Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
When you are called a child of God, you can withstand all manner of pressures to swerve from the path of righteousness, you will experience beatitude.
I do not believe this beatitude is about being persecuted for professing your belief in Jesus. It is about righteousness living. It’s about the seven virtues which we’ve studied so far which add up to righteousness. People who live in profound righteousness become agents of change for any injustice which is causing suffering because they are hungering and thirsting for it. The unjust are not fans of the righteous. Perhaps this is the litmus for righteous action. Does it oppress people, causing them to suffer, or does it free people, releasing them from suffering?
But righteousness has scale. We may not all be called to unseat oppressive regimes. We are all called, however, to attend to those who are suffering injustice in our midst. And we may or may not be persecuted by people for it.
So what happens when we are not persecuted by people? Does it mean that we are not righteous enough? Does it mean that we will not receive the blessings of heaven? That would seem awfully stingy of God. Can we help it if we are not persecuted by external forces?
I propose that in the absence of external persecution, we consider anything which might compromise our faith to be a persecution. Some of you might call it Satan, the adversary. Just to name a few persecutions which come to mind: addiction, temptation, hatred, greed, selfishness, fear. These can be adversarial agents in our lives. These can destabilize our purity (single-minded devotion). When Jesus faced Satan in the wilderness, he was tested and tempted. He was persecuted by Satan. And yet he remained pure.
But we have been given blessings. We have been given virtues. We have been filled with righteousness. In our becoming peacemakers in the world, we have become children of God. And when we are children of God, we will withstand persecution, whether it is external or internal.
When we’ve emptied our spirit in exchange for righteousness, something is formed in us, let’s say it’s like a bubble. This bubble is under threat. It doesn’t matter if a terrorist is threatening to chop off our heads over our righteousness or we are struggling with addiction, the result is the same. It is a threat to that bubble. But when we become children of God we will withstand any persecution. And when we do that we will be given the Kingdom of Heaven.
Kingdom of Heaven or Kingdom of God is something which John the Baptist says “is at hand”. It is something so close to us that we could touch it; at hand. Jesus is not preaching about an afterlife paradise. He is not saying that if you are persecuted, you will go to an eternal land of reward. He is talking about a kingdom that is ruled by God here and now in which we are rewarded by blessings which beget virtues. We become God’s subjects with all of the privileges and responsibilities that come with that moniker. We experience beatitude; supreme blessedness and happiness.
As I’m writing this, it is Lent. I’ve given up a bad habit and so has my twin brother. This bad habit has become a lesser god to me. We’ve been supporting each other. I broke my Lent and sent him a text to tell him about it. His response was “You have another chance to choose.” I had been under persecution by temptation and I would be again. My brother’s point was that just because I crumbled once, doesn’t mean I have to in the future. It is a choice. I let my bubble be disturbed, but it doesn’t need to be broken.
My response was this, “My meditation is that when I choose not to reward myself, it opens up the possibility that God can reward me with something far better.” In the case of being persecuted for my attempts at righteousness, my reward is greater than the reward of giving into persecution. Jesus says that I will be rewarded with the kingdom of heaven.
It is right to deny ourselves pleasures when we recognize that we have an unhealthy dependence on them. This takes us back to the very first kind of righteousness: Blessed be the poor in spirit. When we reward ourselves richly, we will not experience the blessed poverty of righteousness. Can God reward us if we’ve already rewarded ourselves?
When Jesus was persecuted by Satan in the wilderness, he had the opportunity to reward himself with food, power, and privilege, but in his resistance, he received God’s favor and blessing in the form of a baptismal dove. When Jesus warned us about making a display of our giving, fasting, and prayer, in Matthew 6, he said that these people have had their reward, but if we do these things in private, then God will reward us. God will reward us when we are persecuted for righteousness sake, I believe because we have not rewarded ourselves.
The world does not necessarily want us to be righteous. It wants us to conform to its standards whether they are righteous or not. There is a systematic persecution, a pressure, to be like the world. The Apostle Paul wrote in Romans 12:2 “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”
When we become persecuted, it is an opportunity to be transformed, and in transformation we receive the kingdom. When we endure persecution, we have put our trust in God’s goodness. We know that we will have it no matter what happens to us. Saints have been made from this process. If Jesus had not been persecuted by Satan in the wilderness, perhaps he never could have fulfilled his destiny. When the moment arrived, could he have endured the persecution which led to his death?
- When have we felt persecuted? For what?
- If you withstood persecution, how did you do it? If you didn’t, why?
God of Heaven, give us the blessings of righteousness that we might withstand persecution both from within and without. Amen.