When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: “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, NRSV).
Of all the sayings that open this sermon, this really ought to be the one that shocks us the most. It is shocking for two reasons: First, this is the opening of Jesus’ public ministry in Matthew’s epic narrative. If you are trying to convince people to follow you, this is probably not the altar call that you would want to offer. Yet, Jesus is unconventional is all that he does. Remember John 6, when Jesus says that we have to embrace cannibalism to be a disciple? Okay, cannibalism might be a bit extreme. However, Jesus’ claim to embrace persecution as a result of faithful practice is not. Second, who’s being persecuted here? No one really knows of Jesus yet. His popularity is in its infancy. He has not stirred up any ire with the religious or political leaders. So why would he be talking about persecution? Scholars point to the contextual situation of Matthew’s audience, a time when Christians were being persecuted (either by the Jewish leadership or the Roman government). These first (and maybe second)-generation Christians are enduring great suffering because of their commitment to Jesus’ mission. And for that, Jesus says they are blessed.
Most of us will never experience persecution because of our faith. Thankfully, this is not a requirement to enter into the kingdom of heaven. As we have said throughout this series, these are descriptions of—not prescriptions for—citizenship. Therefore we should not seek out persecution. It is said that Justin Martyr, the second-century apologist, got his nickname because of his burning desire to fulfill Matthew 5:10-12. However, Justin has a phobia about being naked in public. To keep him safe, his mother would often hide his clothes, for fear that Justin would find a way to become a martyr. Eventually, of course, he did find a way to die for his faith. Now, this is not to disparage Justin’s sacrifice, only to note the general appropriateness of what Jesus is talking about. Persecution is not a mandate for entrance into the kingdom. Yet, we should always be ready to publicly confess Christ before others (Matthew 10:32; Luke 12:8; cf., 1 Peter 3:15-16). Tweeting a picture to demonstrate our support for a particular hash-tagged cause is helpful, however “raising awareness” is a far cry from missional faithfulness. Again, this is not to disparage such actions; they are good and useful. Yet, we must always be willing to go a step further. For how would we be persecuted for our faith if we never publicly proclaim our faith (cf., Romans 10:14)?
- Read 1 Peter 3:8-22. For the next two weeks, knowing that you may encounter rejection and may even endure suffering as a result, pray that God will provide you an opportunity to proclaim your faith in a challenging situation. How did the opportunity arise? What did you say? Did you feel comforted during the encounter? What was the outcome?
- Read the “Prayer to St. Justin” (www.stjustinwh.org/prayer.htm) and then pray for those who are enduring suffering for their faith in danger places across the globe. You may want to visit the Voice of the Martyrs website (www.persecution.com/) and select a specific area to pray for.
Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1-13, Word Biblical Commentary 33a (Dallas: Word, 1993), 94-95; Thomas G. Long, Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1997), 50-51.