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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.

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