Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:10)
Orthodoxy ascribes blessings to those facing persecution for the sake of righteousness, and, it seems, the greater the persecution, the greater the blessing. Martyrs for Christ become saints; those who withstand ridicule, harm, or even silent scorn grow spiritually. This mentality is simply bass-ackwards from the way of the world. Many churches too seem to look at outward prosperity and success as a sign that God has blessed you. That is absolute rubbish and quite pagan as well. Purveyors of the prosperity gospel cite selected passages in the Old Testament for justification and then only tell part of the story. They point to the blessings that King Solomon received for his youthful quest for holy wisdom, but his downfall after decades of power and wealth had gotten to him goes ignored. Indeed, many of the prophets and heroes and heroines of the O.T. suffered much at the hands of the wicked, many of whom were superficially “blessed” with wealth and other worldly prizes. And then, what about Christ? His blessing was purely spiritual!
The fact is that the blessings of Christ call for the facing of persecutions, many of them severe. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. (Matthew 5:11) A great many of our saints attained their sainthood through martyrdom; but this is not something that someone should outwardly seek, but should receive gladly if God has chosen one for this trial. So don’t strap a bomb vest across your chest and explode yourself as a political statement in order to make headway for yourself when the Last Judgment arrives. You’ll simply start burning a little bit earlier. But if someone strafes you because you believe in Christ, accept it as a blessing. Don’t retaliate, and God will indeed bless you later.
Indeed, the rest of this Beatitude says: Rejoice and be ye exceeding glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you. (Matthew 5:12)
St. John Chrysostom wrote that any act of righteousness, which he defined as “the whole practical wisdom of the soul,” would receive a form of persecution. Any time we help another, demonstrate moral purity, speak out for Christ, or even just say our prayers, the demons would try to stop us. Conversely, if our deeds do not attract persecution, then perhaps our act is not one of righteousness!
St. Augustine took this a step further, saying that this Beatitude, the eighth, manifests the perfection of the previous seven – humility, mournfulness, meekness, desire for righteousness, mercifulness, purity, and peacefulness – and enables the bearer of these to endure the persecutions which are sure to follow. It is interesting to note that this last Beatitude carries the same blessing – entrance into the kingdom of heaven – as the first Beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…” The Beatitudes come full circle at Persecution, which represents the completion of the spiritual perfections and the commencement of a new phase of one’s spiritual progress towards ultimate salvation.
This eighth sentence, which goes back to the starting-point, and makes manifest the perfect man, is perhaps set forth in its meaning both by the circumcision on the eighth day in the Old Testament, and by the resurrection of the Lord after the Sabbath, the day which is certainly the eighth, and at the same time the first day; and by the celebration of the eight festival days which we celebrate in the case of the regeneration of the new man; and by the very number of Pentecost. For to the number seven, seven times multiplied, by which we make forty-nine, as it were an eighth is added, so that fifty may be made up, and we, as it were, return to the starting-point: on which day the Holy Spirit was sent, by whom we are led into the kingdom of heaven, and receive the inheritance, and are comforted; and are fed, and obtain mercy, and are purified, and are made peacemakers; and being thus perfect, we bear all troubles brought upon us from without for the sake of truth and righteousness.[italics mine]
Now, as I close out my study on these Beatitudes, I must review my own relation to them. As a measure of compliance, I would rank very, very poorly. In fact, I have done the opposite of what the Beatitudes have instructed me to do: I have not been poor in spirit, but proud. I have not been one to mourn my own sins, but exulted in them. I have not been meek, but overbearing. I have not been one to hunger and thirst after righteousness, but been gluttonous, acquisitive, worldly. I have not been merciful, but selfish. I have not been pure in heart, but full of lust and carnality. I have not been a peacemaker, but a troublemaker. I have not been persecuted for righteousness’ sake, but indeed have done most of the persecuting myself, especially of those people who demonstrated the kind of righteousness that I lacked.
This last Beatitude tells me that I have long way to go. It is a lighthouse beaming from a shore that I cannot quite make out from the distance, but other seafarers have told me shines brightly for all who make it to that shore. In general, the Beatitudes instruct us not to be prideful, ego-driven materialists who keep religion in our back pockets for special occasions like funerals, weddings, and holy days. They call for humility, modesty, and meekness. And as an American, I must say, those traits are anathema to my cultural upbringing. The Blessed Theophylact writes, “Simply put, all the Beatitudes teach us lowliness, humility, self-effacement, and self-reproach.” He was commenting on the Beatitudes in Luke – which also deal with the flipside to this: what happens when we ignore God and lay all our chips on the world’s table:
But woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation. Woe unto you that are full! for ye shall hunger. Woe unto you that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep. Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! for so did their fathers to the false prophets. (Luke 6:23-27)
The Christian life, then, runs against the grain of the worldly life. We are not to seek riches and fame, but to humbly accept our hardships, our penury, our degradation under foot of those who believe only in themselves. This is quite easy to preach, but is impossible to do – without the hand of God on our hearts. But once we are able scramble up the steeps of persecution, then we get to the mountaintop where the Kingdom of Heaven stands perched and waiting.