This beatitude is one of the more surprising reversals of conventional expectations in the beatitudes. Most people consider being persecuted for any reason to be a “blessing.” But in first Second Temple Judaism, there was virtue in being persecuted for the essential boundary markers of Judaism.
The stories in the first part of Daniel are examples of Jewish people who face persecution and death because of their commitment to the Jewish God. In each episode Daniel and his companions refuse to obey a particular command of the king and in each case their life is threatened. In chapter 3 and 6 the men are more or less executed for their stand and are only preserved by divine action.
Fourth Maccabees is another example of a Second Temple Jewish text which praises those who lie out their commitment to their Jewish heritage. Seven brothers are willing to die rather than defile themselves with unclean foot or to bow to the king. David deSilva suggested the book addressed a Jewish community which may face persecution as they have in the past, in order to encourage them to maintain their faithfulness to the Law in the face the dominant culture (deSilva, Introducing the Apocrypha, 357).
2 Baruch 52:5-6 has a similar saying, “And concerning the righteous ones, what will they do now? Enjoy yourselves in the suffering which you suffer now.” Suffering is preparation of the soul for reward, “and make ready your souls for the reward which is preserved for you” (52:7).
Jesus is not talking about enduring generic bad times, but persecution “for the sake of righteousness.” As with Matthew 5:6, righteousness does not necessarily refer to spiritual discipline or personal holiness and piety, but rather concrete actions of justice such as care for the poor and helpless. Those who “inherit the kingdom” in Matthew 25:31-46 are the ones who cared for the hungry and thirsty, those who were naked or in prison. It is very easy to make this beatitude a blessing on those who are persecuted for performing some public act of piety such as praying in public.
Who would persecute someone for doing acts of justice for the poor and helpless? In the immediate context, the Pharisees will challenge Jesus for his ongoing actions towards the underclass in Galilee. He touches a leper to heal him (Matt 8:1-4), even though the leper was “unclean” and forbidden to worship at the temple. He heals the servant a centurion’s servant (8:5-13). Even if the centurion was a God-Fearing gentile, he would not be permitted to enter the court of the men and worship at the Temple. Jesus eats with “tax collectors, prostitutes and other sinners” (Matt 8:9-13) and the Pharisees question Jesus’s non-observance of fasting traditions (Matt 8:14-17). One of the indications you are a true disciple of Jesus disciple of Jesus is that you are suffering in the same ways as Jesus.
Matthew 5:11-12 seems to be an extension on the eighth beatitude which makes this theme of “suffering like Jesus” more clear. The form of the beatitude changes to include the immediate audience, “blessed are you (μακάριοί ἐστε) when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” In addition, France points out the two blessings in verses 11-12 are “forward looking” to a time when the disciples will face the same kinds of attacks Jesus endured. Jesus was reviled (ὀνειδίζω) in Mark 15:32; Paul alludes to Psalm 68:10 when he says Christ endured “reproaches” Romans 15:3. In addition to persecution, people will say “all sorts of evil things” about the disciples, the same kinds of false accusations Jesus faced.
This final saying in the beatitudes is perhaps the most challenge for western Christians since for the most part Christianity is not suppressed. But for the majority world, Christians really do suffer for their faith. There are many examples of Christians in North Africa or the Far East who have been impoverished and imprisoned because of their faith in Jesus, many are killed because they refuse to recant their faith in Jesus. This is “suffering like Jesus. It is very difficult to consider the Starbucks red cup controversy as a real attack on Christians.