Blessed are those persecuted for the sake of righteousness

Published: October 13, 2017

This is the ninth column in a 10-part series.

By Clifford Yeary
Associate Director, Little Rock Scripture Study

En Español

"Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." — Matthew 5:10

Persecution is rampant in our world today. To limit our concern for the persecuted only to those who share our baptismal identity, or some cultural similarity to ourselves, would be to ignore our responsibility toward the persecuted that is actually imbedded in the Eighth Beatitude.

When the persecuted are called blessed by Jesus, we have an obligation to help bring about the blessing, for following Jesus makes us agents of the kingdom of heaven.

Our responsibility to be part of the blessing of the persecuted begins with consciously acknowledging their plight. There are many forms of persecution, ranging from violence to verbal abuse or simply silent contempt. Violence includes murder and torture.

Verbal abuse and contempt often include the various ways one’s identity vis-à-vis the rest of society can result in exclusion from any of its benefits.

The Eighth and Ninth Beatitudes both bless the persecuted and they are similar enough that some only identify Eight Beatitudes. Those who see a difference between the last two beatitudes stress the subtle difference between being persecuted “for the sake of righteousness” (the Eighth Beatitude), and being persecuted “because of me” (because of Jesus — the Ninth Beatitude).

Certainly, those who are persecuted because of their association with Jesus are being persecuted “for the sake of righteousness,” but in pronouncing two different blessings, Jesus seems to have proclaimed a distinct blessing on all who suffer for righteousness, whether or not their persecutors identified them with Jesus.

In persecuting those who act righteously, the persecutors may not see Jesus at all, and yet Jesus aligns himself and the kingdom of heaven with those who are persecuted because of their pursuit of justice.

In Jesus’ own language (Aramaic), and in the New Testament Greek, the word translated as “righteousness” in Matthew 5:10 is the same word that is often translated as “justice.” Jesus’ blessing of the persecuted in the Eighth Beatitude is a pronouncement of the blessedness of those who suffer because they promote the work of justice in the world.

And so Christians must extend their concern for all who are persecuted in any fashion. When faithful adherents of any religion or ethic are persecuted for attempting to live out their responsibility to their conscience, it is for righteousness sake.

Jesus assures us that the kingdom of heaven belongs to those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness. And we are not to think that those suffering persecution will only realize their blessed status when they go to heaven.

The kingdom of heaven is the realm of God’s greatest influence. In Jesus’ day and in his preaching that kingdom was rarely thought of as a transcendent realm distinct and separate from the world in which we live. Instead, it was the highly anticipated realm of God’s authority waiting to be established on earth.

At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, when he announced, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17), he was proclaiming the “Good News” that God was, in and through Jesus, making present on earth a foretaste of the kingdom of heaven.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah to his home town synagogue a similar announcement: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.”

“Today,” he told them, “this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing” (4:18-19, 21). Jesus charged his disciples to preach the same good news: “As you go, make this proclamation: ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matthew 10:7).

Who can learn of the plight of countless refugees throughout the world and refuse to see them as the oppressed that Jesus came to set free? As followers of Jesus, it is our responsibility to identify the persecuted and to seek the blessing of justice for them.

Ironically, that will often mean that those faithful followers who attempt “to let the oppressed go free” may themselves be persecuted for righteousness’ sake. To shirk our responsibilities toward the oppressed (the persecuted) would be to refuse the blessing of the beatitude.

Study Questions

  • Who are those persecuted for righteousness’ sake in our world? In our nation?
  • In what ways can Christians help the oppressed receive the blessings of the kingdom of heaven?
  • How can silence make one an accomplice to persecution?
  • Where or when have you witnessed the blessing of the kingdom of heaven for those who have been persecuted?

This article was originally published in Arkansas Catholic Oct. 14, 2017. Copyright Diocese of Little Rock. All rights reserved. This article may be copied or redistributed with acknowledgement and permission of the publisher.