A professor I had in seminary once said that the gospel (the good news) wasn’t necessarily good news for everyone. That has always stuck with me. And as I have ruminated and meditated on the Sermon on the Mount over the past month, his words still ring true today.
The last Beatitude, for so many American Christians, is bad news. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” American Christians, by and large, have a very low tolerance of persecution. We view persecution as a violation of our rights, given we are promised in the Constitution the freedom of religion. So we sue, protest, get angry, and seek to elect people who will protect our religious rights. I don’t think there are many among us who consider ourselves blessed by any measure when the culture turns against us. Yet, there it is, from the very lips of Jesus.
He goes on to double down in the next two verses, “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.” (vss. 11-12) Bad news indeed.
In the Sermon, he gives examples of this. He tells us to love those who are against us, in order to distinguish ourselves from the rest who only love those who love them or agree with them. He tells us to expose the unrighteousness directed at us by not retaliating, but by drawing attention to it. In 1st Century culture, slapping a man with the back of your hand was demeaning. He tells the victim not to do in kind, but to expose the left side of his face to demonstrate that he is a human being deserving of respect. Punch me if you want, but I know I am worthy of respect. Similarly, when a Roman soldier demanded a Jew carry his equipment one mile (which was his right under Roman law), he says the Jew should continue on voluntarily for another mile to expose the injustice of the law.
In many respects, this was the approach of Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Sixties, and people hated him for it, including some Blacks. He exposed the utter brutality of American racism by not retaliating, but letting the injustice be shown to the world. The result of that hate was his assassination, but the way he and others carried themselves in a non-violent way also led to the passing of the Civil Rights Act.
I believe Jesus is warning his followers that following him comes with great cost and sacrifice. For those who want following Jesus to be a carefree, blessed (materially) life, and living it on their terms, the good news is bad news.
Why do you suppose the last of the Beatitudes spoke about the blessedness of persecution for righteousness? And why did Jesus in the next verse change the subject from “those” to “you?” He knew that what he had proclaimed through the Beatitudes was not going to be popular. His Sermon was so countercultural, it was revolutionary.
The Jews hated the Roman occupation of their land. Being told to love them, pray for them, and to do good to them was beyond the pale. To love outsiders, those from different races and cultures was also, for most, a bridge too far. Pretty much all of the Sermon commanded things they would find hard to accept actually putting into practice. And those who did, would suffer for it, and not always from the Romans, but also from their own people.
Is this not also true today? There is no doubt that the cultural currents have turned against we believers. I have experienced this for decades on the University campus. While earning a graduate degree at the University of Kansas, I sat in a class where we had just heard from two homosexual men talk about their lives and the persecution they had endured. They claimed (unlike today) that fear (homophobia) was the underlying reason. After they had left, our professor led a discussion. I spoke directly about how I disagreed with the lifestyle, but that homosexuals didn’t frighten me. That wasn’t accepted very well by my classmates. Today, I would say the same, except to add that I do not hate those who practice homosexuality. I wasn’t defensive or abusive. In essence, I was turning my left cheek to the class in order to expose how unjust their criticism was because it accused all Christians of this.
This has always been the reality of Christians around the world and down through the centuries. As the Apostle Paul says, “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evildoers and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.” (II Timothy 3:12-13) This has not changed, but I am afraid many American believers have felt entitled to escape persecution because of the nation’s promised religious freedoms. So, when they do suffer, they become indignant. One cannot find that reaction justified in the Sermon. The response, rather, is to be love. We are justified to expose injustice, but not through hate and retaliation. Rather, we expose it through our righteous living. For those being controlled by the flesh, this is very bad news indeed. Our flesh wants justice by any means. Our flesh demands our rights.
And to go further with this thinking down through the Beatitudes, our flesh wants to justify ourselves (e.g., I’m a good person; I’m not as bad as other people; etc.) rather than admit that we’re sinners and helpless to overcome it on our own. Our flesh would rather be affronted by others’ sin than mourn for it. Our flesh would rather do as our emotions lead us, rather than being self-controlled. Our flesh would rather desperately search out what pleases us rather than hunger and thirst for what we truly need. Our flesh would rather be bitter, get revenge, or be indifferent than merciful. Our flesh would rather consume all what the world tells us than focus on the lovely things of God. Our flesh would rather be fighting personal battles than focusing on bringing reconciliation between God and humans. In other words, our flesh continually calls us to remain in the normalcy of the fallen world.
However, Jesus proclaimed the coming of a new Kingdom, the values of which are not ideals that will be fulfilled only on the other side of Eternity; rather, they are to be incorporated into the lives of his followers now. They are intended to give the world a glimpse of heaven.
Many Christians resist this in favor of an Americanized Christianity that puts rights first, and views persecution as anything that infringes on those rights, such as saying “Merry Christmas” or having a cross or nativity scene on public display. And they don’t take kindly to those who would proclaim that our rights are not our first priority. Rather, they decry persecution for their faith as an affront to resist.
The Sermon tells us otherwise. Actually, we are told to embrace persecution as a blessing because all the prophets preceding Jesus had experienced the same. When the Apostles were wrongly beaten and told they could no longer speak publicly about Jesus, we are told they, “left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.” (Acts 5:41)
All through the Gospels, we see Jesus trying to persuade his disciples and the crowds that he was bringing a different kingdom than they anticipated. He was not coming as a conqueror, but a Savior. He was not coming to retaliate, but to forgive. He had not come to rule, but to serve. He was not coming to establish a kingdom founded on human rules and ways, but rather on the ways of God. They resisted. And eventually they put him to death. Most were quite content to continue living life their way.
The world has tried and tried to solve its problems on its own with ways of its own creation. It has not worked; it never will. In so many respects, Christians have done the same, and it has failed to draw people to the Lord. The Sermon of Jesus offers the best, the only, way to truly see the Kingdom come. Let all who claim to follow him take it to heart, and plead for the Lord’s help to put it into practice in our daily lives. Only then will the fallen world see who God truly is through us, and perhaps will choose to join us in following him. We likely will be persecuted, but, like the Apostles, we can rejoice that we are counted worthy of such disgrace.
© Jim Musser 2021 All Scripture references are from the New International Version, 2011.