Matthew 5:10-12 – Blessed are Those Who are Persecuted Because of Righteousness

Painting by Hyatt Moore

“You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.

“Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort, and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even! —for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble. (The Message)

No matter our vocation or avocation, what we do, or don’t do, what we say, or don’t say, we will not avoid insult and persecution. Just ask Jesus.

The issue is not if we will suffer but why we suffer. The Apostle Peter devoted his first epistle to helping Christians deal with their suffering. He made his point clear about suffering: 

If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. (1 Peter 4:15-16, NIV)

That’s Peter’s way of saying, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness.”  We will endure abuse, in some form, from others. So, let’s make sure it’s for being characterized by Christ’s Beatitudes, and not for being obnoxious.

Christ’s followers take up their cross and share with him in the world’s hatred directed toward us. This kind of living is blessed and receives the approval of God.

What is persecution?

Persecution is not only physical abuse. It is also verbal abuse, ridicule, slander, discrimination, and generally making one’s life harder just because of a commitment to Christ. Persecution is not necessarily a sign of doing something wrong. It could be that something right is being done. 

Thomas à Kempis (1380-1471) wrote what has become one of the best-selling Christian books of all-time, The Imitation of Christ. Thomas had the right perspective on the subject of persecution:

“Sometimes it is to our advantage to endure misfortunes and adversities, for they make us enter into our inner selves and acknowledge that we are in a place of exile and that we ought not to rely on anything in this world.  And sometimes it is good for us to suffer contradictions and know that there are those who think ill and badly of us, even though we do our best and act with every good intention.  Such occasions are aids in keeping us humble and shield us from pride. When men ridicule and belittle us, we should turn to God, who sees our innermost thoughts, and seek His judgment.

Therefore, we should so firmly establish ourselves in God that we have no need to seek much human encouragement. It is when a person of good will is distressed, or tempted, or afflicted with evil thoughts, that they best understand the overwhelming need for God, without whom we can do nothing. While enduring these afflictions they take themself to prayer with sighs and groans; they grow tired of this life and wish to be undone in order to live with Christ. It is in such times of trial they realize that perfect security and full peace are not to be found in this world.”

Insult, negativity, and verbal abuse can trip us up and discourage us. It doesn’t feel good to be disliked. Trouble and conflict is something most of us would like to avoid, as much as possible.

We might be able to steel ourselves for a large persecution against denying Christ and would be willing to die a martyr’s death to hold on to our faith. Yet, conversely, we may:

  • Crumble in a heap if we think someone is mad or displeased with us.
  • Worry that our lives will get complicated and difficult if we uphold the righteousness and justice of God.
  • Be afraid of others who might think bad of us if we showed mercy by standing with the unpopular person or if we actively and overtly engage in peacemaking.
George Reeves in The Adventures of Superman (1952-1958)

It is the “small” abuses which can cause us so much grief. We are determined to stand tall when the bullets of blatant, oppressive, and systemic persecution comes. Then, when the gun is thrown at us, we may flinch, duck, and fret over one person being upset.

Back when I was a kid, I watched old reruns of the original Superman television series. In more than one episode, Superman stood tall and faced the person peppering him with bullets. Then, when the bullets ran out, the villain threw his gun at Superman, who then promptly flinched and ducked the gun!

It is not our job to ensure that everyone is happy – it is our business to do God’s will and to embody Christ’s Beatitudes. Our calling as believers in Jesus is not to worry about what people (including family) are going to think if we live a humble, righteous life of mourning over the world’s sins, exhibiting a meek and gentle spirit, standing for grace when others want blood, refusing to defile our hearts with impure thoughts and actions, and standing up to do something about the injustice around us.

How and why do respond to persecution?

            The proper response to persecution is joy! There are two reasons why we can face persecution and come away glad instead cringing and discouraged:

  1. Because being characterized by the Beatitudes of Jesus brings heavenly reward. Show me a person who puts all their eggs in the earthly basket, and I’ll show you a person who is never satisfied and constantly unhappy. Show me a person who lives to please God and pursues the blessing of Christ, accepting any flak from others, and I’ll show you a person who is inwardly rejoicing that they are a Christian, loved by God, and counting it a privilege to suffer for the Name of Jesus. (Acts 5:27-29, 40-42)
  2. Because we are in good company. God’s people throughout history have endured the same kinds of sufferings and received a Christian purple heart award. We are not just to face persecution with a stoic, grind-it-out mentality, but with rejoicing! (Hebrews 11:36-40)

Who does the persecuting?

            The ones who persecuted the prophets were religious folks. I wish I could say the worst persecution I ever received was from evil people who live ungodly lives. However, the most insult, hardship, and slander I have ever endured has come from the lips and the efforts of people who claim the name of Christ. The reason abuse happens is because there are people not characterized by the Beatitudes of Jesus, so they become the persecutors, instead of the persecuted. 

            All the sufferings and hardships of Jesus, all the persecution he faced did not come from the world, but from his own people, including a person from his inner circle of disciples. Although the church, throughout its history, has done immense good, it also has had a chronic problem of shooting its wounded.

Far too many people have adopted a legalistic form of righteousness that focuses on outward conformity and myriad rules and regulations. Abundant grace is needed. Not judgment.

Conclusion

If we are persecuted, let’s make sure it is because we are advocating for others who need mercy and are facing injustice; addressing the brokenness of this world through specifically Christian lenses; and desiring the applause of heaven.

See if you can hear the Beatitudes in what the Apostle Peter, had to say about persecution:

For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. (1 Peter 2:19-21, NIV)

Be like-minded and sympathetic. Love one another. Be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing. For,

“Whoever would love life
    and see good days
must keep their tongue from evil
    and their lips from deceitful speech.
They must turn from evil and do good;
    they must seek peace and pursue it.

 For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous
    and his ears are attentive to their prayer,
but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.” (1 Peter 3:8-12, NIV)

Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. (1 Peter 4:12-14, NIV)

May you know the blessing of solidarity with Christ through the afflictions of this present life.

Matthew 5:5 – Blessed Are the Meek

Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth. (NIV)

To give us a flavor of Christ’s counter-cultural Beatitudes, when was the last time, or has anyone ever, described themselves to you as meek?

Whenever I have interviewed people for positions, both paid and voluntary, and asked them to tell me their strengths, I have never had anyone say to me, “I’m a meek person.”

Why would I want to be meek?

Far too often, we equate meek with weak. If someone is meek, we may wrongly reason they must be a washrag, or overly introverted, and maybe not taking proper initiative in life. Of all the character qualities we might aspire to, I doubt that meekness is on anyone’s top ten list of desired qualities.

Yet, of the few words in the Gospels which Jesus uses to describe himself, one of those words is meek. And even then, many English translations steer clear of the word. For example, the New International Version of the Bible says in translating the words of Jesus, “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Only the King James Version translates the word as “meek,” instead of “gentle.”)

What does it mean to be meek?

Meek and gentle are the same words. The original Greek word is πραεῖς (pronounced “prah-ace”). “Meek” is the word used in other ancient Greek literature for breaking a horse. It is to be changed from being a wild stallion who wants to go his own way, to a broken horse who is gentle before the Master and allows others on his back without bucking.

Consider, for example, the scene around Christ’s crucifixion. Jesus was naked, exposed, and vulnerable to the idle curiosity of the crowd and the vulgar frivolity of the soldiers who were having a party around his suffering. “If you are the king of the Jews,” they taunted, “save yourself.”

And yet the extraordinary thing is there was no spirit of revenge with our Lord. Jesus did not curse his tormentors. Instead, he prayed, “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” (Luke 23:24)

It is important to notice the meekness that Jesus is speaking about in this Beatitude is not being a pushover. Meekness is not to be confused with being nice and easy-going. Meek and lowly as he was, Jesus could also take a whip to greedy money-changers in the Temple. We must not confuse meekness with weakness.

What characterizes a meek person?

Whereas poverty of spirit is more a humility before God, meekness is a humility toward other people. It is to be flat on our backs with only one way to look: up to God; and because we are in that position, there is no opportunity to look down on others. 

Meekness is a foundational Beatitude. Jesus considers it a necessary part of righteousness. I believe the word “meek” needs a renaissance. Even if we use the word “gentle” this will be a great advancement in how people interact with one another. So, what characterizes a meek person?

  • The meek have a desire to put other’s interests ahead of their own, because they know it is not all about them. They practice healthy rhythms of giving and receiving with others, without prejudice or favoritism.
  • The meek are more concerned with edifying and building up their brothers and sisters than justifying themselves. They don’t care who gets the credit. And they receive criticism well.
  • The meek are truly egalitarian and do all things with equity and inclusion. They make no distinctions between rich and poor, beautiful and ugly, intelligent and cognitive deficits, black and white, gay and straight, Democrat and Republican, or insider and outsider. In the meek person’s mind, every person is created in the image of God and therefore deserves respect, attention, and justice.

It is the meek who will inherit the earth – not aggressive people who believe in survival of the fittest, stepping on people to get where they want to go, or badgering others in order to get their way. 

Someone might protest, “But if I live this way, I’ll be pushed around.”  Meekness is not living without boundaries but is power under control. Maybe you will get stepped on – but you will inherit the earth.

How do I live as a meek person?

The three Beatitudes of being poor in spirit, mourning over sin, and meekness toward others are foundational to all that Jesus says and does. They are central to being Christ’s follower. Without them, there is only a contrived legalistic righteousness of our own without any real need of God. That is the way of pride, which is the straight and broad road to hell. 

Perhaps repentance is in order. It could be that too many people have made much more of themselves than what they truly are. Maybe we have adopted a soft attitude toward shame and shaming others, believing that some people need a bit of guilt from us to change their obnoxious ways. Perhaps we have paid scant attention to those who are in physical or spiritual poverty. And just maybe we have ignored and gossiped about others simply because we believe we are better than them.

A genuine follower of Christ lives a repentant lifestyle. The Apostle James said, “Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed” (James 5:16).  The way of Christ is the way of community. We are not to live ingenuine lives, hiding behind a mask of outward conformity. Now is the time for authenticity, living life as God intended it to be lived, as a disciple of Jesus in the way of spiritual poverty, mourning, and meekness – the narrow path that leads to salvation.

Non-retaliation happens when we realize our poverty of spirit and practice grief and lament. When we are flat on our backs before God, there is no place to look but up. And it means there is no ability to look down on others. It is to be broken and moldable before God. 

If you and I were part of the original crowd that listened to Jesus, there is hope. I have no ability to practice retaliation, even if I wanted to, because I have no earthly power. But that’s okay because, in this spirit of meekness, I take personal responsibility for my attitudes and my actions. I am neither worse nor better than any other person. I do not need to retaliate, even when egregiously wronged, because I can fully entrust myself to God alone who judges the living and the dead. 

Conclusion

It turns out that brokenness is the path to genuine righteousness. Jesus promised that the meek will inherit the earth. Christ didn’t just make that up. He was quoting Holy Scripture:

Do not fret because of those who are evil
    or be envious of those who do wrong;
for like the grass they will soon wither,
    like green plants they will soon die away.

Trust in the Lord and do good;
    dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.
Take delight in the Lord,
    and he will give you the desires of your heart.

Commit your way to the Lord;
    trust in him and he will do this:
He will make your righteous reward shine like the dawn,
    your vindication like the noonday sun.

Be still before the Lord
    and wait patiently for him;
do not fret when people succeed in their ways,
    when they carry out their wicked schemes.

Refrain from anger and turn from wrath;
    do not fret—it leads only to evil.
For those who are evil will be destroyed,
    but those who hope in the Lord will inherit the land.

A little while, and the wicked will be no more;
    though you look for them, they will not be found.
But the meek will inherit the land
    and enjoy peace and prosperity. (Psalm 37:1-11, NIV)

Jesus was saying that only the truly meek will learn contentment, joy, and satisfaction. Their ego is not so inflated that they insist they deserve more. Indeed, because as God’s people they are learning from him, the meek understand they are co-heirs with Christ in an inheritance of God’s kingdom.

May your meekness and gentleness be known to all.

*Above painting by Hyatt Moore

The Beatitudes of Jesus: An Introduction

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them. He said:

“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 be shown 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 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. (Matthew 5:1-12, NIV)

The human brain is hard-wired, in such a way, that it works its best when healthy rhythms of giving and receiving occur. God created us to thrive and flourish when we pay attention to particular ways of being with one another as people.

Jesus used the term “blessed” not in a financial sense, as if having lots of money is what it means to experience blessing. The word “blessed” means to have God’s stamp of approval, his favor, with the emotional and spiritual response of joy or happiness. 

Real and lasting joy comes from a right relationship with God, defined according to what Jesus says – different from the false righteousness of the religious establishment which is based on outward appearance rather than inner attitudes. We need to know how to relate to our God, instead of simply conforming to an outward form of Christianity that everybody is doing.

Our entire selves are blessed when we engage in consistent rhythms of practicing humility before the Lord; sitting with grief; putting ourselves in another’s shoes; seeking right relationships with both God and others; pursuing mercy, purity, and peace-making in all our affairs; and allowing persecution to form us in ways the good times cannot.

Jesus preached the Beatitudes to clarify what it means to be approved by God. He wanted to gain true disciples who follow God for the right reasons. The crowd was following Jesus physically, but not necessarily spiritually. They all followed for different reasons: for healing, curiosity, or a genuine desire to be a disciple. So, Jesus sat them down to communicate what a true follower and disciple is.

Imagine we are part of the crowd originally hearing Christ’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).  The world in which the people lived, and the religious system which they took for granted, was highly restrictive. 

In order to approach God, enter the kingdom, and be a good citizen, one had to be Jewish, male, a faithful Law-keeper, physically whole, healthy, and able; and, if not wealthy, able to make a good living. 

Yes, this reality meant that Gentiles, women, those who struggled to keep the Law, the diseased and disabled, and the poor had no shot whatsoever in the kingdom of God. To be blessed and have God’s stamp of approval on your life meant you were a healthy and wealthy Jewish man who practiced a legalistic form of righteousness. 

Not a single one of us here would have any shot at the kingdom of God. Yet, we have heard something about this guy, Jesus. There seems to be something very compelling about him. We go seek him out, sit down on a mountainside and hear him say the most refreshing and scandalous words we have ever heard…

God approves of the spiritually bankrupt who realize they’ve got no leverage to make any deals. They shall be given the riches of God’s grace.

God approves of those who grieve over personal sin and lament the presence of sin in the world. They are the ones who will experience God’s forgiveness and comfort.

God approves of the powerless and those who use their authority to champion others. They will inherit God’s power and take up authority to command dark forces and put them in their place.

God approves of those who have a voracious appetite for right relationships and doing everything for the right reasons. Their growling spiritual stomachs will be stuffed with God’s righteousness.

God approves of those who liberally extend grace to others, being always considerate of everyone’s needs, showing neither prejudice nor favoritism. They shall receive God’s grace at the end of the age when Christ comes to judge the living and the dead.

God approves of the spiritually clean who have bathed in the waters of divine mercy. They will see Jesus face to face.

God approves of those who facilitate and negotiate peace. Because that is precisely what God’s children do.

God approves of those who are persecuted for living by these counter-cultural Beatitudes. They have an inheritance that will never perish, spoil, or fade.

Grant us, Lord God, a vision of our world as your love would make it: a world where the weak are protected, and none go hungry or poor; a world where the benefits of abundant life are shared, and everyone can enjoy them; a world where different races and cultures live in tolerance and mutual respect; a world where peace is built with justice, and justice is guided by love. And give us the inspiration and courage to build it, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Luke 11:14-28 – Replace the Bad with the Good

Jesus was driving out a demon that was mute. When the demon left, the man who had been mute spoke, and the crowd was amazed. But some of them said, “By Beelzebub, the prince of demons, he is driving out demons.” Others tested him by asking for a sign from heaven.

Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them: “Any kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and a house divided against itself will fall. If Satan is divided against himself, how can his kingdom stand? I say this because you claim that I drive out demons by Beelzebub. Now if I drive out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your followers drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. But if I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.

“When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own house, his possessions are safe. But when someone stronger attacks and overpowers him, he takes away the armor in which the man trusted and divides up his plunder.

“Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.

“When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first.”

As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.”

He replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.” (New International Version)

You have likely heard the old adage that nature abhors a vacuum. That is, when a loss or change leaves a hole in something, that hole will quickly get filled with something else.

To stop doing one thing is only half of a necessary process. To start doing another thing is crucial.

In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus tells a story about a demon-possessed man. He was delivered of his oppression. However, a problem arose because the man had no replacement for the demon. He simply did nothing after the demonic expulsion.

It didn’t take long for a group of demons, seemingly seeking such a situation as this man, and took full advantage of his vulnerability. In the end, the man was worse off than before – all because of the vacuum created without the hole being filled.

We are meant to hear God’s Word and obey. Both are necessary to the process of deliverance, growth, and spiritual development.

Whenever the process is only half-baked, we have double-minded people, divided in their loyalties between God and money/power or something else.

Getting rid of judgmental spirits is important but it’s only half the process. The other half is to intentionally make space for genuine inquiry, listening, and dialogue. Without the focus on helping one another through mutual discussion, a group of folks will inevitably degenerate into discouragement, even despair, as the demons of judgmentalism come back in full force.

Kicking hate to the curb only truly works if it is replaced with a spirit of love, concern, and compassion for one’s fellow human. An environment in which people feel free to share of themselves and their feelings is the result of deliberately seeking to do so. Simply policing hate in others eventually causes the demons of hate to establish themselves even deeper than before.

Attempting to eliminate a culture of secrecy and shame can only really come through courageous acts and words of creating a climate of openness which carefully and compassionately enables individuals to boldly name their shame and destroy the blood-sucking vampire feeding on them in the demonic shadows of night once-and-for-all.

A zombie apocalypse won’t happen, that is, unless the only thing we’re concerned about is getting rid of zombies. If our end game isn’t the thriving and flourishing of real live people, our planet will be overtaken with the living dead.

“We look forward to the time when the Power of Love will replace the Love of Power. Then will our world know the blessings of peace.”

William Gladstone

We live in a divided world, polarized chiefly around things we are against, rather than crafting a vision together of what we are for. It does little good to kick people out of power either through force or elections, only to have no collective and compelling cause to rally around and place our efforts.

I’m all in for the cause of living Christ’s Great Commission through making disciples, embodying the Great Commandment of loving God and neighbor, and taking up the Great Challenge to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly. It is these activities which motivate me to put away hate, hubris, and half-baked ideas so that a healthy process of spiritual formation can happen.

If our lives are already filled with a good spirit, there will be no room for any bad spirit to enter. And if we’ve picked up one, let’s make sure to not only expel it but occupy the space with the grace and goodness which comes from knowing a good and gracious God.

Be intentional about replacing the bad with the good. If a hole is created, fill it with mercy.

O God, the source of all health: Fill my heart with faith in your love, that with calm expectancy I may make room for your power to possess me, and gracefully accept your healing; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

**Above engraving of Jesus healing a demon possessed man, by an Italian artist, 1591.