Righteousness is a word often used but rarely defined.
It can refer to proper conduct—acting appropriately in a given situation—and it can denote good character—being the kind of person one ought to be. I would define it as the proper ordering of one’s life.
Whichever definition you use, why would someone be persecuted for righteousness, as Jesus says will happen in Matthew 5:10-12?
The answer lies in the version of righteousness one embraces because definitions of proper conduct, good character or rightly ordered lives are diverse.
Jesus acknowledged this by attributing righteousness to religious leaders, while revealing that his followers must embrace another version of righteousness (see Matthew 5:20).
What type of righteousness is Jesus setting forth and pronouncing blessings upon?
Matthew 5:10-12 culminates the litany of blessings that commence the Sermon on the Mount.
The righteous or rightly ordered life that Jesus blessed is aligned with the qualities and character traits disclosed in Matthew 5:3-9.
While this specifies the version of righteousness being blessed, why would someone be persecuted for striving to be lowly, grieved by injustice, humble, merciful, pure of heart and peaceable?
A scene from the documentary, “Man on Wire,” which tells the captivating story of wirewalker Philippe Petit, provides an answer.
His most famous high-wire act took place in New York City in 1974. Sneaking into a construction site, he strung a wire across the roofs of the skyscrapers that would become the World Trade Center and spent 45 minutes walking on three-quarter-inch steel cable 1,300 feet in the air.
Years later, Petit shared that he had picked up a magazine and read about the planned construction project in New York City.
It was at that moment, Petit says, that he discovered the dream of walking between the towers.
It was a surreal experience, he said, because “usually when you have a dream it’s something tangible, but the object of my dream doesn’t exist yet.”
This provides insight as to why Jesus speaks of the persecuted righteous—it is the result of living according to a dream, the object of which does not yet exist.
Pope Francis’ words and actions have received attention globally because he is living according to this “already, but not yet” dream of Jesus.
Not surprisingly, he has been publicly criticized by certain individuals, and misinterpreted by others, who don’t embrace the object of this dream.
Several months ago, conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh called Francis a Marxist when he critiqued the “idolatry of money,” “self-serving tax evasion” and “trickle-down economics.”
Now, as Religion News service reports, The Economist magazine has accused the pope of following Vladimir Lenin for asserting a connection between capitalism and war in a recent interview with La Vanguardia magazine.
“We have put money at the center, the god of money. We have fallen into a sin of idolatry, the idolatry of money,” Francis said.
He later said, “We are discarding an entire generation to maintain an economic system that can’t hold up anymore, a system that to survive must make war, as the great empires have always done.”
The pope’s statements, and the negative reactions they sometimes elicit, reveal why we find Jesus’ blessings strange and confusing.
The ethics set forth don’t seem rational, prudent or appropriate to those who do not share the dream because it is of a realm, a manner of life that doesn’t yet exist—at least not fully.
As a result, Limbaugh, The Economist and others critique Pope Francis using faulty comparisons because they do not, and perhaps cannot, understand his statements due to their unwavering commitment to capitalism. Their lives are shaped by different dreams.
Beginning with the beatitudes, Jesus paints a portrait of God’s dream for the world and calls his disciples to shape their lives according to the future hope of a world filled up to overflowing with justice, mercy, humility, purity, compassion and peace-making.
What’s interesting is that most of us would affirm and seek to embody these qualities.
And yet, these are qualities most of us would also want to qualify, quantify or both.
For example, “Sharing your possessions with others is noble, but Jesus’ instructions in Luke 12:33 and the sharing described in Acts 2:44-45 are impossible ideals that no one can or should take literally today.”
The temptation to waver, to draw proverbial lines in the sand by qualifying and quantifying our commitment is always present.
Yet Jesus is clear that seeking to live according to his ethic will lead to persecution because it requires the embracing of a dream that does not yet exist.
It is this dream, the path to which is revealed in the Beatitudes, that Jesus urges us to embrace, persecution notwithstanding, because this hoped-for reality, like a treasure hidden in a field (see Matthew 13:44-46), is worth any amount of effort or cost to obtain.