January 25, 2015
Last year at camp, our curriculum focused on how we follow Jesus’ commandment to love one another. But for those of us who were at Camp 17, the theme of our week together was “Happy.”
It seems like every year there is some kind of fad, or popular song, or trend, or something, that becomes part of the culture of the camp. Two years ago the Geico commercial with the camel celebrating “Hump Day” was popular, and so that found its way into a lot of announcements over the course of the week, especially on Wednesday. That was also the year camp staff was introduced with a short video of us all doing the “Harlem Shake.”
But last year Pharrell Williams’ incredibly popular, bouncy, catchy, upbeat song called “Happy” had bounded up the charts, and so we all came into the first day’s first gathering dancing to it, almost like a pep rally. Then, during the dance on the last night, the DJ played an extended dance mix of “Happy,” and we all got out on the floor in a circle and everyone—even those counselors who more often stayed far away from anything that might cause them to dance—took a turn in the center. The song was happy, we were happy, and all was right with the world.
What does it mean to be happy? It tends to be situational, doesn’t it? We’re happy when we’re having fun, when things are going our way, when people like us, when we’re healthy, when our worries and stresses about jobs and money and the like are at a minimum. Take any of those out of the equation, and would we be happy?
We know what happiness is, and I think most of us have a pretty fair idea what it isn’t. So what do we make of Jesus’ statements, which begin the first of five long blocks of teaching from Jesus in Matthew’s Gospels, about the nature of happiness?
Some folks might be tempted to argue that this translation (I read from the Common English Bible) got it wrong—the New Revised Standard Bible, as well as the old King James Version in which some of us may have memorized the Beatitudes, has the word blessed where the Common English and other Bible versions says happy. But actually, the Greek word being translated, makarioi, is the same one that is used in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible in places like Psalm 84:4, which says, “Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise.” So it isn’t out of line at all to translate it as happy rather than blessed in the Beatitudes. And maybe since blessed is so familiar and so spiritualized, we’d do better to use happy, because it might help us to realize just how shocking these statements are.
We know what it is to be happy, and I think we have a fair idea what it isn’t. So what do we make of Jesus telling us we’re happy when we are hopeless (in other versions that’s rendered as “poor in spirit,” but one commentary I read this week said we could as easily read it as “Happy are those whose breath comes in sobs,” since the word translated as spirit can also mean breath)? How can we be happy when we’re in the midst of grief—and I’m not talking about the substantial grief we feel when we lose someone we love; Matthew’s original hearers would have been grieving an even greater loss, the destruction of their Temple, for the second time, this time forever.
Happy are those who grieve because an oppressive empire has destroyed the house of their God and with it the entire system of worship and sacrifice that made it possible for them to have a relationship with God?
The other half of that beatitude isn’t all that much better. We’re most familiar with it this way: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” But again, if we go behind this into the Greek, the word translated as comforted can have a slightly different meaning. “Blessed are those whose holy place has been destroyed by an oppressor, for they will be called as a witness when that oppressor is finally brought to justice.” It might be comforting, but it could also be excruciating.
Many years ago, when I lived in the dorms at Wichita State, I woke up just after 3 a.m. because the door to my room was standing open. I had a friend who would occasionally stop by to talk at all hours of the night, so I just reached for my glasses and prepared to see what she wanted. But before I could get them on, a man popped up from where he had been crouched by the bed, and he asked, “Is Jesse here?” I don’t know if it was just the first thing that popped into his mind, or if he was on drugs and not thinking clearly.
My response was to yell out—I won’t tell what I said, because I used some bad words. And then he said, “Jesse’s not here,” and ran out of my room, slamming the door behind him. From there he went two floors up, where another girl woke up when he grabbed her by the leg.
When I collected myself, I called my friend down the hall, who called the RA, who called campus police. A couple days later I was summoned to look through a mugshot book—which was a complete waste of time; I didn’t get a good look at the man because it was dark and I can see nothing without my glasses on. The other girl must have, because a man got arrested, and there was a trial scheduled for late the following summer. I got a summons to come and testify; but the trial was cancelled right before it was set to start. I’m not sure that “happy” or “blessed” would exactly describe how I felt at the prospect of seeing and hearing the voice of the man accused of walking into my dorm room intent on who knows what, even if I was seeing and hearing him in a courtroom where I might have been part of his being convicted and sentenced for what he did.
Jesus continues his unbelievable, outrageous list…
Happy are the humble—or the meek, or the gentle, depending on the translation—because they will inherit the earth? These are the people this world has a tendency to ignore, to trample on, to take advantage of, to bruise and batter until (as in the first Beatitude) their breath comes in sobs. How are they happy, and how can they inherit the earth when their faces have been ground into it?
The last one could be the worst. Happy are those who are harassed (the Greek word means something more like hunted down) because they are righteous—in other words, because they gladly observe all of God’s commandments. You work hard, play by the rules, keep the commandments, care for the poor, love your neighbor as yourself, worship and serve only God; and there are people out there who want to hurt you, who stalk you and chase you to the ends of the earth because of it—and you’re supposed to be happy?
In fact, Jesus says, be full of joy, rejoice, be glad; because this is how the prophets were treated a lot of the time. Yeah, I should be thrilled to be like Jeremiah, who was thrown into a cistern, ridiculed, and put under house arrest; who had his books burned by the king; and who tried repeatedly to resign as God’s prophet but couldn’t because if he didn’t speak God’s word it gave him a major case of heartburn. I think not.
Yet this is Jesus’ recipe for happiness. This is what we get if we walk his Way. What in the world is he talking about?
There’s nothing happy about being a victim, about being crushed and oppressed, about turning the other cheek so often that it’s black and bruised and torn, about doing the best we can and having even our friends misunderstand…is there?
Do you remember where last week’s reading ended? Jesus began his ministry preaching exactly the same sermon John the Baptist had preached: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Jesus was all about proclaiming the kingdom of heaven, and explaining (in stories, mostly; the kingdom of heaven is not exposed through proposition, but glimpsed through parable) what life is like in that kingdom. It’s not a thing like life here on this earth, where human nature and the reality of sin hold sway. It’s a place where everything is turned upside down, where the last are first, the lost are found, the outcasts are brought in and seated at the head table. When Jesus tells us that the last, the least, the lost, the broken, the sobbing, the persecuted are happy and blessed, it’s because the kingdom of heaven doesn’t work the same way that the kingdoms of earth work.
Does that settle the question?
Well, it doesn’t for me, not completely. I still live on earth, and the kingdom of heaven is a long ways from being fully realized here. Perhaps, though, we who call ourselves followers of Jesus, who seek to walk the path he walked before us, who live in this world as citizens of the kingdom of heaven even though it can’t be found on a map, could set our minds on living out the reasons why Jesus calls these downtrodden and persecuted people blessed: comforting those who mourn, whose breath comes in sobs; showing mercy to those who have turned the other cheek so often that their jaws are broken on both sides; or standing with those who are persecuted and reviled and taken advantage of.