The juxtaposition of these last two Beatitudes is interesting. In the first, Jesus blesses those who are persecuted “for righteousness sake.” In the second, he blesses those who are persecuted for his sake, “on my account.” Are we to assume that these are the same thing? That is, is being for Jesus the same as being for righteousness? And if he is saying that, why repeat the idea twice in succession?
I suggest that Jesus does not mean to associate himself with righteousness, and that he is talking about two different things in these two Beatitudes. And I think we can see that in the wording of the text.
Jesus says, blessed are those who are persecuted “on my account” rather than “on account of my torah or teaching.” This suggests that Jesus is not equating himself with righteousness, but with something separate from, though not necessarily opposed to righteousness. What that something is, I will take up a bit latter. Right now let’s focus on the issue of righteousness.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
The idea here is that you can tell a lot about people by the enemies they make. Do people hate you because you are wicked or because you are righteous? Do they despise you because you stand up for the weak and powerless, or because you oppress the weak and powerless? Jesus is saying, as you yourself seem to be saying Mike, that if we live the Beatitudes we will live righteously and in opposition to the much of the general society and its unrighteousness. And, again as you just said, this was certainly so in 1st century Rome, and no less so in 21st century America.
There is in our time and our culture, and in so many other cultures, plenty of injustice and evil to go around. The question Jesus is posing is this: Whose side are you on?
Some people, I know, would rather than take sides, and find talk of sides to be part of the problem. But I see such talk as unavoidable. We have to take sides. We are either on the side of justice or injustice, the side of righteousness or unrighteousness, the side of love or the side of hate.
What becomes challenging is that when you go to choose sides you find that the lines are not so clearly drawn as my rhetoric would suggest. People on both sides claim to be on the side of justice, righteousness, and love. But how can this be?
The problem with this kind of thinking is that fine words can be manipulated to justify any evil we wish. Once we are convinced that we are on the side of righteousness we can excuse all kinds of evil in the name of Jesus. This is painfully evident in the preaching and pronouncements of so many who claim, I would say falsely, to be righteous followers of Jesus. The vitriol that pours forth from so many pulpits (of many faiths) regarding “the other,” whether that other be liberals, conservatives, lesbians, gays, bi-sexual, and transgendered people, women, Hispanics, blacks, Jews, Arabs, Muslims, Catholics, and Protestants-not-of-our-denomination is frightening. And it is all done, again falsely, in the name of righteousness.
So what worries about this Beatitude and many who claim to uphold it is something that did not come up earlier: the way the idea of righteousness can be used to create, fuel, and grow a vicious “us versus them” culture war that, in the name of Christ, perverts the very nature of Jesus’ teaching.
What we need is a clear and behaviorally measurable definition of righteousness, and I think we can easily find it in the texts we have been discussing, as well as others from the Prophets of the Bible to the Qur’an. To be considered righteous one must be living a life that is defined by compassion, justice, humility, peace, patience, love, etc. And these can be further defined by specific behaviors also lauded in many religions.
Without a behavior definition as a safeguard, righteousness simply gets confused with self-righteousness, and Jesus is forced to bless and offer the Kingdom of Heaven to those who are so filled with anger and fear as to be poster children for the Kingdom of Hate.
I feel this happening all around the United States today. Humility and doubt are banished, and people are taking up extremist positions in the name of righteousness that cannot help but lead to the desecration and destruction of the 18th century enlightenment values upon which this country was founded and which are its very raison d’etre.
I feel that I am on a rant. Obviously, this Beatitude struck a cord with me. I want to comment and the last text, but I’ll stop here for a moment and invinte you to jump back into the conversation.