Persecuted for Righteousness        

Matthew 5:10-12

Dr. Chris White  March 2nd,  2014

     This is the last of the promises of happiness from Jesus. As commentators have made note, to follow the first seven roads to happiness is to insure your experience with the eighth. That is, the first seven call for following God through poverty of spirit, mourning, meekness, hunger and thirst for righteousness, mercy, purity, and peacemaking. If you accept these countercultural habits as the grounds for happiness, you may indeed also inherit what follows: 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.

     For the earliest followers of Jesus, the price of faith was obvious. As 1 Peter 4:12 notes, Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that 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.  From the earliest days after Christ’s resurrection and stretching through the fourth century’s persecution by Rome, no one entered the church without an awareness of the risk. The church not only ministered to widows and the fatherless, it made widows and fatherless; this was the price of allegiance to Jesus. It is still part of the territory for many in this world. Persecuted Christians are gaining attention and sympathy in Egypt, North Korea, Indonesia, and China. Because Christian faith is by nature a faith of confession and sharing, Christians run afoul of blasphemy laws in stricter Muslim nations and face difficult scenarios. This has always been the sharper edge of Christian faith.

     But it’s not a fear we know much about. I had a friend in college who was certain that he was regularly being persecuted for his faith. Anytime he found any resistance to his person, he would tell me that it was because he was a Christian. This friend had slight developmental disabilities, however, so he didn’t understand that some pulled away because he was a bit awkward socially. You couldn’t convince him otherwise. We should note the same of ourselves: not all opposition is persecution. I have had my share of opposition, but it was mostly deserved. It was not persecution.

     But Jesus warns about a persecution that awaits. And it finds us when we practice righteousness.  There is a measure of righteousness, or true faithfulness to God, that is an affront to the world, to our community, to our church, and even to our families. There is a manner of love, of faith, of kindness, of forgiveness, and of truth-telling that does not sit well with the world or even your children. It is being true to God.

     Jesus knows something of which he speaks, of course. He was persecuted for righteousness, whether he was calling out Pharisees for their hypocrisy (Matt. 23) or expanding the picture of grace by sitting with Levi and “sinners” for dinner (Mark 2:13-17). Critics spoke of him as a drunkard, a glutton, and a friend of sinners—all of this aimed at undermining his authority as a rabbi. His common exchanges with the people of his time brought him problems.

     No righteous act, however, invited persecution like the clearing of the temple. The temple was not only big, it was big business for the moneychangers translating foreign currency and selling livestock for offerings. The defenders might have said that what was lucrative for the temple was lucrative for all Jews. But Jesus had other ideas. Common people were cornered into pricey transactions for animal offerings for God. The court of the Gentiles was closed for prayer because of the “business” of the temple. So Jesus drives people away, overturns tables, and does not allow people to enter. Jesus’ words as he clears the temple: Is it not written: My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations? But you have made it a den of robbers. (Mark 11:17) It’s been suggested that this act of all acts was the one that cost Jesus his life. Righteousness was a matter of telling the truth about the temple, and righteousness brought on persecution.

     That is the way of righteousness. It interrupts sinners. It interrupts sinners in their sinning. But it also interrupts religious people. It interrupts religious people carrying on their religion. And most of us are not interested in interruptions, whether we’re giving them or receiving them. But righteousness is the best we offer of God through ourselves to the world.    

     Maybe you’ve heard of the conflict between militant Christians and Muslims in Central African Republic. In the city of Berberati they have had to absorb both militias passing through as the war unfolds. They were grateful that the Muslim militias rested quietly while with them, but now they have fled since the Christian militias arrived. The ironic piece of the story is how both these religious militias are responsible for murders, mutilations, rapes, and destruction of cities. It got so bad under the Christian militias in Beberati that Father Thomas Isaie, a Catholic bishop, is now harboring 500 Muslims in his church and home to protect them from the Christian militias. He said that Muslims come to his church every day seeking protection. He said in the article that many other Christians are protecting Muslims from the Christian militias as well. Understandably, parishioners are asking him for baptismal cards to prove they are Christians and gain protection from the Christian militias. That is one proof of being Christian. But then there is this other proof of being a Christian: the work of loving their enemies. Sometimes you cannot have it both ways. Righteousness leads Christians to hide Muslims in Central Africa. Righteousness leads Christians to hide Jews from Nazis. Righteousness leads Jesus to clear a temple.

     Is this your version of Christian faith? 

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