The Beatitudes and Bankruptcy—Part 6

April 26, 2010

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

This final Beatitude returns to the theme of righteousness that opened with the sixth Beatitude: Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness. Both blessings invoke righteousness in their legal application in inheritance law: seeing to it that, as executor of a will, the inheritance is properly distributed so that no one is left without means of support. Jesus is the executor of the will, the guarantor of God’s promise of the Jubilee—release from debt, relief from poverty, return to your family’s portion.

The earlier Beatitude promised the poor that they would finally see righteousness done. This Beatitude promises the redeemers and the redeeming community that by helping the poor you build up treasure in heaven. Here the story of the rich young man illustrates exactly what Jesus has in mind in this Beatitude (Matthew 19:16-29; Mark 10:17-30; Luke 18:18-30):

One thing you lack. Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.

We see how Jesus set up the community to do this in Acts 4:32–37: “those who had lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need (vv 34-35).”

I confess that I’m not sure where the persecution comes in. Certainly the community is persecuted in the first weeks after Jesus’ death: the apostles are flogged and jailed several times for “speaking in the name of Jesus”. This is a possible clue. The Bible uses “name” in connection with land as inheritance, because a man’s landed estate gave him his ‘name’: Boaz marries Ruth “to raise up the name of the dead upon his inheritance, that the name of the dead shall not be cut off from among his brethren and from the gate of his place.” (Ruth 4:10) Ezekiel opens his prescription for land allotments by saying “Now these are the names of the tribes . . . (48:1) The daughters of Zelophehad claim an inheritance using the same language: “Why should the name of our father be taken away from his clan because he had no son? Give to us a possession among our father’s brothers.” (Numbers 27:4)

These examples all have one thing in common: someone receives an inheritance that they have lost, in the face of at least potential resistance against their claim. In at least two of these cases, the claimants have lost their portion because the father had no son. But “our Father who art in heaven” does have a son, who guarantees a righteous distribution of his inheritance.

Thus the persecution that Jesus is referring to in our last Beatitude may refer to the legal denial of the poor’s inheritance claims in the assemblies of elders in the various villages he’s been visiting. By declaring the Jubilee, bringing good news to the poor (Luke 4:18), as he did in Nazareth in Luke 4:18, he is asserting the claim of the poor with divine authority and seeking to overturn that resistance. If the poor can find no redress in the courts, he promises they will receive righteousness (that is, their just portion) anyway. This claim was so incendiary in Jesus’ own home town that the people tried to kill him (Luke 4:28-29).

Though the gospels don’t really spell out just what form the persecution Jesus is referring to takes, it may refer to the more general persecution that the community faced for preaching this good news of debt relief for the poor and, more to the point, condemning those who deny their claims to justice. On the other hand, those who use their wealth to help the poor will have treasure in heaven.

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