Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Righteousness is one of those words that appears often in scripture, but the meaning seems nebulous to us. I think in our culture it sometimes freighted by our individualistic sense of needing to be right—we have a clearer picture of what it means to be self-righteous, than we do what it means to be righteous before God and our neighbor. Righteousness in the final Beatitude means justice or creating right relationship with God and neighbor. Each Beatitude before this one describes a step in rectifying broken social relationships and systems. Those who have been oppressed are called to claim their dignity and inheritance. Oppressors are called to repentance and acts of mercy. The restoration of justice must be more strongly desired than the safety of submission and compliance or the fruits of power. Above all, those who would co-create a just world with God, must be pure in their motives and peaceful in word and action.
The Beatitudes are a pattern for creating social change. We can see the pattern in the peaceful resistance that was the hallmark of the civil rights movement in America, and in the truth and reconciliation movement in South Africa. We also know that even the most peaceful resistance can elicit a violent response which lays bare the brutality behind oppressive systems. The culminating Beatitude warns Kingdom workers that they will in all likelihood face persecution and perhaps even death. It was true for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. It was true for a young man facing down tanks in Tiananmen Square and for Rachel Corey, a young woman from our state who tried to block Israeli bulldozers from demolishing Palestinian homes and paid with her life. It was true for Archbishop Oscar Romero and four American churchwomen, two of them Maryknoll nuns, martyred in El Salvador. It has been true for whistle blowers throughout history who have revealed corruption and the abuse of power. And it was true for Jesus. As we prepare to enter Holy Week next Sunday, I want to be very clear that I do not believe that the God of peace sent Jesus to die for my sins or your sins. I believe he was killed for speaking truth to power and for his commitment to co-creating the Kingdom of God. Jesus was killed by human beings for very human motives. Jesus warned his disciples that following his teachings may cost them their lives.
The good news is that love wins in the end. That’s the God part. God’s love wins. It is more powerful that greed, or power, or evil, or death. Anyone can believe statements about Jesus. It’s another thing to believe what Jesus said and to live it. Following Jesus can be dangerous, but it’s the best way I know to create lasting justice and peace.
Let me read the final Beatitude from Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase in The Message. Peterson leaves out the connection to neighbor in his paraphrase—I’m going to add it:
“You’re blessed when your commitment to God [and your neighbor] 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.”
Those prophets and witnesses claimed that God’s love is for everyone; God’s provision is for everyone; the goodness of Creation is for everyone—it is the inheritance of every human being. And some of those prophets and witnesses paid with their lives—and some changed the hearts of rulers and systems like segregation and apartheid. I keep the season of Lent and Holy Week as an invitation to consider seriously the cost of discipleship. I am so often aware of my own lack of commitment and courage as well as my complicity and comfort in the status quo. I’ll tell you that I believe with all my heart that love wins. But it’s like the old story of the tight rope walker who dazzled crowds by walking a wire stretched high above the churning waters of Niagara Falls. After performing several spectacular stunts, he asked the amazed crowd below if they believed that he could push a wheelbarrow across the Falls. The crowd cheered its affirmation. Then the tight rope walker extended his invitation, “If you believe I can do, who will get in the wheelbarrow?” That’s my challenge during Lent and Holy Week—to put my belief that love wins into action; to risk following Jesus and getting into trouble. God, grant us courage!