“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Scarcely a day seems to go by at the moment without news of Christians being attacked because of their faith somewhere in the world. Not long ago 21 Egyptian Christians were apparently beheaded by Islamic State militants in Libya. In New Delhi in India several churches were attacked. These are just a couple of examples of Christians being attacked for their faith in a world that sometimes seems like a dark and frankly frightening place. Incidents like these put into context any insults or slights that we might be subjected to from our friends and colleagues.
The grim reality is that Christians will be attacked as a direct consequence of their faith in Jesus Christ. Over the preceding verses of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has, through the beatitudes, shown that the way of Christ is generally completely the reverse of the way of the world. Christians are expected to live in a manner that is totally counter cultural. Jesus understands that living in this way, seeking to follow the path of righteousness, will lead to persecution. He takes this as a given when he says, “blessed are those who are persecuted.” If we live righteous lives, if we live as Christ lived, we will attract strong opposition, just as he himself did. He was, of course, ultimately executed for what he was saying and how he lived. We should, therefore, expect persecution, insults and abuse for following him.
Jesus tells us that when we are insulted, persecuted or lied about as a consequence of our relationship with him we are to “rejoice and be glad” for we are following the ways of the prophets who have gone before us. All those who have sought to bring God’s good news to the world have found themselves facing opposition. Yet it is worth persevering with our distinctive lives since the reward for living righteous lives is “a reward in heaven.” We will join Jesus in his heavenly kingdom, in God’s new creation, if we continue to follow the example that he set us.
Of course, it might be that the most challenging element of this beatitude for those of us living in the comfortable west is not enduring persecution and insult. Perhaps what we are most challenged about is the fact that we are not actually being insulted or slandered. Maybe, like me, you find yourself pondering whether in fact the life you are leading is marked out as righteous, if it is in fact distinctively Christian. Perhaps, as you scan through the beatitudes, you have found yourself thinking, “but this isn’t me?” The challenge for those of us thinking like this is to strive to follow Christ more closely, to live lives that are more righteous, and to reflect more clearly the example of Christ.
There is a great deal for us to reflect on in these verses. Are we living lives that are truly righteous, and evidently so to those around us? Is our faith deep enough to mark us out as a distinctive followers of Christ? Are we deserving of the reward that awaits us in heaven? At the same time we should be thankful that we are not subjected to the brutalities that our brothers and sisters in Christ are forced to endure elsewhere in the world. We should admire their faith, that they continue to follow Christ despite the appalling threats that they face. And we should pray for their continued strength, and that they will draw comfort from the teachings of Christ in these verses.