"Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." - From the lectionary for this morning
It's not uncommon for people to "proof text" this specific passage, from the portion of the Sermon on the Mount known as the Beatitudes, when they are feeling put upon by those they perceive as enemies. Frequently they will also cite the place in John's Gospel where Jesus tells his listeners that the world will hate them. If you're feeling hated by the world, there's much comfort in reading or hearing such lines. Chances are, though, if you're a middle class American who is reading this on the internet, you're used to having "the world" bless you. That's why any momentary adversity can sting and fester. Some people even seek out persecution in the hope of being sanctified by it.
At church this morning, our intern, Angel (yes, that's her name!), pointed out that the people who first heard those lines did not have to seek out persecution. It was the normal condition of their lives. The world—the Greek word "kosmos" literally means "the ornament"—had left them and their unadorned lives behind. Thus, the idea that they were blessed was subversive, since it ran counter to everything that common sense told them about life. They were the poor and marginalized in a remote part of the vast Roman Empire. Many of them worked land that had been legally stolen from them, struggling to pay off debts that only rose with each passing season. By calling them blessed ("makarioi" in Greek), Jesus was literally speaking a blessing into existence. In line with Old Testament prophets like Amos and Isaiah, he was pointing out the obvious fact that the world cared nothing for those who had been passed over in the search for economic gain, and he called the world to account for it.
Ironically, it seems that our politics have now produced two different ways in which "the world" can hate the poor and marginalized. As many have pointed out, the president's State of the Union address last week included no mention of such people. Instead, it was "morning in America" all over again, as a very smart politician put his opponents on the defensive. And defensive they were, suggesting that reality is going to call for much different policies: ones that will hurt. Who, exactly, will be hurt by such policies is never stated, but it's pretty clear that it won't be those whom the world has already blessed.
So here's some food for thought: If you, like me, are on the upside of America's current financial crisis, then you are being blessed by the world, and the world is liking you just fine. If you want to find the blessing that comes from God, you could learn a lot from the people whom none of the politicians so much as mentioned last week: the ones who have yet to see any benefit from the "recovery." Many of them no longer appear in the unemployment statistics, because they've given up looking. They may have concluded, as those on the wrong side of Roman prosperity must have concluded in Jesus's time, that everything was stacked against them. These are the ones whom the world truly hates. Theirs is the kingdom.