The Beatitudes, part 10: Rejoice

Read Matthew 5:11-12

“What blessings await you when people hate you and exclude you and mock you and curse you as evil because you follow the Son of Man. When that happens, be happy! Yes, leap for joy! For a great reward awaits you in heaven. And remember, their ancestors treated the ancient prophets that same way.” (Luke 6:22-23 NLT)

Praise-Wheat-Field (1)Growing up, I was certainly no stranger to being picked on and/or made fun of. As a kid, particularly in elementary school, I always tried to make friends with everyone. I always tried to fit in, somewhere, anywhere I could fit in. Time and time again, I found myself failing in that endeavor. I found myself being bullied by some, ignored by others, and I couldn’t quite fit in any group I tried to belong to.

Some of that, of course, was also my perception as it developed over time. There were some, no doubt, who liked me and had nothing against me, but because of who they were friends with I perceived myself as not fitting in with them as well. My experience, no doubt, was not a isolated one. I am sure others in my grade, in my school and in other schools around the world, were feeling the same as me.

Growing up, I was also raised in the church. Though I was baptized in the Methodist church, I was raised and confirmed in the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA). I loved God, loved learning, and loved reading my Bible! I know, it’s hard to believe, right? One of the texts I read a lot, and I mean A LOT, was Matthew 5:1-12, also known as “The Beatitudes.” I was puzzled by Jesus’ teachings.

On the one hand, I clinged to them in faith, trusting that what Jesus taught was true. On the other hand, what could Jesus mean? Having been rejected so many times I certainly felt persecuted, and often times because while I wanted friends, I was not willing to cross moral boundaries to have them. I remember in 1st or 2nd grade, one kid I was friends with was bullying another kid on the playground and wanted me to join in. I refused because “Jesus wouldn’t want us to do that. We should treat others as we would like to be treated.” That was the reason I gave, and I stuck to it. As a result, my “friend” quickly became an enemy and started making fun of me. That particular person continued to make fun of me throughout elementary school and even in high school.

I tell this story not to evoke pity or anything like that, but to raise the question that I had as a child. How can the persecuted be blessed? How can Jesus expect us to rejoice over people hurting us and persecuting us for following him and for doing what’s right? On the one end, I hoped that Jesus was right in his beatitudes; however, that hope did not take away the pain of being hurt, mocked and made fun of. Eventually, I grew hardened toward myself and others as a result.

Yet, Jesus is telling people who are persecuted because they do what is right and/or follow him, to rejoice. This isn’t, by the way, a suggestion from Jesus. It is a command. To conlcude his beatitudes, Jesus transitions from “blessings” to an instructional command to his followers. For those who are persecuted over doing what is right, for standing up for justice, for following Jesus (who embodies all of those things), Jesus is commanding them to rejoice.

Jesus is not commanding them to be happy about being persecuted, nor is Jesus calling us to be happy “in spite” of being persecuted; rather, Jesus is calling the persecuted to rejoice (or find joy) because of the persecution itself. Jesus is not calling his followers to have some sort of masochistic “martyr complex” where they see themsleves as perpetual martyrs and get joyful pleasure from that. Instead, Jesus is calling them to recognize that persecution is a sort of badge that all “righteous” people have worn, and will continue to wear, for doing what’s right and following God.

Jesus is calling us to see it as an honor, rather than seeing it as a curse. While no one, not even Jesus, likes being persecuted, Jesus is calling us to not let persecution (or the fear of persecution) stop us from following him and doing what is right and just. Instead, like the prophets before us, we should endure to the end and continue doing what is right. Instead of letting the persecution harden us and make us spiteful (as I did as a child), we should continue on the straight and narrow pathway that leads to life, not just for us, but for all people everywhere. This is what it means to be blessed in the Kingdom of Heaven and what it means to be a true follower of Christ.

“Knowledge of God’s Word is a bulwark against deception, temptation, accusation, even persecution.” – Edwin Louis Cole

Lord, remove spite from life and give me joy in serving you, especially in the face of persecution. Amen.

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