Matthew 5: “Happy are the…” – 8/12/12

In 1972 the small country of Bhutan, on the Northeast border of India, had a new ruler.  Taking over after the death of his father was 17 year old Jigme Singye Wangchuck, known as the Fourth Dragon King, which is much easier to pronounce for us Westerners.  It was a time when the isolated country was opening itself up to modernization, and facing the very live question of what would be the relationship between these economic forces and the traditional Buddhist spiritual and cultural values.  So, the Fourth Dragon King, in his first year of leadership, coined the phrase Gross National Happiness.  At first this was a casual, informal idea that he proposed to the nation – but it was taken seriously and adopted by scholars in Bhutan who developed an extensive survey instrument to quantify the nation’s overall well-being.  After 34 years of rule, in 2006, the Fourth Dragon King gave up his throne and initiated the country’s first ever parliamentary elections.  Maximizing Gross National Happiness remains a guiding value in Bhutan for setting public policy.  (For a fun 3 minute video about this history link HERE)

We are used to hearing about Gross National Product, GNP, or the closely related Gross Domestic Product, GDP, which is a measurement of the overall value of goods and services in a particular country in a given year.  When GDP goes up, we say that the standard of living is rising.  In 2011 the GDP of the United States was over 15 trillion dollars, more than twice that of the second highest nation, China.

In contrast to Gross National Product, which is purely a measurement of economic activity, Gross National Happiness, GNH, has developed over the years to account for a number of aspects of human and planetary wellbeing.  By definition, happiness is quite subjective, hard to measure, hard to quantify and impossible to reduce to graphs and charts.  But this GNH idea has been adopted by various scholars and organizations around the world and in the last few years a number of different indicators and indexes have been developed to measure Gross National Happiness.  One of these, the Happy Planet Index, this year ranked Costa Rica as the happiest country on earth for the second year in a row.  Nicaragua ranks as the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere economically, but turns out to be the 8th happiest in the world.  In April of this year the United Nations issued its own World Happiness Report.  The report states “We increasingly understand that we need a new model of humanity…Should the world pursue GNP to the point of environmental ruin, even when incremental gains in GNP are not increasing much (or at all) the happiness of affluent societies?”

I really like that line, “We need a new model of humanity.”  It sounds very biblical, something right out of the mouth of the Apostle Paul, or Jesus himself.

In Matthew 5, at the beginning of The Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches a series of beatitudes, each beginning with the same word: blessed.  What does it look like to be blessed?  Blessed are the poor in the spirit.  Blessed are those who mourn.  Blessed are the meek.  This particular word translated ‘blessed’ can also be translated as ‘fortunate.’  It can also be translated ‘happy.’  You’re in privileged circumstances if…  Fortunate are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.  Happy are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.   The Common English Bible, a newer translation which is a joint project of a wide collection of faith communities and aims for accuracy as well as accessibility for readers, uses Happy throughout the beatitudes.  Here is how the beatitudes sound in this translation:

“Happy are the hopeless (poor in spirit), because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.

Happy are people who grieve, because they will be made glad.

Happy are people who are humble, because they will inherit the earth.

Happy are people who show mercy, because they will receive mercy.

Happy are people who have pure hearts, because they will see God.

Happy are people who make peace, because they will be called God’s children.

Happy are people whose lives are harassed because they are righteous, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.”

“Happy” is a tricky word.  Partly because it’s such a moving target.  What one era or generation defines as happiness will shift in the next.  Happiness has been a part of our national psyche ever since it obtained a prominent place in our Declaration of Independence.  “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men – all people – are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”  We’ve been pursuing happiness ever since, with varying degrees of success.  Personally, I would have to say that Graeter’s black raspberry chip ice cream is one of the more perfect pursuits of happiness that we have achieved.

In an essay titled, “A History of Happiness,” Darrin McMahon traces some of the changing ideas about happiness through the centuries.  He starts by stating: “I think it is probably fair to assume that most Americans today consider happiness not only something that would be nice to have, but something that we really ought to have—and, moreover, something that’s within our power to bring about, if only we set our minds to it. We can be happy, we tell ourselves, teeth gritted. We should be happy. We will be happy.  That is a modern article of faith. But it is also a relatively recent idea.”

He traces the linguistic roots of the word and notes that in every Indo-European language, without exception, happiness is a cognate with words meaning luck.  Happiness is related to happenstance, well out of our own control, a thought captured in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in the words of the monk: “And thus does Fortune’s wheel turn treacherously And out of happiness bring men to sorrow In other words, the wheel of furtune controls our happenstance, and hence our happiness.”  I have to admit that in reading this I couldn’t help but notice that phrase “Wheel of Fortune” and think about Pat Sajak and Vanna White cheering on some starry eyed contestant to avoid bankruptcy and get a hide dollar roll.  Out of our control.

McMahon also points back to the ancient Greeks and Romans who had notions that happiness could be earned and worked for, although it may involve sacrifice and discipline, an idea we still carry.  He also cites Aristotle to highlight that happiness was viewed more as a moral reality than an emotional state.  Aristotle wrote: “Happiness is a life lived according to virtue.”

McMahon ends his essay by making some comments on the peculiar modern condition that he calls the unhappiness of not being happy, and suggests that if we focus more on the happiness of those around us and less on our personal happiness, that it might lift us all into a more enjoyable life.

The book of Deuteronomy gives a listing of covenantal blessings and cursings which follow a fairly simple formula.  If you obey the Lord, and carefully follow the Instructions of the law, you will be blessed.  If you disobey, you will be cursed.  In the words of Deuteronomy 28:4 Obedience to Torah means,  “Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb, the fruit of your ground, and the fruit of your livestock.   Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl.”  The blessings continue to be named and include military victory, material prosperity, good weather for growing crops, and a long life with many children.”  This stands as something like covenantal orthodoxy through a fair amount of the Hebrew Scriptures, such that the Gross National Happiness of Israel is connected with the faithfulness of the people and the kings who lead them.  But there are cracks in that narrative that occur all the way through.  Abraham and Sarah are prosperous materially, but are childless up until their very old age.  There are droughts and famines and military losses that couldn’t be explained entirely through this kind of grid.  Perhaps most famously, the prosperous and righteous Job loses all his children and wealth and even his own health, through no act of unfaithfulness on his part.  Although the Bible doesn’t use the language of happenstance, it appears that these forces have been having their way throughout the centuries and that they can’t be contained simply by right moral action.

Blessed are those who….  Happy are the ones who….

It doesn’t take too long reading through the beatitudes before one realizes that there’s more going on here than just another happiness index, one more version of a list of things that lead to a fulfilling life.

Leading up to Jesus’ giving the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew has just told us that Jesus had been traveling and teaching throughout the Galilean countryside and villages, announcing good news and healing every disease and sickness.  And then there’s this sweeping statement about people bringing to him all those who had various diseases, those in pain, those possessed by demons, those with epilepsy, and those who were paralyzed – all those suffering from mental and psychological and physical ailments.  We could say that these are the people who found themselves confronted with difficult realities beyond their ability to control.  And it says, “Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up a mountain.”  And when you go up a mountain, and give a long monologue, you get a sermon on a mount, and when it’s a really good sermon, it’s the sermon on the mount.  And these are the kinds of folks who are around when Jesus speaks these beatitudes.  It would have been quite a scene.

And because Jesus was more into giving good news than good advice, we can imagine that these beatitudes are intended, not so much to present a list of spiritual qualities for the people to attain, if you do enough of this then you’ll be blessed and happy, but as a way of naming the ways that they were already blessed, as a way of telling them, these walking wounded, or, perhaps, the unable-to-walk wounded, that, despite evidence to the contrary, they are in privileged circumstances.  Is anybody here hopeless?  Well, you’re in luck, because the kingdom of heaven is for folks just like you.  Is anybody here hungry and thirsty for food or for justice?  You are most fortunate to know that hunger.  One must first be empty before one can be filled.  Commentator William Barclay suggests that that initial word – blessed, fortunate, happy – could also mean “congratulations.”

The beatitudes include inner dispositions and attitudes, like humility, and poverty of spirit.  They include actions that one does, like mourning, and making peace.  And they include actions done to you, like being harassed or persecuted because you’ve done right.  Many of these we might spend a fair amount of energy trying to avoid.  They’re not conditions we typically associate with happiness or being blessed.  They’re counter-intuitive.

It’s almost as if Jesus is leading the crowd in a rendition of “If you’re happy and you don’t know it, clap your hands.”  If you’re hopeless, humble, hungry, harassed, then congratulations, you’re happy and you don’t know it, yet.  Clap your hands.  You will soon come to realize that you stand in a privileged position.  And you will be filled, you will inherit the earth, the kingdom of heaven, the beloved community is all yours and no one can take it away from you.  If you grieve, if you’re pure in heart, if you show mercy, if you make peace , then you’re happy and you don’t know it.  Stomp your feet.  You’re already participating in this beloved community, the new model of humanity.

At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, it says that the crowds were amazed, because he was teaching them like someone with authority.  I wonder also if they were a bit confused.  What kind of statements are these?  Did he just say what I think he said?  I imagine that part of the reason they felt he taught with such authority, such power, was that it wasn’t just that they had been promised some kind of future blessing which will come about over the course of time, but that, in hearing the words, they actually experienced themselves as blessed, as being in privileged circumstances, as being filled with a deep happiness they couldn’t quite explain.  The beloved community was theirs, is ours.