February 2, 2014
When asked the question "How are you?" what do you usually say? "Not too bad"? "Pretty good"? "Fine"?
Recently, I asked a friend how he was, and he countered with the question: "Do you want the truth?" To which I responded, "Of course." And he shared the news he had just gotten news of a childhood friend's recent, unexpected death.
A common answer among church folk to the question "How are you?" is "Blessed" or "Too blessed to be stressed!" Often the message on an answering machine at a church offers the suggestion (command?): "Have a blessed day." I always feel hopeful when I hear it and I appreciate its spirit of goodwill. But it carries with it no guarantee. I was in line behind a woman at the grocery store who had a rather harried, unhappy demeanor about her. The check-out clerk finished bagging her groceries and said, "Have a nice day." The woman replied, "I'm sorry, but I have other plans." Some days the best attitude in the world can't keep misfortune at bay. What does having a blessed day mean on those days?
The Beatitudes have their own version of "Have a blessed day." A lot of people think the Beatitudes were invented by Jesus. In reality they are a wisdom genre common to the Old Testament Psalms and Proverbs. In the Old Testament, Israel's sages and poets use them to commend admirable but traditional actions and attitudes.
"Happy are those who find wisdom and those who get understanding" (Pr. 3:13).
"Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord. Happy are those who keep his decrees, who seek him with their whole heart, who also do no wrong but walk in his ways" (Ps. 119:1,2).
"The righteous walk in integrity—happy are the children who follow them!" (Pr. 20:7)
The Psalter opens with this Beatitude: "Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night" (Ps. 1:1-2).
The Beatitudes offer formulas for what constitutes blessedness—not good fortune or prosperity or personal achievement, but rather being surrounded by a sphere of spiritual well-being as an individual and as a community. In the Old Testament, that meant pursuing wisdom, following the commandments, and treating others with respect.
Jesus' beatitudes have a paradoxical twist. They call "blessed" states we would not typically associate with Psalm 1:4: "They are like trees planted by streams of water which yield their fruit in its season and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper" (Ps. 1:3). They begin well enough in Matthew's version. "How happy are the poor in spirit." (I like the NEB translation: "...those who know their need for God.") But mourning? Meekness? Showing mercy? Being persecuted and reviled? Then as now, these conditions of mind and life seem to be a recipe for individuals and communities wanting to be taken advantage of. What about self-reliance, and building a good reputation for productivity and success?
In reflecting on Jesus' Beatitudes in relation to our prevailing cultural definitions of what makes for happiness, I came up with these secular beatitudes, which are listed under their biblical cognate in italics below.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are the proactive, for theirs is the satisfaction of achievement.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are those who turn lemonade into lemons.
Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are the assertive for they will not let themselves be taken advantage of.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are those with talent and drive, for they shall be unstoppable.
Blessed are the merciful for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are those who can occasionally be tolerant of others' mistakes, for they will develop a pool of goodwill that will result in future favors from others.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the single-minded for they shall achieve their goals.
So far, so good, but when we get down to Mathew 5: 9, 10, and 11 (peacemaking, being persecuted, and being reviled), I'm at a loss for cultural cognates. All that come to mind are contradictions: blessed are those who are aggressive when their rights are threatened; blessed are you when you are celebrated and honored by others...
Of course I'm not the only person to have rewritten the beatitudes.When people rewrite them, they almost inevitably take them in an individualistic,somewhat self-serving direction.
A number of years ago Robert Schuller wrote a book called The Be-Happy Attitudes: 8 Positive Attitudes that Can Change Your Life. It purports to be based on Matthew 5:1-12. The description goes like this: "Many seek happiness in wealth, fame, relationships, even drugs—and, of course, they fail. How can we be happy? In his most inspirational best-selling book to date, Dr. Robert H. Schuller, the spiritual host of the weekly telecast "The Hour of Power," probes the Beatitudes for the answer—and discovers eight universal positive mental attitudes that have been used for their healing value through the ages. Through them, you can make real happiness truly possible."