10Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
With this final Beatitude, Jesus transitions from these introductory insights into the Kingdom life to the first imperatives of his Sermon. “Rejoice. Be glad.” The cause for this jubilation? The inevitable revilement — and for some, persecution — that necessarily follows discipleship. Following Jesus naturally puts one at odds with the world’s power brokers. Jesus repeats this theme to his disciples in their final time together before his death:
18“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. 19If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. 20Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. 21They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the One who sent me.
I heard somebody say once that Jesus needs better PR. If you’re looking to start a movement, this isn’t how you go about doing it. If you’re going to deliver a manifesto about the true meaning of life — which is what Jesus is doing in the Sermon on the Mount — you don’t begin by talking about impoverished spirit, meekness, and martyrdom. But that’s exactly how Jesus begins this seminal teaching. The way of Christ is fraught with peril. For some, it will even cost them their lives. For this very reason, Luke will record two separate encounters in his Gospel where Jesus implores would-be followers to “count the cost” before enlisting (9.57-62; 14.25-35).
Jesus doesn’t mince his words. The way of Christ is the way of the cross. No servant is greater than his master. As they’ve done to Jesus, so too will they do to those who dare follow after Him. This truth calls me to evaluate my own engagement with the world. We used to tell the teens in the youth group, “If you were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” In anticipation of what Jesus is about to say next, we might ask: Am I losing my saltiness? Am I shining His light? It is precisely this kind of deep reflection that this final, climactic Beatitude calls for.
But to be even handed, we must also acknowledge the very truth this final Beatitude reveals: that there is in fact a blessing in store for those who choose the path of persecution, rejection, and revilement. By taking up our cross and following Him — even following Him to death, as Thomas once quipped (John 11.16) — we find blessing and joy that He has called us to shine His light into His world.
Clarence Jordan writes:
It seems to me that he said something like this: “Folks, this is it. You think you’ve already been through a lot. You’re just getting started. As you walked up these steps and came into my kingdom, I made it clear to you that you were thereby making an all-out commitment. I charge you now to be faithful to it, cost what it may. But don’t let them scare you or bully you or make you back down. Rejoice that you’ve been counted worthy to be on our side. You’re in a great company of prophets whose glorious past stretches back to the beginning of time and whose future has no end. So go to it. I’m with you.”
As we reflect on our engagement with the world, we dare not lose sight of the fact that our guide along the Way has not abandoned us nor forsaken us. Rather, He is right where He promised to be — with us every step of the way, marching alongside of us, leading the way to the Kingdom, still carrying His cross, imploring us to step where He has faithfully stepped first.