11“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
The switch from the third person to the second person is one of those moments when any prophetic word pounces. Before this, the beatitudes have been general statements that intrigue us, touch us, draw us closer – then they attack. Suddenly we ourselves are in the crosshairs. God is not talking about somebody; God is talking to me.
Few of us in the United States are truly persecuted because of our loyalty to Jesus. Our neighborhoods don’t erupt into communal violence over interpretations of the scriptures that depart from the social norm – though they have in the past. The bomb tossed into the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, was one such occasion. The riot that led to the murder of Joseph Smith in the Carthage, Illinois, jail was another.
Matthew’s community understood such potential for violence. They understood the hostility of family, friends and neighbors to their belief that Jesus was God’s anointed, God’s messiah/christ, the bringer of God’s redemption to all the earth. The book of Acts bears witness to such violence erupting against Paul and other believers – just as the story of the apostle Paul begins with the mob violence against Stephen who claimed he had a vision of Jesus standing at the right hand of God.
Of course, the members of Matthew’s community are not persecuted for an idea; they are persecuted for the lives they lived on the basis of that idea. They are persecuted for living the kingdom. They are persecuted for welcoming to their table Jew and Gentile, clean and unclean, male and female together. They are persecuted for daring to enact the feast portrayed in Isaiah when all nations are gathered on God’s holy mountain. They are persecuted for acts of healing in the name of a condemned criminal, for welcoming the outcast, for loving the enemy, for the betrayal of communal values.
The beatitudes are not a gentle promise of God’s mercy and comfort. They are not a “pie in the sky” promise of reward in heaven. They are a word about us, now, living members of the body of Christ through whom God’s new creation is beginning, God’s justice and mercy dawning, God’s Spirit poured out, God’s reign of grace and life arising. At least such things are supposed to be happening among us.
And if we are a living embodiment of God’s transformation of the world, we should not be surprised by blowback from those who do not want the world to change – but that is no shame. Indeed it is a great honor: it puts us in the glorious company of the prophets.