“Happy are the poor in spirit …”
In today’s gospel reading we hear these words, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” What happens to the meaning of these words, if we were to replace the word” Blessed” with “Happy?” “Happy are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” That sounds rather odd doesn’t it, but the English word “happy,” is a more accurate translation of the Greek word, often translated into “Blessed” and found throughout today’s gospel. Being happy and poor in spirit seem to be a contradiction, especially when we consider what culture says about being happy.
We are constantly bombarded with offers for so-called happiness by television, radio, magazines, and most frequently through social media. I was searching for something on Amazon the other day, an ad appeared that tried to convince me that the perfect eyeglasses, could make me popular, handsome, and yes, very happy. LensCrafters guarantees that their eyeglasses will make me happy or I can get my money back. I guess when it comes to the happiness that consumerism offers, seeing is believing.
Here are a couple of other examples. Coca Cola a few years ago claimed that if you drink their signature soda, happiness is surely to be yours. Do you remember, “have a Coke and a smile?” How about IHOP and their slogan, “Come hungry, leave happy.” Culture tells us that if you have the right house, the bossy sports car, the hip new clothes, or if you have the perfect Pantene hair products, you too can experience happiness.
This happiness is not what Jesus is talking about in today’s gospel, for the allures of our culture offer only a temporary satisfaction, they do not bring about the blessed happiness and joy found in a reality of the present and future hope we find only in God.
Jesus had a habit of turning around our notions of what is important, what brings happiness to life. Jesus tells us that the life of a disciple is not about satisfaction and feeling good, but following Jesus is about living in the reality of and trust in God’s promises. The Christian journey really is life out-of-sync with the normative understanding of joy and happiness in the messages we hear around us. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus turns cultural norm on its head and teaches us that our joy and our happiness are found only in God. Jesus completely re-frames how we disciples should not only experience joy, but happiness is found when we identify with, advocate for and care for the least, lost, and lonely, who too are citizens of God’s Kingdom.
The Beatitudes are not merely practical advice for successful living, but they reveal the objective reality of loving divine action and our response with often fragile, flawed, but faithful human action. Happiness “Jesus style” is a spirit and flesh orientation toward the possibility of God’s Kingdom. The Beatitudes may not describe the present, but this teaching acknowledges a reality, which is declared to be imminent, possible, and forthcoming. Let me explain.
Jesus taught, “Happy are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” The poor referred to here are not only those who are literally living in poverty. We all experience some form of poverty. Accepting our poverty puts us in touch with a sense of our own need and the needs of all God’s creatures. We all must realize that we are in our very nature dependent on the grace of God. Nothing we have, nothing we are happens but by God’s grace. Jesus is teaching us that as the true people of God, despite being convinced our life is in our own control, it really is not. The people of God know that through our own efforts, we are poor (spiritually, materially, emotionally, relationally) that is when we are outside of God’s grace. That fact should lead us to accept our utter dependence on God. Whether in material or spiritual or emotional poverty, we are blessed and we might experience happiness, when we disciples advocate and care for the least, lost, and lonely who are citizens of God’s Kingdom.
Jesus also taught, “Happy are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Jesus is not talking about circumstantial grief, but teaching us that God’s people should be inclined to lament the present condition of God’s creation. We should long for the time that justice and righteousness reigns, because we have a promise from God that it will come. We should mourn about the present condition of God’s creation when violence, oppression, and injustice abounds, but we should not be resigned to that present condition.
While hoping for a better day, our actions with hands and feet, heart and gifts, must work to bring about God’s dream in a broken and hurting world. Even while mourning the condition of creation, we are blessed and might experience happiness, when we disciples advocate and care for all those whom God loves.
Jesus proclaimed, Happy are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Meekness is not passivity or a victim mentality. Meekness is the people of God living in humble patience and gentleness. Meekness is not an attitude of complacency, but a spiritual inclination, whereby we denounce violence and seek humility. We know happiness through the present reality of God’s dream where neighbor loves neighbor and relationships are based rightly on the love that comes from God. Even in our meekness, we are blessed and might experience happiness, when we disciples advocate and care for the least, lost, and lonely who are citizens of God’s Kingdom.
Jesus said, “Happy are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” Righteousness is not the people of God simply being pious “do-gooders.” Righteousness is God’s people hungry and thirsty for right relationships, working as our baptismal promises require, for assurance of the dignity of all people. Jesus said, “Happy are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” This is not merely having merciful attitudes or good intentions but being merciful is the people of God exhibiting concrete acts of care and love towards others.
Jesus said, “Happy are the “peacemakers for they will be called children of God.” Peacemaking is not a life of non-participatory discipleship, but peacemaking is when we participate everyday, in Jesus’ ministry of reconciliation in all situations, in which we see division and strife. Jesus said, “Happy are the “pure in heart for they will see God.” Purity of heart is not merely striving to be sinless and spiritually unblemished, a pure heart is one devoted to be one with God’s heart, inclined to the plight of the poor, the helpless, and those unable to care for themselves. Righteousness, mercy, peacemaking and pure devotion to God are not only a future promise, but they can be a reality now, and that my sisters and brothers is the real source of our joy, our contentment and our happiness.
We must not leave the beatitudes without exploring Jesus’ last few sentences about persecution. If you have ever been on the receiving end of persecution or false accusations, the notion of happiness has been the farthest thing from your mind. Jesus makes it clear that when we stand in opposition to power, when we advocate for outcasts, when we strive for right relationships, and when we act as peacemakers, we must expect persecution. Remember though, joy as disciples is not found in the absence of persecution, but because of it.
By the way, happiness is not found in taking pleasure through a martyr complex, but by accepting our badge of belonging to the centuries of the people of God, who have been on the receiving end of persecution, because they too were out-of-sync with what has been conventionally considered normative by culture’s standards. In Isaiah, the prophet declares that God’s ways are not our ways, God’s thoughts not our thoughts.
Jesus taught that happiness is found through the declared reality of the Kingdom here and now. Justice, righteousness, and mercy are the complementary essences of the heart of God, and the Kingdom of God is what Jesus proclaimed to be a present reality that is when we disciples advocate and care for all those whom God loves.
The world declares that peace, contentment, joy, and yes happiness is intimately connected to our prosperous circumstances through possessions or experiences. As the people of God, we are called to incline our hearts toward God’s and thus, we often come into conflict with the conventional wisdom. Our joy is found not in what the world calls success, but in the present reality of the Kingdom of God, when we disciples advocate for and care for those whom God loves.
In Jesus’ words, “Happy are those who …..” The community hears itself pronounced as blessed, and so she must act in accord with God’s coming Kingdom because for us, blessedness (happiness and joy) is already our reality. In the face of poverty, grief, or any of life’s circumstances, even in the face of persecution or even death, Christian peace abounds.
We know God’s peace, we know God’s joy because we know Our Lord declares, “Blessed are you my people.” Scripture tells us to, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” We Christians must shine, because for the world to see God’s joy, peace, love, and mercy, it must see it present in us. We must shine because when it comes to the factual reality of God’s Kin