In the last post, I suggested that positive emotions–what we normally think of as happiness–should be received as a gift from our Creator. And yet, happiness is not an end in itself. God has called us into relationship, and commanded us to be holy rather than merely happy.
A better and more biblical word to substitute for “happiness” is “blessedness.” Sayings about what it means to be blessed–beatitudes–were common in the ancient world, embodying what various philosophies of life considered necessary for a person to be happy. The implication was often, “If you want to be happy, this is how you should live.” The Bible contains many of these beatitudes, including the familiar saying, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).
But Jesus had some strange ideas about blessedness. In what’s commonly known as the “Sermon on the Plain,” for example, he said this:
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets. But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets. (Luke 6:20-26, NIV)
Imagine for a moment that Jesus appears to you and grants you a New Year’s miracle: you get to choose a life of blessing or woe for the rest of 2013. You can be a poor, hungry, and distraught social pariah, or a rich, well-fed, and jovial person of high social standing. Honestly now: which one would you choose?
Right. So would I. Whatever Jesus means by blessedness, it sure doesn’t sound like Madison Avenue’s idea of happiness.
But Jesus is neither condemning people for having an abundance of food and money nor telling us to make poverty and hunger our New Year’s resolutions. He’s declaring the good news of the kingdom of God.
The context of the Sermon on the Plain is that large crowds of his followers have come long distances to hear Jesus preach, and more importantly, to be healed of their spiritual and physical troubles. Power is emanating from Jesus in unmistakable ways. People have come seeking God’s mercy and have received it.
The poor. The hungry. The weeping. Those hated by others. These aren’t four separate categories of human beings, each with its own strange kind of blessing. They are all desperate and destitute, the ones society would consider unworthy and unsuccessful. It’s as if Jesus is telling his disciples: Look around you. Grace and mercy abound. That’s what God is about: the kingdom comes as pure gift, not something to be earned or deserved. These people are blessed because the mercy of God comes to those whom life has humbled.
And the rich? Again, Jesus isn’t condemning the mere possession of wealth. Think of Jesus’ life and teaching against the background of the four woes: he ate in the homes of rich people; he pictured heaven as a sumptuous banquet; he seemed to enjoy a good joke; and while he had his share of enemies, many spoke well of him indeed.
But together, the words “rich,” “well-fed,” “laughing,” and “spoken well of by others” signify those who have it made in life, those who have everything they need to be happy by society’s standards. The problem, of course, comes in deriving one’s comfort and security from these things. Like the rich fool in Luke 12:13-21, these people aren’t blessed because they’re not looking for mercy. Why would they need it? They’re happy as they are.
So what is it that we are wishing for each other when we say “Happy New Year”? What do we think would make our new year happy? And what would it mean in 2013 to desire blessedness instead?