Blessed are you when people insult you

Adapted from Tim MacBride, To Aliens and Exiles: Preaching the New Testament as Minority-Group Rhetoric in a Post-Christendom World (Cascade, 2020), 163-67. Used with publisher’s permission.

Matthew 5:11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.”

While Christians in the West can’t presently claim “persecution” in its narrow sense, there are plenty of times we’re insulted, misrepresented, and ostracised because of our faith. More so now than perhaps in recent generations. Yet as long as it is because of our faith—rather than because we’re being insensitive jerks—then Jesus says we’re “blessed.” More than that: he says our response should be to rejoice:

Matthew 5:12 “Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

Or to put it another way, if the wider culture rejects you, know that this is a pretty common experience for God’s people throughout history; and in the end it’s God’s opinion that counts, not anyone else’s.

In fact, this is one of the key themes of Jesus’ sermon on the mount, found in Matthew 5–7. Here, he calls his followers to be an alternative community in which the wider culture’s “rules” are redefined—rules about what is considered honourable and dishonourable. And often in quite counter-cultural ways.

As we move into an era in which the aspirational values of the majority culture are becoming more overtly divergent from those of traditional Christian teaching, we could do with a fresh look at this calling to live by a different set of values.

Matthew’s alternative community of honour

The audience of Matthew’s Gospel (as opposed to the original hearers of the sermon on the mount) was a Jesus-following minority group experiencing insult, rejection, and persecution from their wider community–from fellow Jews who’d rejected Jesus as Messiah. So in Matthew’s setting of the sermon on the mount, he notes that Jesus sees the crowds, who are present throughout the sermon and, at the end, are amazed at his teachings (7:28). Yet Jesus addresses the sermon in the first instance not to this wider group, but to his disciples (5:1-2), calling them “blessed” whenever they’re insulted and persecuted because of Jesus (5:11-12). Already, Matthew’s readers are being invited to see themselves as belonging to this inner circle.[1] And it’s about this minority group that the “blessings” of the Beatitudes are spoken, which Matthew’s readers “overhear” as applying to them, too.

“Great,” says Matthew’s persecuted minority group, “we’re blessed!”

But not quite. Because the English translations of “blessing” or “happy” miss the honour-and-shame context of the Greek word makarios (and its negative counterpoint, ouai / “woe”). K.C. Hanson has shown that these aren’t so much pronouncements of blessings and curses; rather, they’re publicly proclaimed value judgements about the honour or shamefulness of the subject. A better translation would then be, “How honourable are those…!”[2] If we look at the Beatitudes in this light, we see how Jesus is taking what’s been rejected and shamed by the wider culture and declaring it to be honourable in the alternative community he’s creating,[3] the kingdom of heaven.

“OK,” says Matthew’s minority group, “we’re honourable!”

Correct. And if we look more specifically at what Jesus is calling honourable, we see that they’re “the very opposite characteristics” of those outside the group.[4] They’re a refusal to play along with the honour games of the wider culture:

  • Jesus’ followers are powerless, being poor and in mourning (5:3-4). Yet their focus is on storing up treasure in heaven in order to be honoured by God, rather than treasure on earth so they can be honoured before people (6:19-21). They don’t worry about their daily provision like the wider world, but trust in his fatherly care (6:32-33). Neither do they display their mournful fasting to gain honour in public (6:16-18).
  • They are meek and merciful (5:5,7). They turn the other cheek when dishonoured and leave it to God to defend their honour (5:38-39).[5] They don’t seek revenge, but pursue reconciliation (5:23-26) and forgiveness (6:14)—considered a sign of weakness in the ancient world.[6]
  • They hunger and thirst for righteousness (5:6). This is the kind of righteousness that exceeds that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law (5:20) because it’s done privately; it will be honoured in God’s court rather than the court of public opinion (6:1-8).
  • They are pure in heart (5:8). They don’t use their eyes to look with lust, committing adultery with them in their heart (5:28), thereby dishonouring their spouse.[7] Instead, their eyes will “see God.”
  • They are peacemakers (5:9). They show they belong to God’s family by exhibiting his family values, imitating his love for their enemies and persecutors (5:44-45).

“Right,” says Matthew’s minority group, “we get it. We’ve been dishonoured and rejected by our family and community because we’ve stopped playing their game. And that’s precisely what makes us winners in God’s eyes, according to his standards about what’s honourable behaviour.”

Exactly. So don’t continue to play the world’s honour games and judge others by its standards, or you’ll be judged by those very same standards (7:1-2).

The final two Beatitudes then make the applicability to Matthew’s audience more explicit. They refer to persecution—or perhaps more accurately in this context, the experience of being shunned by the community—for the sake of Jesus:

Matthew 5:10-12 How honourable are those who are persecuted/shunned because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. How honourable are you when people insult you, persecute/exclude you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted/rejected the prophets who were before you

Members of Matthew’s minority group are called “honourable” whenever they’re rejected by the wider community because it’s a sign they’ve stopped playing by its rules. In fact, they’ve left the game altogether. In light of this, they should rejoice, because eventually they’ll be vindicated by God and share in the blessings promised to their persecutors.

“Rejoice, indeed!” says Matthew’s minority group, “Because although we’ve lost our family and our inheritance, we’ve become ‘sons of God’ who will be the ones to ‘inherit the land’ promised to God’s people. And we’ll share in our heavenly reward, together with all of the prophets who were mistreated just like we are.”

Our  alternative community of honour?

This leads us to ask a difficult question: does the Western church today still function as this kind of alternative community, with a counter-cultural set of attitudes and behaviours it holds to be honourable? And if not, why not?

Part of the answer may lie in the fact that Jesus’ teachings have influenced, to a degree, Western culture. It means that traits like forgiveness, mercy, and peacemaking are less counter-cultural today—at least in an aspirational sense, if not always in practice.

But some of the answer may have more to do with the fact that most of us haven’t had to lose all that much to follow Jesus. Discipleship hasn’t been anywhere near as costly for us as it was for Matthew’s audience. Although it’s hardly something to complain about, it can mean we don’t sense as acutely the need for an alternative court of honour; after all, some of the world’s honour is still available to us! And since we’re still getting some love from the world, it’s harder for us to give up its game completely. So we try to play both games, like James warns against (e.g. James 4:4). Or we bring the world’s game with us into the church, like the Corinthians did (e.g. 1 Cor 3:1-4).

But just like Matthew’s community, as Jesus’ followers today we should be known for not playing the game at all. It might help if we look at the opposition we face—usually in the form of mockery and exclusion—in the same way Jesus did. That is, we view it as something to be celebrated rather than an inconvenience to be endured; as evidence we have indeed vacated the world’s playing field.[8]

In other words, our church communities should be set up to honour that which they were designed to honour: those who’ve “lost out” in the eyes of the wider culture because they’ve opted out of its value system to embrace Jesus’ value system. Yet all too often in our churches we honour the same things the world honours and get a little embarrassed by those whose allegiance to Jesus has brought them shame in the world’s eyes. But the church should be a place where all that gets turned upside-down. It shouldn’t just be a refuge for those who have most suffered the consequences of living God’s way—although it is, particularly for those who’ve been rejected by their family (Matt 12:49-50). It should also be an alternative court that judges them worthy of extra honour. (Possibly Paul was hinting at something like that in 1 Cor 12:23.)

Moreover, the result of such an alternative community of honour isn’t just for the benefit of group members, helping them to see their difference as honourable. It’s also what makes that difference attractive. And it’s no coincidence that right after the final Beatitude about persecution comes this:

Matthew 5:13-16 You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

Tim lectures in Preaching and New Testament at Morling College: click here to find out about courses and study options.

[1] Leland Jennings White, “Grid and Group in Matthew’s Community,” 81.

[2] K.C. Hanson, “How Honorable! How Shameful!,” 81-111. The “woes” ought to be rendered, “How Shameful are…!” or even, “Shame on…!”

[3] Jerome Neyrey, Honor and Shame, 167.

[4] Philip Esler, “Group Norms and Prototypes,” 162.

[5] Craig Keener, Matthew, 197. The blow to the right cheek would be with the back of the hand; it’s not so much an act of violence as an act of dishonouring.

[6] Neyrey, Honor and Shame, 194-95.

[7] Honor and Shame, 196-97.

[8] Neyrey, Honor and Shame, 221, describes the sermon on the mount as a call to “vacate the playing field” where honour games are played out.

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