Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

Saturday, August 8, 2020

The Persecuted

~Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account… for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you~

The final two beatitudes roll together and are usually treated together. In general, talk of “the persecuted,” would have reminded Jesus’ Jewish listeners not just of “the prophets who were before you,” but also of the period of intense persecution the Jewish people had not long ago undergone. Only a few generations before Jesus arrived on the scene, the Israelites were ruled by the Seleucid Empire, who had initiated a gruesome policy of anti-Jewish persecution. Antiochus IV, the Seleucid king, insisted the Israelites worship his Hellenistic pagan religion. He wanted them to worship the Greek pantheon. The Temple was ransacked and an altar to Zeus was set up. Observation of the Sabbath was no longer permitted. Possessing a copy of the Hebrew scriptures or having one’s child circumcised made one a criminal. In the worst cases, failure to adhere to Antiochus’ paganism could make one liable to death. None of this was ancient history for Jesus’ listeners. This would have been their grandparents’ generation. The memory was fresh. And it was a memory, we’re told, of when “the land shook for its inhabitants” (1 Macc 1:28).

Above all, though, when Jesus spoke of those who “revile you and persecute you,” their memory would have been drawn to the martyrs of this period. Most famous was the account of seven brothers and their mother who were tortured and killed for refusing to eat pork (2 Macc 7). Each was slowly cut limb from limb and placed into a frying pan while their remaining family looked on. “The smoke from the pan spread widely” (2 Macc 7:5). 

This all took on a renewed meaning for the first Christians, those standing by as Jesus preached the beatitudes. Jesus later told those disciples that, just like the seven brothers and their mother, they too will be “sent like sheep in the midst of wolves.” Indeed, he insisted that they “will be hated because of [his] name,” (Mt 10:16, 22). Certainly this came to pass. 11 of the 12 apostles were martyred somewhere or another across the ancient world. Mark had a rope thrown around his neck and was dragged through the streets of Alexandria. Peter was crucified upside down in Rome. In total, across the next 200 or so years, some 60,000 Christians were killed by the Roman empire, often in stadiums for entertainment.

These wounds cut deep into Jewish and Christian history. The harsh experience of persecution marks their imagination. But there is something very strange about the Jewish-Christian understanding of all this. Jesus puts his finger directly on it: “Blessed are those who are persecuted.” Blessed. It is the same strange paradox that marks all of the beatitudes. How can we call these tortured and murdered people blessed? How is it that, on his way to be martyred in Rome’s Circus Maximus, Saint Ignatius of Antioch wrote a letter insisting that the Christians there avoid intervening to save his life: “The only thing I ask of you is to allow me to offer the libation of my blood to God. I am the wheat of the Lord; may I be ground by the teeth of the beasts to become the immaculate bread of Christ.” How does suffering persecution ― even death ― constitute blessing, something, as Ignatius frames it, to be desired?

Let’s think about it this way: In his first beatitude, Jesus calls the “poor in spirit” blessed. If you think about it, when we possess none of this world’s joys, we must turn to the next world. We must turn to God. In a paradoxical way, it is then ― completely void of this world’s goods ― that we are most blessed. We are now open to receiving the blessings of God. We can finally hear God’s voice which, more often than not, is muted in our lives by our attachment to this world’s goods. Jesus says it is then that we inherit “the kingdom of heaven.” The interesting thing is that Jesus says the exact same thing in this beatitude ― the final beatitude. He similarly insists of the persecuted that “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” 

It is the exact same principle. Jesus is insisting upon the exact same idea, but in a more final way. When the Christian and Jewish martyrs were faced with a decision between death but faithfulness to God or a return to life and the goods of this world, they chose “the kingdom of heaven.” Martyrdom is the final, grand witness to the fact that it is better to have literally nothing, not even life, than it is to betray God.  

One of those seven Jewish brothers was offered riches and a position of envy in the kingdom. He was offered every earthly blessing. He just needed to give up his Jewishness. His mother’s response is interesting. It’s not what you might expect. She leans over and whispers in her son’s ear: “I have reared you, brought you up, and taken care of you.” And then she says this: “Look at the heavens and the earth. See everything. Recognize that God did not make them out of things that already existed. So too you came into being” (2 Macc 7:27-28). Here’s what we must see: she reminds him in this moment of who God is. She reminds him that, as much as she is his earthly, biological mother ― the one who has helped to provide for his earthly goods ― God is the one who made him out of nothing. God is the one to whom he owes everything. “Do not fear this butcher,” she concludes. “Accept death” (2 Macc 7:29). Accept that the God who made you is worth giving everything up for, even your earthly life.

It is a remarkable, gritty, even gruesome level of faith. There is a reason the Church honors the martyrs with a special reverence. It is the same reason Jesus insists that those with this kind of faith, along with the “poor in spirit,” are already inheritors of the kingdom of heaven.


~Anthony Rosselli (PhD cand., theology, University of Dayton) writes out of St. Luke and Ascension Parishes in Franklin County, Vermont. These columns are archived here.

Click here to subscribe to these reflections by email (Note: you must verify the confirmation email!)

Saturday, August 1, 2020


*We continue our reflections on the beatitudes of Jesus

~Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God~

The peacemakers constitute the seventh beatitude. The number seven is not insignificant. The Jewish tradition is enormously preoccupied with numbers. No number is without consequence, especially the number seven. God himself seemed to really like it. He ordered Noah to bring seven pairs of every clean animal onto the ark (Gen 7:2). The priests were to sprinkle blood seven times before him for the sacrifices (Lev 4:6). That one kid sneezed seven times before rising from the dead (2 Kings 4:35 ― this is really in the text!). The list goes on. Most important for our purposes, though, is that there were seven days of creation in the book of Genesis. Believe it or not, there is a way of interpreting Jesus’s seventh beatitude as a subtle reference to the creation of the world. It turns around the idea of “peace” ― “blessed are the ‘peacemakers.’”

The Hebrew word for “peace” is shalom. What the Jewish people have in mind when they talk about peace or shalom is much more than the absence of war. Neither is shalom the achievement of some undisturbed repose or finding isolation from the restlessness of the world. In fact, to discover what shalom means, one must look at the story of creation. In Genesis, God creates the world across six days, steadily crafting and populating the cosmos. There is Day and there is Night. There is sky, and water, and land. Trees and fruits. “Swarms of living creatures.” And so on and so forth all the way up to human beings. But we should notice that, in the text, after each day of God’s creative acts, God looked out at what he’d made and “saw that it was good” (Gen 1:4, etc.). In the beginning, a cosmic unity flowed through and marked the creation. All was in balance. All was rightly ordered. All was good. 

This is shalom. This is what the Jewish-Christian tradition means by “peace” ― that original harmony in the Garden of Eden. Shalom means humanity at peace with the earth and its creatures, with God, and even with itself. It means, again, not just a lack of tension or war ― this is not just a time, for instance, when the animals didn’t attack each other ― but also a real positive communion and unity between God, humanity, and creation. It is, as the prophet Isaiah put it, a peace where “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the goat … and a little child shall lead them…. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain” (Is 11:6, 9).

Most beautiful of all, I think, is what happens on the seventh day: “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished. And on the seventh day God finished his work which he had done, and he rested” (Gen 2:1-2). In the Jewish mind, it’s not that, on the seventh day, worn out from his efforts, God did nothing. On the contrary, God participated in the shalom by simply being with us in it. On the seventh day, God enjoyed the harmony of shalom. This is why “God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested” (Gen 2:3).

This is, of course, where we get the tradition of the Sabbath ― the day of rest, the day of shalom. Indeed, the great hope of Judaism and Christianity is that all days could someday be the Sabbath, could be shalom. To this day, upon seeing each other, the Jewish greeting is “shalom aleichem” ― “peace be with you.” The peace and shalom of the Garden be with you.

This is precisely the reason Jesus makes the peacemakers his seventh beatitude. This was, again, no coincidence for a Jewish rabbi. But what about the second half of this beatitude? Why does Jesus say the peacemakers will be called “sons of God”? Well this, too, has something to do with Genesis and the creation story.

In that same narrative we read about how Adam and Eve ― how all human beings ― are created “in God’s own image and likeness” (Gen 1:26). It’s an odd phrase ― “image and likeness” ― but what it means becomes clear a few chapters later. In chapter 5, Adam and Eve have their third son. The text says that, “Adam became the father of a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth” (Gen 5:3). What it means, then, to be made “in the image and likeness” of something is to be a son or to be a daughter. You and I ― made in God’s image and likeness ― are sons and daughters of God, in the same way Seth is a son of Adam and a son of Eve. 

Let’s put it all together, then. “Blessed are the peacemakers, they shall be called sons of God.” This is the seventh beatitude ― the one that points us back to creation, to the Garden. For Jesus, the ones who most embody their calling as sons and daughters of God ― the calling instilled in us in our creation ― are those who seek peace. For Jesus, the ones who most embody what it means to be a son or a daughter of God ― the ones who live according to the beatitudes ― are those who seek to spread the shalom of the Garden, those who seek that mountain where “none shall hurt or destroy,” even if they’ll only finally arrive in the world to come. This is the heart of Christian peace and Christian peacemaking. 


~Anthony Rosselli (PhD cand., theology, University of Dayton) writes out of St. Luke and Ascension Parishes in Franklin County, Vermont. These columns are archived here.

Click here to subscribe to these reflections by email (Note: you must verify the confirmation email!)