When people insult you and persecute you

As I cross finally into the New Testament in my word study of joy, I come, right away, to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (or on the Plain, depending which gospel you want to go with), and in the opening of what is probably the most recognizable speech in history, I run headlong into a series of apparent contradictions, paradoxes which are contrary to everything that conventional wisdom and culture espouse. Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” and I wonder if he misspoke. He says, “Blessed are those who mourn,” and I think he may be exercising sarcasm. I can accept that the gentle should be blessed, but “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” “the merciful,” “the pure in heart,” and “the peacemakers”? They sound like a bunch of pansies. But then we come to Matthew 5:10, where Jesus proclaims, “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” And then, as though that wasn’t absurd enough, he adds in verse 11, “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.” And I start wondering if Jesus was out of his holy, divine mind because who in the world would, with a straight face, declare such people blessed? Which of those insulted, persecuted people would call themselves blessed? It’s absurd!

To be fair, I know virtually nothing of persecution. I mean, of course, I’ve studied it in history classes and such, and I’ve read and heard multiple studies about its various forms. But I’ve never experienced persecution myself.

Now, that’s not to say that I haven’t been called names or belittled for my faith. Indeed, barely a week goes by that someone doesn’t call me a bigot or hypocrite or not accept my friend request because I’m a believer and they want nothing to do with that. But in the grand scheme of things, nothing that I have endured even approaches the persecution known by the original 12 apostles, Paul, and the countless Christ-followers throughout history who have truly suffered and even died because of their faith and corresponding pursuit of righteousness.

And to be honest, with very, very few exceptions, any American believer who claims otherwise is a liar.

But I still know enough to question whether those who are insulted and/or persecuted are truly blessed. And in verse 12, when Jesus concluded for these, “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great,” I know enough to realize that such an exhortation is utterly insane.

Rejoice? When people are talking smack about me, trashing my reputation in front of everyone, challenging my character, and even making me simply feeling like dirt?

I don’t know if I can.

But Jesus’ words weren’t a suggestion or a possibility. They were a command.

So I must.

But how?

Well, the key is contained, as is often the case in things that Jesus and other Biblical characters say and write, right here in verse 12. And in fact, Matthew records that Jesus provided two very compelling reasons.

The first is, “your reward in heaven is great.” I want to notice the location of that reward: it’s in heaven. And I need to notice the tense of that verb: “is” is a present-tense action verb. In other words, every time someone insults me, taunts me, persecutes me, etc., I am making a deposit in my storehouse in heaven. I imagine it to be something like Scrooge McDuck’s Money Bin in the cartoon Duck Tales that I used to watch as a kid. I.e., every time I endure such things, a truckload of treasure is delivered to my place in heaven. It’s there, even though I can’t quite tap it this particular instant. It’s enough such that Paul wrote faithfully that the blessings of heaven should far outweigh any hardship he – and we – endured on earth. And it’s just waiting for me to arrive. In other words, however bad things may be, however miserable the rest of the world may make my life, I can – and must – continue to rejoice, even if for nothing else, in anticipation of the great stuff God is storing for me in heaven.

And the second is, “in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” In other words, Jesus compares me when I’m insulted and persecuted to the prophets of the Old Testament. That seems strange at first, probably because I like to think of the Old Testament prophets as men and women who demonstrated the power of God, revealed the word of God, and had all the rest of the world by the tail. The problem is, that’s absolutely not the way it was. The people grumbled against Moses. Samuel was a traitor from the moment he anointed David. Nathan put his finger in the king’s chest (which, I imagine, was a rather risky maneuver). And these were the ones that had it good. Elijah had a price on his head. Hosea was commanded to marry a prostitute (I don’t think I can imagine the flack he caught for that!). And Jeremiah wasn’t called “the weeping prophet” for nothing. Even Ezekiel was told that he would be given a forehead harder than flint because the people were stubborn and would make life and ministry exceedingly difficult. Jesus is effectively saying that, if you’re being persecuted, you’re doing things right. And you’re in pretty good company.

Well, I guess I can get that. Even when things are tough, if I know I’m doing the right thing, I can at least take some joy in that knowledge. And even when things are miserable, if I know others have suffered similarly, I don’t feel quite so alone.

And so I return to Jesus’ command, that I should rejoice and be glad because I am blessed when people insult and persecute me. It’s tough. And I know that I don’t always – maybe even often – do the greatest job of realizing this command. So I need to try harder. And I will.

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