Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.(Matthew 5: 10 -- NAS)
This is one of those points where what Jesus has to say boggles our minds. “Wait!” we exclaim, “Persecuted? I’m going to be persecuted? And you expect me to think of this as a good thing?” We really don’t want to go there.
Everyone at some point has felt put upon or bullied. Some have endured even more intense abuse. But are these necessarily “persecution”?
The term “persecution” gets used for a very focused pursuit with intent to cause injury and agony, usually because of the victim’s beliefs.
So, being harassed just because someone dislikes you is not the same thing as being persecuted, at least for what Jesus is talking about. And that’s an important thing to remember, the “for the sake of righteousness” qualifier that our Lord included in this statement. Many people who become the target of public criticism try to put on the cloak of self-righteousness, claiming to be “rising above” the perceived attacks. Is that what Jesus meant?
We looked at the matter of righteousness before, when we considered those who hunger and thirst for it. It’s that mixture of a sense of justice and balance, and a commitment to the divine order. There’s nothing in all that about our own ego or vanity or self-image. When we are committed to righteousness, we’re committed to God’s causes.
What Jesus upholds here then, are those who are willing to take a stand on principle, regardless of the social consequences. And he is pointing out that such a choice will bring persecution down upon you. There will always be those who have no interest in seeing righteousness prevail.
“Seeing righteousness prevail.” That’s very “churchy” talk there. What does it actually look like? What are those right things in the world, those divine things? Refusing to break the law, when peers are urging it, that could be one instance. But seriously, how often do our friends do that? Well, except for things like grabbing the handicapped parking spot even though no one in the car is disabled, because it’s “just a quick run in and out.” Or asking a friend to lie about your absence so you can attend the football game where you’ve got seats on the 50 yard line. All around us, every day, there are the tiny cracking sounds of little bits of rule-breaking. But surely they don’t matter.
The problem is that we get so comfortable with tiny instances of rule-breaking that we stop distinguishing when the matter becomes more serious. And that can be dangerous. If you’re standing on a sheet of ice, and you’ve been ignoring all the tiny cracks running away from your feet, all the small noises of fractures forming, you could very suddenly find yourself dropped straight down into icy cold water that could kill you very easily.
We really don’t like it when someone with us says “You shouldn’t be parking in the handicapped spot.” We get unhappy when our close friend says, “No, I’m not going to lie for you.” We feel put-upon unjustly, even though the reality is not injustice but rather our immediate desire being thwarted. We run into a brick wall, and think it is the wall’s fault for not moving.
When we set our hearts upon righteousness, and are willing to hold onto that, there will be moments when we have to say “no” to the small rule-breaking that everyone urges us to do. By choosing righteousness, we are, in a sense, making ourselves part of the “brick wall.” Are we ready to face what will come as a result of that?
People don’t necessarily like being reminded of righteousness. It isn’t comfortable, when that’s not the route they’re choosing. They don’t like the reminder that they could be better people than they are. They don’t like the reminder that their choices could be damaging to others. And when they are reminded, their impulse is to blot out the reminder, tear up the envelope, throw the annoying message into the trash.
In a word, persecute the righteous one.
Jesus says that the person who has made the choice to stand upon righteousness, “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
I’m not sure that’s a “reward” we find easy to grasp. What does He mean by that?
I don’t think He intended it as a consolation for enduring the slings and arrows of outraged self-indulgence. I think He’s giving an affirmation to those who make this choice, to be principled, to stand their ground, to hold to righteousness. “Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” If they possess heaven, then, that means they have some aspect of the authority of heaven. They are in command. God puts His power into the hands of these people who are willing to stand up for righteousness and become targets.
Underneath this verse lies the issue of martyrdom, those who are attacked and killed because of their beliefs. Many people take up the causes of righteousness and boldly declare their intention to stand their ground, no matter what. They proudly declare that they are quite willing to be “martyred” for righteousness sake. And Jesus was not blind to the fact that being killed was a possibility. But “dying for the cause” is not what He is looking at here. Look again at what He says.
“Blessed are those persecuted for the sake of righteousness for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” It isn’t “Blessed are those killed for the sake of righteousness for they get to go to heaven.”
In that moment when we are being attacked because of our stand upon righteousness, what are we thinking? Are we focused on defending ourselves? Are we feeling powerless to have any effect on others, other than impressing us with our rock-solid commitment? Do we ever remember in that moment that we have the authority of heaven in our hands?
And if we do remember that we possess the kingdom of heaven in that moment, that we are the wielders of the authority of God, what do we do with it? Do we browbeat and chastise our persecutors? Do we mock and ridicule them for their efforts? Or do we try and do as the Lord has done, dispensing justice and mercy and love to them?
You make a commitment to the Lord, and stand your ground on His law, for “righteousness sake”. And someone comes after you, persistently attacking you because of that stand. The authority of heaven is in your hands, you possess it. What do you do with it?