The last beatitude is the longest: “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” and included two blessings, for “it was the Semitic tradition to say anything especially important twice” (Forest 135).
The Greek diōxōsin is derived from dioko, meaning to “run after, pursue, persecute” (Verbrugge 148). More properly, it means to “aggressively chase” (biblehub.com). Of course one may apply such to Jesus’s persecution (and his foretelling of such) and the persecutions early Christians faced under the arm of the Roman empire. But we are not there yet; we have not even arrived at Jesus’s first warning of his impending death. At the beatitude’s end Jesus compares those who suffer persecution to the prophets.
Who were prophets? The were those who, having clean hearts, heeded the call of God, which, as I described in my previous post, is not so much a call as a command. Simply, prophets warned the ancient Israelites of the lack of moral conduct, particularly their breaking of the covenant. Just take a look at Isaiah where he chastises the people of Jerusalem for land-grabbing and kicking people off their land for want of money and power,
those who “rise early in the morning in pursuit of strong drink, who linger in evening to be inflamed by wine (5: 11), to those who “drag iniquity along with cords of falsehood” (5:18), those who “acquit the guilty for bribes and deprive the innocent of their rights” (5:23), and those “who issue iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people their right, that widows may be your spoil, and that you make make the orphans your prey” (10: 1-2).
Isaiah’s language is vitriolic. If we put his language in modern terms we have Isaiah calling out people for theft, substance abuse, lying, injustice, oppression, and taking advantage of the disadvantaged. I shake my head; it doesn’t seem to me that all that much has changed, but I digress.
It is, of course, significant that this beatitude as it is follows “Blessed are the peacemakers,” for as I described in my discussion of the previous beatitude, the peacemakers are not those who want peace, but actively and make peace. The prophets, in warning the people, were essentially telling people to wake up–to stop doing what they were doing and return to the covenant, for in said covenant, God promised peace. As such, prophets themselves were peacemakers.
As any of the great peacemakers of modernity, people like Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, exemplify, peacemakers challenge the status quo; they challenge the collective. As such, it is obvious why peacemakers face persecution.
Dokio is used in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible “in exhortations to pursue a goal, such as social righteousness (Deut. 16: 20), peace (Ps. 34: 14), and right living that honors God (Prov. 15: 9)” (Verbrugge 149). Dokio, in a manner of speaking, is a double-edged sword, for as much as it is used in the context of pursuing said goals, it, in also meaning persecute, suggest that those who pursue such will be persecuted.
In the context of this beatitude, Jesus exhorts his followers to pursue righteousness. Here the term is dikaiosuné, meaning ” justice, justness, righteousness, righteousness of which God is the source or author, but practically: a divine righteousness” (biblehub.com). Note the judicial emphasis here, for dikaiosuné is derived from díkē, which meant “a judicial verdict” (ibid.).
As much as those who pursue peace act to challenge the status quo, their challenge, by default, is also inherently political. Thus their actions often place them in front of the judicial system.
Such leads into the later statement in the beatitude: those “who falsely say all kinds of evil against you.” Jesus remains, as it were, in the judicial metaphor. He is talking about slander and bearing false witness. Considering Jesus’ context–living within the Roman Empire–a world order he challenged, it should be no surprise that he is telling people that if they stand up for justice, if they stand up for peace, there will be those, those who perhaps want to maintain the status quo and/or fear Roman reprisal, who will bear falsely against them and slander them.
I imagine a shorthand version as thus: “If you stand up for peace you will persecuted (again, the judicial metaphor) and if you are being persecuted, you must be working for peace.” This beatitude in nicely circular. But there is more, for “if you are working for peace, you are blessed.”
The “persecuted” of “Blessed are those who have been persecuted” are those who have stood up and have been sent to court for their standing up against what were the injustices of the Roman Empire.
Moreover, those who are persecuted here are those who stood up “because of me,” or, in the NSRV, “on my account.”
We must remember here that we are not talking about the crucified Christ, we are not talking about the resurrected Christ. Heck, we are not even talking about the persecuted Christ. If the beatitudes do indeed reflect what Jesus said, then we are not even talking about the “Christian” Christ. We are talking about a poor Jew speaking to a bunch of poor Jews and, considering the beatitudes open up Jesus’s first sermon in the Gospel according to Matthew, he’s not even five minutes into his discourse (it doesn’t take all that long to recite the beatitudes).
So we must take the placement of such a statement into consideration. Jesus is hinting at things here, perhaps not so subtly. When we consider the development of the beatitudes as the proceed in order, this, the final beatitude, is the culmination of what began with “Blessed are the poor in spirit for their is the kingdom of heaven.” And what do we have in the final beatitude? The kingdom of heaven is for those who are persecuted. Again, nicely circular.
Jesus is talking about change in these beatitudes. Personal change. One must change oneself. Personal transformation is a crucial thread in Jesus’s Gospel. The Kingdom of Heaven is for those who change and that change begins with recognizing one’s spiritual impoverishment and doing something about it.
That action then sets the ball rolling, leading, penultimately to working for peace and being (essentially) condemned for it. I say essentially here because if you stood up to Rome, you were basically screwed.
“For the sake of me” or “on my account.” In other words, if you do what I (Jesus) am exhorting you to do, you will get into trouble and yes, you might die. But God knows why you were doing what you were doing: God saw that you stood up for injustice and died for it. Hence, the Kingdom of God is for them.
The Kindgom of God is for those who, in working for peace, worked for the betterment of others.
Many Christians would have it that Jesus was able to predict his death because he was God. But Jesus was not God in the Gospel according to Matthew. To say he predicted his death in the Gospel according to Matthew because he was God is to import John’s theology (the only Gospel that claims Jesus is God) into Matthew. This is an interpretive error. Let John be John, Matthew Matthew.
Jesus was able to predict his death because he was no idiot. He knew, as did anyone living in the Roman Empire, that if you stood up to Rome, you could (and probably would) die. The dozens, if not hundreds, of crosses lining the roads into the cities were not for mere decoration.
The Gospel is inherently political and when we look at the “ladder of the beatitudes” (Forest), we find that with each little step, there is a death of self, implying that if one is to work for peace and thus be persecuted–if one follows the path Jesus sets out–one’s life is no longer his/her’s only. In other words, you live your life for the benefit of others.
This requires death of the part of ourselves that seeks to gain and possess. The part of ourselves that desires our own personal well-being and the pursuit of our own individual happiness.
The beatitudes require one empty oneself: these statements do not bless different “classifications” of people (i.e. the merciful, those who hunger and thirst, those who are poor in spirit). No, being poor in spirit leads to mourning, which leads to , humility, leading all the way up to being persecuted as the prophets before them.
It is a step by step “program” that starts with a life centered on oneself and those who seek to fill their own personal desires are those who are poor in spirit. So change that, Jesus is saying, stop focusing so much on yourself.
Desire what is right and just.
Be pure in heart.
Make peace; stand up to injustice,
Do that, and the kingdom of heaven is yours.
And I end with a question to you, reader: Have you or anyone you stood up for justice, stood up against injustice and faced the consequences or persecuted one who did?