“Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
What exactly does it mean to be “persecuted for righteousness’ sake”? Not many Christians seem to understand what Jesus was saying. The original Greek word for ‘righteousness,’ dikaiosune, is defined by Thayer’s lexicon as the “state of him who is as he ought to be … the condition acceptable to God.”
As Christians, we become righteous and acceptable to God through our faith in Jesus Christ. We don’t have a righteousness of our own; we are justified through the life and sacrifice of Christ, and take on his righteousness. Inasmuch as we are living our life through faith in Jesus, and following his guidance, we are in a condition that is completely acceptable to God, even though we sometimes sin. As we live in Christ, we are exactly where God wants us to be, even though we are far from perfect.
However, Jesus wasn’t specifically saying ‘blessed are my disciples’ or ‘blessed are those who believe in me.’ Though persecuted Christians are certainly included in the blessing, and though Jesus went on to declare in the next verse, “blessed are you when men … shall persecute you … for my sake,” (Mat 5:11) he never intended to limit God’s blessing, in this particular verse, to those being persecuted for believing in him.
Being ‘persecuted for righteousness sake,’ in its more active sense, means to be persecuted for doing something righteous and acceptable to God. We will receive a reward, not only for behaving in a righteous manner, but for standing up against oppression to do the right thing. In fact, Jesus went on to say that outwardly religious people who do good deeds to receive the praise of their peers – that they already have their reward and shouldn’t expect another one from God (Mat 6:1-18). But those who are persecuted for doing good, whether or not they are Christian, will receive a reward from God.
However, being ‘persecuted for righteousness’ sake’ still isn’t limited to those being persecuted for their Christian faith or for acts of righteousness. In a more passive sense, dikaiosune also includes those being persecuted just because of how God created them.
When we are acceptable to God, to the extent that this was how a righteous God created us – yet others still hate and persecute us – we are being ‘persecuted for righteousness sake.’ We have done them no wrong, and yet we find ourselves being persecuted for who we are, and how a righteous God created us. Though there may be something about us that they hate, nevertheless, it was obviously perfectly acceptable to God since He created us that way.
When God created the world, He declared that His creation was good. And after He created humanity, He said that it was “very good” (Gen 1:31). We know that to this day, God’s creation is still a reflection of the goodness and righteousness of God. Therefore, those who hate what God created must also hate God. We cannot claim to love God while hating other people for being different from us. We cannot hate other people, who were created in the image of God, and yet pretend to love that same image which is God.
“If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?” (1Jo 4:20)
When other people hate us for doing good, they are hating God who alone is good; and when they hate how God created us, they are hating God for creating us.
Being ‘persecuted for righteousness’ sake’ includes all those being persecuted for being female, black, Jewish, or various other persecuted races, creeds, and ethnic minorities, at various locations all across the globe. It also includes gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and trans-gendered people: they are persecuted for coming out of the closet and acknowledging how God created them. In that sense, they are ‘persecuted for righteousness’ sake’ in both the passive and the active sense – both for being who they are, and for having the courage to stand up and acknowledge it.
Though homosexuality is perfectly acceptable to God – inasmuch as it is found throughout creation – it’s obviously not acceptable to many people calling themselves religious. They disapprove of what God created, and they hate the fact that gays and lesbians love each other. We are hated by a world that fears and persecutes those who are different, because the world neither trusts God, nor does it honor what He created. The world’s hatred is, quite literally, contrary to nature.
The love and the fullness of God, reflected in His creation, has been supplanted by all the bigotry and intolerance that we see in the world today: the prince of this world has rebelled against the authority of our Creator. But wherever we can make a stand against hatred and bigotry, our life becomes a manifestation of God’s Kingdom. The strength and righteousness of God is demonstrated in our courage to be the person that God created us to be.
Some will always say that “homosexuals aren’t persecuted for how God created them – homosexuality is a ‘lifestyle choice’ and they are hated because of the sins they commit.” But these folks ignore, not only the objective evidence of homosexuality in nature, but also the testimony of reputable psychologists and the most recent results of scientific research. The bogus ‘choice’ argument is the same disreputable claim the world always employs to rationalize its hatred of what God created. A racist would never claim to hate black people merely for being a different color, but because he claims blacks choose to be lazy, violent, immoral, etc. The same is true of every other hated and persecuted minority: they exchange what God created for a false and slanderous stereotype, which they use to justify their hatred. This same method is scrupulously employed by those now denouncing the ‘homosexual lifestyle,’ as something diametrically opposed to morality and families. When the truth is that many gays and lesbians are devoted Christians, with families of their own.
But even though GLBT’s are being ‘persecuted for righteousness sake,’ how should we understand this as a blessing? Especially when the Greek word for ‘blessed,’ makarios, could also be translated “happy.” Certainly, none of us is happy about being threatened, called names, beaten up, and discriminated against. By standing up and blessing the persecuted and inferring that they should be ‘happy,’ Jesus seemed to be going against common sense. Those being persecuted seemed cursed rather than blessed – that’s certainly must have been how they felt. Nevertheless, in the Beatitudes, Jesus made a point of singling out both the poor and the persecuted, calling them blessed and telling them that, “theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” While to the wealthy, who lived in great palaces and were honored rather than persecuted, Jesus said, “Woe to you that are rich. For you have received your consolation” (Luk 6:24).
In the same manner, the Pharisees seemed more righteous than most folks, and they appeared to be completely devoted to serving God. Yet Jesus said to those who seemed very religious, “Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! for so did their fathers to the false prophets” (Luk 6:26) and, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are as graves which appear not, and the men that walk over them are not aware of them” (Luk 11:44).
What Jesus was doing by blessing the poor and the persecuted, while sternly warning rich and outwardly religious people, was to point out that things aren’t always as they seem. It may seem like ‘fundamentalist Christians’ are very religious, and that God has cursed the folks whom they condemn as sinners. But Jesus was indicating it’s exactly the opposite: it’s really the smugly self-righteous and outwardly religious people who have been cursed by their own hypocrisy, while those whom they persecute have been blessed by God.
It can seem as if our life is cursed when others are constantly condemning us. It’s easy to take on the role of victim when we believe that’s our role in life. But God didn’t create all the diversity that we see in the world today so that we could hate those who are different. And He didn’t create all of us equally in His image, so that the strong could take advantage of those who are weaker or fewer in number, so that the rich could oppress the poor, or so that those who’ve made an idol of their own sexuality could persecute others for refusing to play along. If that’s how things are today, it’s certainly not the will of God. It’s a consequence of all the hypocrisy and evil in the world.
So just because some folks seem to have been blessed by a fallen and corrupt world, it doesn’t mean that God has blessed them. And just because we are persecuted by a world overflowing with religious hypocrites, it doesn’t mean that God has condemned us. God’s condemnation isn’t demonstrated by our circumstances, but by our attitude and our actions in our hatred towards our neighbors and in the harm that we do them, even while thinking ourselves religious. Similarly, God’s blessing is to suffer injustice for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven, even though life may seem very difficult.
Those ‘persecuted for righteousness’ sake’ have been blessed and chosen to represent God’s Kingdom on earth; while those who may seem outwardly blessed will ultimately have to give account for their actions, or inaction, in the face of social injustice. Because the world could never negate God’s ultimate authority; the world can only seem to delay God’s righteous judgment. An evil world can only pretend – and only for a little while – that those it honors are blessed and that God condemned those it persecutes. But the world could never overthrow God’s inherent authority to either bless (through Jesus) those who are truly blessed, or to admonish (though Christ) those whose hatred for their neighbors has condemned their own life.
Jesus wasn’t interested in how things seemed to most people; he was only interested in telling the truth: Who are the people being persecuted, and why are they really being persecuted? Who are those who seem to be religious, and what are they really doing? He wasn’t interested in the masks that we put on for other people, though that may be the overriding preoccupation of many religious people. He was only interested in getting at the truth and he fully understood what was happening – just as God understands our situation today.
When Jesus said, “theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven,” he was assuring us that our situation is still very much under God’s authority and control, even when it might not seem that way. By blessing the persecuted, Jesus was telling us that if we really understood how we had been chosen, we would be happy in spite of our circumstances. That it’s really up to us to claim this blessing if we want to celebrate it in our life. Jesus wanted everyone who is persecuted and discriminated against to rejoice in their understanding of the bigger picture, since it’s within that larger frame of reference that we have received God’s greatest blessing.
Those who are defending and advancing the Kingdom of Heaven on earth are not only those who choose to defend it through courageous acts of righteousness; it is also (perhaps mostly) those who have been put in a position, by God, where they must stand up courageously against a cruel injustice. Like a Commander who stations His forces according to His own battle plans, rather than according to where everyone would rather be, the Kingdom of God is advanced mostly by folks who were put into positions they may not have chosen for themselves, though it’s where God needed them to be. These precarious outposts can seem like the least desirable positions on earth, though they are the most crucial outposts on the front line of the Kingdom of God.
So even though we may need to suffer injustice for a little while, we should already be celebrating in the knowledge that we have been chosen to fight in the spiritual army of the Lord. Gays and lesbians are much like God’s Marines – they necessarily need to be tough, since they seem to be the first to draw the brunt of the enemy’s malice towards our Creator.
And even though we may sometimes feel defeated – we’ve lost a few battles and we’re feeling a little hopeless – we should never give up and always remember that God is in control and on our side. The Kingdom of Heaven is a spiritual dimension that transcends time and space, where the authority of God always stands above the authority of men, the manipulation of the devil, and the ways of a sinful world. “Theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven” means that we are already in God’s Kingdom: that our feet are already standing inside the gates of heaven. So that as we learn to live by faith, rather than by all the ups and downs of constantly changing circumstances, we will discover the kind of joy and peace that can never be taken away.
He said, “theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven” and not “theirs will one day be …” because this blessing is something that we can claim right now … today. It wasn’t an encouragement to hold out a little while longer and things will get better in the next life. We can receive Jesus’ blessing in the fullness of His Spirit, and lay claim to all the blessings of his love, joy, hope, and peace, through the faith which God has made available to us in Christ. “Behold, now is the day of salvation” (2Cor 9:2).
Not only GLBT’s, but many other people suffer cruel injustice and persecution for being poor, or being of some racial, religious, or ethnic minority. But insofar as we were chosen to be where God needed us to be, our lives are a living testament to the presence and power of the Kingdom of God. Our suffering is God’s own suffering, and together we participate in Christ’s suffering on the cross. We are always dying as Christ did, so that we might live more fully – and joyfully – in him.