By CACKIE UPCHURCH, Director, Little Rock Scripture Study | Published December 7, 2017 | En Español
This is the tenth column in a 10-part series.
“Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you (falsely) because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
It has become quite common in our time to toss around the word “blessed” or “blessing.” Facebook and Twitter posts often end with “#blessed” and just as often as not these postings recount a story with a fairy tale ending.
If we don’t experience that desired healing or the financial reparation we need or the restoration of a treasured relationship, do we still feel blessed? Are we in fact blessed when things turn out poorly or have we somehow gotten it wrong?
Some preachers have built empires on preaching a “gospel” of prosperity, claiming that if we only believe, if we are generous, then God will reward us by being generous to us. But where is the message of the cross in that? Where is the blessing associated with the beatitudes?
As countercultural as it is, the Gospel does not promise success or prosperity or life without pain. In fact, the beatitudes stand as a witness that God’s richest blessings go to those who are in touch with suffering, poverty, humility, peacemaking and working toward righteousness. Our final beatitude speaks directly to the upside-down nature of God’s kingdom: “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you (falsely) because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
This beatitude is often combined with the previous one in verse 10 since they both speak of persecution. But there are some differences. First of all, we find a shift from third person (speaking about others, “they”) to second person (speaking directly to the audience, “you”). If the previous verses could be held somewhat at arm’s length, now it’s gotten personal.
Perhaps the original audience that Jesus was addressing, or that Matthew was writing for some decades later, knew what it was like to suffer specifically because of their love for Jesus. Perhaps they were mistreated and maligned much as the ancient prophets were, and much as Jesus was when he spoke God’s truth. Perhaps, at this point in his preaching, Jesus wanted to make sure his audience knew that the message of the beatitudes applied to them. It applies to us.
There is no need to seek out suffering or persecution. Regular familiarity with the news from around the world reminds us that there are still plenty of people whose lives are in danger because of their professed faith in Jesus. They sometimes have to flee their homes and migrate to other lands, or they decide to courageously stay and demonstrate faithful obedience to the Good News, or they simply have no choice but to stay.
We know of individuals who have given their lives because they lived the Gospel message, often among the poor whose dignity was denied. Blessed Stanley Rother is one such American whose death was determined to be martyrdom. He was killed specifically because of his faith in Christ and the consequences of living that commitment in Guatemala.
But what about us? Will we face martyrdom, give our lives because of our love for Jesus? Probably not. However, when we find our voice to speak up for justice for the poor and forgotten, to speak up for mercy for those who have need of forgiveness, to speak up for faithfulness and true worship, then we begin to know the blessing that joins us more completely to Christ.
At the end of the beatitudes, we find these words: “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven.” From the books of the Torah where the cause for rejoicing is God’s deliverance from Egyptian slavery, to the Psalms where prayers of rejoicing are offered in thanksgiving for health and victory and temple worship, to the letters of Paul who managed to rejoice even while imprisoned, we are told that joy and gladness are a hallmark of God’s people.
When we begin to realize that God’s kingdom has already taken root in our midst because God is in our world (Mt 4:17; Mk 1:15; Lk 17:20-21), why would we not rejoice? Our gladness comes not from being rewarded with the trappings of success but with embracing the cross, knowing it will lead to a kingdom that is not at all like the kingdoms of this world.
One aspect of our baptismal rite is the call to prophetic ministry. Rather than predicting some far off future, God’s prophets spoke God’s truth to those in power. When have the words of the prophets and the words of Jesus reminded you of your mission to speak truth and to live faithfully?
While God’s call in our lives is freely given, it often does come at a cost. And in a world that often associates prosperity with being blessed, this is quite countercultural. When have you experienced some cost or suffering associated with following Christ?
The gladness spoken of in Scripture goes beyond simply being happy on the surface of life. How have you experienced the grace of a deep gladness even in the midst of trials?
In what ways do our parishes and small faith communities attempt to live the beatitudes? How is priority given to the poor, the meek, the mourning, the humble, the peacemakers and those thirsting for righteousness or suffering in some way for Christ?
This article was originally published in Arkansas Catholic Nov. 11, 2017. Copyright Diocese of Little Rock. All rights reserved.