Persecution Gets Personal

Life_in_Tension_web“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and
utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” (Matt 5:11 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The ninth beatitude is the capstone beatitude and it repeats beatitude eight emphatically. The parallel in Luke’s Gospel is even more explicit. The ninth beatitude also requires special attention because the first and last points in a list are in a literary sense the most important. The emphasis here is emphatic.

Tension with others is intensified in several dimensions. Notice the verbs—revile, persecute and slander (utter evil falsely)—replace persecute. And notice how the object of this vitrol shifts from righteousness to me (on my account). The tension here is intensified because what was generic persecution becomes a personal attack (Wilkins 2004, 211). The tension is also amplied by the shift from the third person (they) to the second person (you) (Neyrey 1998, 168). I suspect that Jesus was looking into the eyes of his disciples at this point. To use a military analogy, Jesus is like the commander who addresses his troops as the friends because he knows that they will watch his back as they go into battle.

The key verb here is revile (ὀνειδίζω) which means: “to find fault in a way that demeans the other, reproach, revile, mock, heap insults upon as a way of shaming” (BDAG 5316(1)). Closely related is the noun form (ὄνειδος) of the word which means: “loss of standing connected with disparaging speech, disgrace, reproach, insult” (BDAG 5318). Revile (scorn, disgrace, reproach) is used biblically in several specific contexts:

1. “She conceived and bore a son and said, God has taken away my reproach.” (Gen 30:23)
2. “If a man takes his sister, a daughter of his father or a daughter of his mother, and sees her nakedness, and she sees his nakedness, it is a disgrace, and they shall be cut off in the sight of the children of their people. He has uncovered his sister’s nakedness, and he shall bear his iniquity.” (Lev 20:17)
3. “He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken.” (Isa 25:8)
4. “But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people.” (Ps 22:6)
5. “Then I said to them, You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burned. Come, let us build the wall of Jerusalem, that we may no longer suffer derision.” (Neh 2:17)

The controlling idea here is to be left exposed to public ridicule for bareness, nakedness, or weakness—like a woman caught without clothes or a city without walls. Notice that several of these verses are messianic passages cited by Jesus himself.

Understanding the full weight of what is being said is requires a word about cultural context. Jesus is addressing disciples in a communal, honor and shame culture. Neyrey (1998, 168-169) that the beatitudes address a common theme—the poor, the hungry, and the mourning—shared by disciples having been driven out of their families and communities. The three verbs—revile, persecute, and slander—point likewise to a social stigma and explusion—someone being disinherited and driven out of the family and community.

The passage about the early church in Acts often cited as an example of unity—

And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. (Acts 2:44-45)

—may actually have been time of significant stress for the disciples. Still, persecution marks one as a Christian and is therefore also a mark of salvation (Rev 22:4)

REFERENCES

Bauer, Walter (BDAG). 2000. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. ed. de Frederick W. Danker. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. <BibleWorks. v.9.>.

BibleWorks. 2015. Norfolk, VA: BibleWorks, LLC. <BibleWorks v.10>.

Guelich, Robert. 1982. The Sermon on the Mount: A Foundation for Understanding. Dallas: Word Publishing.

Neyrey, Jerome H. 1998. Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Wilkins, Michael J. 2004. The NIV Application Commentary: Matthew. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

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