While I am out volunteering in community this week, I figured it would be a great time for us to LOOK BACK to a previous devotion. I trust you will find this devotion to be as relevant today as it was when I first wrote it. Click here to time jump back to that devotion.
I would also challenge you to find time to volunteer and serve others in your community. Whether that be in a soup kitchen, a food pantry, at your local library, at a church, or any such place where people can be served through volunteerism, it is good to be a part of something larger than yourself. After all, Christ taught:
“You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28, NLT).
Writing the Life-Giving Water devotionals is not only an important ministry, but is a deeply rewarding spiritual discipline for me as well. With that said, observing Sabbath (aka rest) is an important spiritual discipline as well. So here is a LOOK BACK to a devotion I wrote in the past. Read it, reflect on it, be challenged by it. Who knows how God will speak to you through it and how it will bear relevance in your life today? May the Holy Spirit guide you as you read the suggested Scripture and subsequent devotion.
ALSO IN SCRIPTURE “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)
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.
THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“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.
ALSO IN SCRIPTURE “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3 NRSV)
Jesus, having given a series of blessings to people who were normally not considered by society to be blessed, bookends his series of beatitudes with, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 5:10 NRSV). The New Living Translation puts it in what I think captures the heart of what Jesus is saying, “God blesses those who are persecuted for doing what is right.” In other words, in the eschatological plan of God, in God’s end times plan, those who stand up for what is right and who do the right thing at great cost to themselves, will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.
It is important to note that this particular beatitude seems to have been written by Matthew himself as away of coming full circle in Jesus beatitudes. I am not suggesting that Matthew fabricated it, or that it doesn’t represent what Matthew believes Jesus was saying. Quite the contrary. Matthew uses this particular Beatitude as a literary device to bring Jesus’ beatitudes right back to where they started. This particular “beatitude” is not found anywhere else in the Gospels, and it is not to be confused on what Jesus says regarding persecution as a whole in the following two verses as well as in Luke 6:22
What’s more not only does it nicely bookend the beatitudes in between it and verse 3; however, it also ties directly into what is to follow about persecution itself, and how Christ’s followers should react to persecution. Christ’s teaching on persecution as a whole, and what his followers’ repsonse should be to it can be found in both Matthew and Luke.
So often, when we read this blessing we tend to read it in one of two ways. We will either read Jesus as saying, “Blessed are those who are oppressed and persectued, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Or, if we don’t read it that way, we read it in the following way, “Blessed are those who are oppressed and persecuted because they are Christians, for theirs is Kingdom of Heaven.” Both ways of reading it are not entirely wrong as it is true that Jesus teaches that in the Kingdom of Heaven puts a special emphasis on those who are “the least of these” by society in this current age. It is also true that Jesus does say that those who are persecuted for following him are blessed as well; however, Matthew 5:10, though certainly related, does not explicitly say those things at all.
What it does say explicitly is the following: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for doing what is right, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Notice, Jesus doesn’t put any stipulations on that. He doesn’t define who, where, what, when or how that comes about. Does Jesus mean that anyone who stands up for what’s right possesses the Kingdom of Heaven? What if they are not Jewish (in Jesus’ context), or what if they are not Christian (in our context)? What if they are not one of us, what if they are from Samaria (in Jesus’ context), or what if they are from Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Russia, etc. (in our context)? Also, what if their “right” is in opposition to our own thoughts, beliefs, actions, etc.?
Jesus does not specify any of that. He does not put restrictions of that statement whatsoever; rather, he simply states, “God blesses those who do what is right, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Of course, as we discussed earlier on in this series, “righteousness” or “doing what is right”, really amounts to doing justice, living justly, and standing up for justice. Those who do so will certainly be attacked by those who are in support of injustice (whether they realize it is injust or not).
And to tie it back to Jesus first blessing of the “poor in spirit”, they are not defined by religion, race, geographical location, or any other thing that we divide ourselves with; rather, they are defined by three things: living justly/seeking justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God. Anyone, regardless of who they are or where they come from, who seeks and strives to live that out in their lives possess the Kingdom of Heaven, both now within them as well as when that Kingdom is fully realized here on Earth. This is what Jesus is telling us. Even if you are persecuted now for doing what is right, the reward that follows will certainly be well worth the persecution. I pray we all open our hearts to, and define our lives, by that very truth.
THOUGHT OF THE DAY “If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval.” (1 Peter 2:20 NRSV)
PRAYER Lord, strengthen me to do what is right, even in the face of persecution. Amen.