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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How Did I Miss That?
Part 14: Marginalized Lives Matter
“Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Matthew 25:34b-36,40b
A marginalized person is one who is at the edges of society – not outside per se, but not exerting influence or experiencing the blessing of full inclusion, either. Marginalized people need advocates, people firmly within the societal circle to work on their behalf. If they have no such representation, they end up forgotten, shunned, and disenfranchised.
Before proceeding further, let me confess that I a member of the privileged class who created and/or perpetuate the current cultural norms – fully-abled, white, American, and male. I write this blog as a way to better understand how to be a part of the solution. In our current environment, the Black Lives Matter movement formed in reaction to the marginalization of people of color. While given equal rights under the law in the 1960’s, arrest and incarceration rates, unemployment and murder rates, discrimination and profiling, and the prevalence of poverty remain unacceptably high for their race as a whole. Some have tried to make the movement more inclusive by saying All Lives Matter, which is true, of course, but it misses the point. In his personal leadership blog, Nathan Collier writes, “When everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority.” A society can only rise as high as it is willing to lift and include the least within it. In a truly just and fair world, there would be no need to focus more attention on certain segments. Unfortunately, that is not our world. All lives will matter when no lives are marginalized.
Marginalization is not limited to a specific race. The homeless, the poor, those whose first language is not English, the variously challenged, the addicted, all are too often kept on the fringes of our society – hidden from view as if they were invisible and unimportant. Who will stand for the marginalized? Who will advocate with power for the LGBTQ community, or the girl with the unwanted pregnancy – or her unborn child? Who will stand in the gap with sleeves rolled up and work for a just and caring world? Jesus makes clear that it should be us. In the passage above from Matthew he lists the marginalized of his day and says, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Can it be any clearer? I do not know how I can overlook it. When I walk by a person in an unfortunate circumstance, when I witness an injustice, when I see someone brokenhearted or lonely, I see a broken member of Jesus’ family. That person is loved and cherished by the one I claim to follow. If I pass them by in their hour of need, I pass Jesus by in his.
We marginalize others when we fear them, when we ignore them, or when we treat them differently than we desire to be treated. One solution that is deceptively simple, but monumentally challenging, is written in Matthew 7:12: “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you.” As we do to others, we do also to Jesus.
Marginalized lives mattered to Jesus; therefore, they had better be a priority for us, too.