“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Matthew 5:10 (NRSV)
In Matthew’s Gospel, and in the New Testament as a whole, really, there are two, main streams of persecution.
One of those streams is the Roman Empire. However, for as much impact as being under the Empire had in the life of a first century Judean, active persecution was fairly minimal and it remains this way for some time. In fact, in the New Testament, the Empire tends to act as a mediating force that protects this new Jesus movement from the other stream.
Were they oppressors? Yes. We have already looked at how Roman excesses basically condemned the common person to an inescapable life of poverty. We also know that Rome set up their own stooges not only to govern Judea, but also their own appointed Temple officials. We know that Rome moved to a deification of their Emperor and early Christians were expected to show deference. We know said rulers had a tendency to mess with the Temple by putting up images of Caesar and/or the Roman eagle. We know that Roman soldiers were able to demand labor and manpower from the populace at will.
However, in terms of active persecution, we don’t really see Rome as strong a source for that until later in history. It is important to note, though, that Jesus knows what’s coming as far as Rome and Jerusalem are concerned. He also knows that being faithful to God means not accepting Caesar as a rival deity. He also knows that the kingdom of God is going to run counter to the kingdom of Rome while springing up within its very borders, and it will have a lord who is not Caesar, and this will inevitably lead to conflict. So, part of this Beatitude may be looking out into the near future.
But there is another, much more active stream of persecution in Jerusalem that we find all through the New Testament, and that is the religious power structure headquartered in Jerusalem.
We must take care not to lump the opposition in the New Testament as “the Jews.” Jesus was a Jew, his first followers were Jews for some time, and the early church was Jewish. It will be decades before white dudes start being common in Jesus’ movement.
Jesus and the early church’s opponents were not “the Jews,” but they were a certain category of the elite within Judaism – the powerful who ruled over their own people through a combination of the backing of Rome and the authority of their traditions. It was this group who emulated Herod in their homes and practices. It was this group who forced an impoverished people to buy sacrifices in their own coin that had to be exchanged for Roman currency. It was this group who were the “righteous” as evident from their financial prosperity and the power and fame they enjoyed. And some of this group was even set up by Rome, herself.
Jesus is not starting a new religion that undoes Judaism. Jesus has brought the kingdom of God and, with it, come some powerful reforms of the way Jewish leaders have set up their religion. The persecution he and his followers will receive has very little to do with theology and very much to do with the fact that Jesus is deconstructing the world as they know it. He has brought a kingdom where the unclean are in the presence of God, the sick are welcomed and healed, the sinners are forgiven, and the poor are cared for and held up as models of faithfulness. This is the exact, polar opposite of the kingdom the Temple’s power structure have worked so hard to build.
The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them.
Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: As I live, says the Lord God, because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild animals, since there was no shepherd; and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep; therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: Thus says the Lord God, I am against the shepherds; and I will demand my sheep at their hand, and put a stop to their feeding the sheep; no longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, so that they may not be food for them.
Ezekiel 34:1-10 (NRSV)
The “shepherds” will not take this lying down. They will try to stop this from happening with every resource they have. They will try to discredit Jesus and, ultimately, set him up for execution as a criminal. They will try to silence his followers.
It is largely this persecution that forms the context for this Beatitude – the persecution that will come from being faithful to the kingdom and her King. It is the persecution that comes from the world that is against the world as it should be.
In some countries, our Christ-following brothers and sisters endure persecutions that are very similar to this. Their proclamation of another kingdom and another ruler runs afoul of totalitarian governments everywhere. Their humble love and service to one another prophesies against the greed, corruption, and violence that puts people into power in this world.
In America, we do not endure persecution for righteousness’ sake. We sometimes endure persecution for being jerks. We sometimes endure persecution for trying to force all America to live according to our moral standards. We sometimes endure persecution for insisting that society conform in all sorts of ways to our 21st century American interpretations of the Bible which are invariably incorrect.
But we very rarely endure persecution because of our loyalty to a counter-cultural kingdom. We are not persecuted because we show love to those society has marginalized. In fact, we are often agents of that marginalization. When you think about the people groups who have a rough time in the United States, you probably don’t think, “But at least the Christians are on their side!” We are rich. We are powerful. We are patriotic. We live just like everyone else except for a small subset of morality that we trumpet every chance we get as our “righteousness,” as if the defining characteristics of the kingdom of God are not being gay and avoiding R rated movies. This is not what Jesus is talking about.
Jesus is talking about a new world – the world as God dreamed it could be. And when you are a community that embodies that world, the forces that benefit from the world as it is will invariably rise against you. That looked a certain way in the first century. It may look different in our time. Certainly the key players are different. But for those pursuing faithfulness, the realization of that world is an inevitable result.
- Who has power in your country? How did they get there? Would those same people be in power if the world ran according to the person of Jesus?
- What are areas of your own life where you’ve assimilated into the status quo? Are there areas you could be more faithful in being the kingdom that could potentially draw some level of persecution or ostracism?