly consistent with Jesus’ teachings and life that we would be encouraged to stand up for the disenfranchised, the oppressed, the poor, and the sick. And when our dedication to these groups comes at a personal cost to us, when our actions on their behalf causes us to suffer persecution, Jesus assures us of our reward. In this case, our reward is the kingdom of heaven. As I have expressed elsewhere, receiving the kingdom of heaven may or may not be an after-death experience. I believe Jesus refers to a state of being here and now, so the obvious question is this: If persecution is so unpleasant, what sort of compensating reward could override the pain?
This question cannot be answered in the same way we answer most questions because, as is typical of spiritual mysteries, words cannot adequately explain the reality. The kingdom of heaven is a real and present reality (for example, see Matthew 4:17), but we cannot experience it at the same level of consciousness where most of us live our lives. In our everyday reality, doing something that invites persecution is disagreeable, at best. We must experience life at a level deep enough to get beyond the unpleasantries at the surface, however, to the forces at work at a more foundational level. At this level we see and serve Christ by seeing and serving the disenfranchised. If we are persecuted as a result, so be it. In other words, when all we experience is pain from our acts of righteousness, we are likely not present to the state of conscious reality in which Christ exists and works in and on our world. Underneath our surface-level suffering is rejoicing and gladness because the righteous are working with God. God is working through the righteous to put the world on a more just and honorable path, making all things new.
As Jesus tells us, “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” The prophets knew it, and so can we.
This is the 18th in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”
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