Today, as it was two millennia ago, the Sermon on the Mount is the closest thing we have to a Jesus manifesto. It’s probably the most recognized of his teachings and also the most misunderstood. We’re looking at each beatitude separately to see what Jesus could possibly have to say to us today. To see what we’ve covered so far, check out: You Say You Want A Revolution , Out of the Abyss, Meek and Mighty, A Place at the Table, Mercy Me, Heart-to-Heart and Are You a Peacemaker?
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
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 5:1-12).
Phew. We’ve come to the last beatitude. Just like all the others before, this is another sticky one that makes you squirm. I’m pretty sure most people don’t sign up to be Christians for the opportunity to be persecuted. Most of us have experienced being reviled and falsehoods spoken against us and even some ridicule for our faith. But outright persecution, like torture and imprisonment, even death? Not so much.
There was a time in the first few decades following the death of Christ that his followers were persecuted as a sport. Gladiators and using humans for gory entertainment were common practice. Christians and other dissidents were often rounded up and tossed into the arena with lions.
The emperor Nero, who reigned in Rome in 56 to 64 BCE, was especially notorious for his persecution of believers. He’d wrap believers in pitch and used them as living torches to light his garden. He’d have them sewn into the skins of wild animals and set his hunting dogs upon them to tear them to pieces. He was fond of devising heinous acts of torture for fun.
More often, however, persecution was political. The Roman Empire extended from Britain to the Euphrates and from Germany to north Africa. Unifying such a vast geographical and cultural area was daunting. With so many gods, beliefs, traditions, cultures, languages the challenge to get such an amalgam of people to fall into obedience was challenging. Making compulsory homage to and worship of the emperor highlighted the allegiance and loyalty of citizens of the empire.
Persecution for one’s beliefs has continued through the ages. It has always been present in various forms, sometimes more dramatic and threatening than others. Often the differences are minor, if not inconsequential, but elevated to expose differences rather than similarities to create an us-versus-them mob mentality. There is social persecution: belonging to a marginalized sect or ethnic group, socializing with people outside your country club or neighborhood. There’s religious persecution: having a different style of worship, a different day of worship, different theological tenets and allowances like the gender-bias and education. There’s persecution within families with one end of the spectrum being disapproval to the other end of the spectrum being shunned or counted as dead to the family. Even Christianity has its extremists set on persecuting those within the faith who do not hold to their rigid dogma.
Persecution happens to people of all faiths. Persecution of any form is always wrong. The real question, however, is why is persecution inevitable? I can only speak from my own holy scriptures which do tell us to expect persecution. Persecution is inevitable for followers of Christ, when they are truly following Christ, are championing right relationships and justice, showing mercy, and living with humility. Those qualities and characteristics will be offensive to many, not because true Christians are habitually finding fault or being critical of others, but because they are living out their faith through actions that cannot escape being noticed by those who are feel threatened or challenged, or who are judgmental by nature.
There are those who are giving their lives for their faith or who worship in secrecy because it’s illegal to have a faith. However, most of us may only experience insults because of our Christian honor. Mockery may await the person who practices Christian love and forgiveness. Actual persecution may occur for the person who puts in an honest day’s work or who speaks out against company or industry abuses. Christ still needs witnesses, maybe not so much who are prepared to die for him, but more who are willing to live for him.
We’ll wrap up our wandering through the beatitudes with the imagery of salt and light. In the meantime, it might be useful to reflect back on your own journey through the beatitudes. Sometimes one beatitude in particular will strike you in a new way. Sometimes you have a new awareness because of some life experience. What new insight do you want to take forward with you?